I was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a genetic bone and muscular disorder, characterized by facial differences; I spent much of my childhood in hospitals and had some 25 surgeries by the time I turned 15.
Otherwise, I was a pretty regular kid, who loved sleepovers with friends, family time and watching lots of TV. I discovered a passion for writing in high school, then got my start as a weekly columnist for my hometown newspaper. I went on to write for publications such as the New York Times, ELLE, and the Washington Post.
By my mid-30s, I had a career I was proud of, but otherwise, a quiet life ― until September 2019, when I became the target of an army of cyberbullies.
“These artworks make me feel seen and understood in a way I never really was before I stood up to the cyberbullies.”
It all started after I wrote an anti-Trump op-ed for CNN. A Conservative YouTuber with hundreds of thousands of followers referenced it in one of his videos, and the commenters were less interested in talking about my politics, and more about how much they disliked my face.
One of the trolls even went to the effort of finding my Facebook account and sending me the link in a DM, to be sure I saw what everyone was saying. Suddenly, I found myself reading hundreds of hateful comments.
I withdrew from social media for the next few days, weighed down by self-consciousness, sadness and anger. But I couldn’t help returning to look, the following week. By then, there were more than 5,000 comments on the post.
As I scrolled, I noticed someone had written I should be “banned from posting photos” of myself because I was “too ugly.” Something inside me snapped. Rather than remain silent, I let those cruel words inspire me to tweet this:
“During the last round of Trollgate, people said that I should be banned from posting photos of myself, because I’m too ugly. So I’d just like to commemorate the occasion with these 3 selfies ...”
That tweet, with not one but three defiant selfies, quickly took on a life of its own. Within hours, it had more than 300,000 likes and 30,000 retweets. To date, more than 40 thousand people have left supportive comments.
Cyberbullying victims from all over the world also opened up to me privately about times they’d been attacked by internet strangers. I felt less alone and was happy that they did too now. So I continued to share selfies, using the hashtag #mybestselfie, and many others jumped on board, sharing their own photos under the hashtag, in a collective act of self-love.
In December 2019, Twitter named my viral tweet one of the top tweets of the year, which was just surreal. My following grew exponentially, so I continue to talk about body positivity, ableism and cyberbullying, as well as to normalize disability and chat about the little things that bring me joy, from “West Wing” to crushes to cosy sweaters. I love the community and dialogue that has come out of this.
Six months after I posted that viral tweet, the first piece of fan art landed in my inbox. It was a sweet comic-style image of me giving a thumbs up, from a French artist by the name of Vinhnyu.
I never even knew fan art was a thing for people like me: I thought it was only something people did for TV show or movie characters — not small-town writers from the cornfields of Illinois. But from there, it just kept coming.
There was one portrait of me wearing a flower crown (I’m a sucker for SnapChat filters); one of me as a character from “Bridgerton” (my newest Netflix obsession); and one of me with an exasperated scowl ― my expression of choice for all of 2020.
We live in a society that would rather ignore disabled people than show and value them — just look at the lack of disability representation in movies and TV shows. These art works make me feel seen and understood in a way I never really was before I stood up to my bullies.
Every portrait someone has taken the time to make of me has helped me love myself a bit more. I treasure them all. I’m so grateful that the worst of the Internet helped me find the very best of it.
Click through the slideshow below to see some of the amazing fan art Melissa Blake has received. (If you are reading this story on a mobile device, please find full captions after the slideshow.)
1. Risa Green: Flower-crowned selfie queen
“The Best Selfie Queen cannot be without her flower crown!” That’s how artist Risa Green described this piece. In her Instagram post, she also wrote, “Melissa is a really big inspiration for my younger sister and my family.”
2. Vinhnyu: My first fan art
This was the very first fan art I received, from French anime artist Vinhnyu. I’m wearing the classic polo from my viral tweet and giving a confident thumbs up!
3. Jamie Lee: Pop art portrait with Mom
Paraguay-based British pop artist Jamie Lee creates awesome images of people like John Travolta and Uma Thurman, Michelle Obama, the Pope, and now, well... my mom and me! This is our classic selfie pose.
4. Natalie Green: Sunshine and rainbows
The young artist who created this, Natalie Green, is also a Special Olympics athlete and a movie blogger. Much of her work is about inclusion. I just love how cheerful this portrait is. The sun! The rainbow! All my favourite things!
5. Lauren Paterson: Bridgerton belle of the ball
I’m obsessed with Netflix’s “Bridgerton” and thanks to Scottish artist Lauren Paterson, I got the chance to see myself as a character in the series. The fan and feathers ... oh my!
6. Brooke Costello: New York Fashion Week
After I was invited to model accessible fashion in New York Fashion Week last year, artist Brooke Costello created this beautiful drawing of me in my outfit. Her drawing reminds me of the sketches you’d see in a fashion designer’s sketchbook, and I’m beyond honoured.
7. Sophie France: Joy
Sophie France is a brilliant Dutch illustrator and painter. I literally screamed with joy when she sent this portrait to me.
8. Jenny Greer: 2020 mood
This oil painting by UK artist Jenny Greer captures me in my natural state — this was my constant expression throughout 2020.
9. Claudia Balasus: Midwestern winter
German artist Claudia Balasus captures my Midwestern winter vibes. In her Instagram caption, she told her followers: “I look forward to a new selfie of her every day. Thank you Melissa for being there and for being who you are.”
10. Consuelo Zatta: Positivity
I love the bright colours in this one, drawn by Consuelo Zatta, a brilliant artist from Italy, who typically does life drawings and sculptures. She told me she drew it to remind me “you don’t have to listen to negative people.”
11. Karen Dole: Younger me
U.S. artist Karen Dole has done commissions for Disney. She captured my likeness from one of my throwback photos. It’s so cool to see younger me as fan art. I could never have guessed at that age that I would grow up to be a muse!
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