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Teen turns 'hurtful' graffiti into empowering body image message

July 7, 2014 at 7:01 PM ET

When Carleigh O'Connell heard that someone had spray painted a message about her body in her New Jersey town, she didn't cry. Instead, the 14-year-old took matters into her own hands, finding the graffiti and posing with it.

"I wanted to show whoever decided to write that that I was stronger than that," she told TODAY.com. "It didn't impact me at all. I didn't put my head down, I didn't cry about it. I didn't give the kids the power they wanted."

Carleigh had heard from friends that someone had written graffiti about her rear end on a cement barrier near the beach in Wall, New Jersey. She knew, based on comments people had made to her before about her body and the unusual spelling of her name, that the words referred to her. She found the graffiti and smiled for a photo while standing above it, clad in her swimsuit and showing off the subject of the spray-painted message.

"It felt very empowering," Carleigh said of taking the photo. "It felt really good."

When Carleigh told her mom Daryl about the graffiti and showed her the picture, adding that she had posted it to Instagram, Daryl felt instantly proud of her daughter, and posted it to her own Facebook page.

"This one is hard for me but I feel it necessary. I ask all my Facebook friends to share this and repost this as many times as possible," Daryl wrote on the social network, explaining what had happened. "[Carleigh] decided that she was going to be stronger than hurtful words on the concrete and that she was going to be proud of her figure."

Carleigh says she didn't even think of the experience as explicit "bullying" but felt that she was the target of a joke that fell flat. "I think they were trying to be funny, just being cruel, and give everyone a nice laugh," she says of whoever wrote the message, "but in reality, it wasn't even funny."

Carleigh and Daryl O'Connell
Courtesy of Daryl O'Connell
Daryl O'Connell and her daughter, Carleigh.

After the mother and daughter shared the picture on their social accounts, it drew quite a response. Some commenters pointed out that the words actually seem to spell "Carleigh SASS," which could be flipped as a compliment on her sassy, take-charge personality.

Daryl O'Connell is thankful for the positive feedback, and says putting her child's experience out into the world in such a public way was a tough decision but one she felt was important.

"She did the photo on her own," she said. "I felt like she was taking the control back, and I was going to support her."

And, as she wrote in her original post, she was incredibly moved by her daughter's maturity and positive attitude. "For me as the mom ... I type this with tears in my eyes," she wrote. "Tears of joy knowing that my daughter can face negativity with a smile and sense of humor. This will take her far in life. No perfect report card, high test score, athletic race or award could top the pride I have today."

If the experience has left Carleigh feeling emotional, it's only because she sees it as an opportunity to make a difference.

"She's kind of embracing it, saying if it's going to help one girl or one boy, it's OK," Daryl said. "I think sometimes our kids teach us ... It's taken me 50 years to have this much strength. I'm glad she's got it at 14."

Looking back on it, Carleigh says she surprised even herself with her reaction to the situation.

"I didn't know I could look something in the face like that and conquer it," she said. "The biggest message I want to get across is just to be strong, and that anyone who is experiencing bullying and anything like that, that they're not alone and there's people there for them — and I'm one of them."

Follow Meena Hart Duerson on Twitter.

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