SCARBOROUGH — When the online taunts started, Amanda Tyson ate to dull the pain.

As classmates at Scarborough Middle School continued to lob hateful comments her way and checked the tags of her shirts to see what size she wore, Tyson ate even more.

Previously only a little heavier than her classmates, she weighed 205 pounds by time she was 13 and the number only crept higher from there.

She had so little self-confidence she couldn’t motivate herself to lose weight and nearly gave up on her dream of visiting California.

“It tore me down to a place no one should ever be,” Tyson said. “The bullying that happened in sixth grade has affected me for my whole life. Even when I wasn’t bullied, I’d think, ‘These people hate me.'”

Today, more than 10 years later, Tyson is fighting back against the lasting effects of being bullied by finding self-confidence, losing weight and spreading her own message to “be kind.” She got an unexpected boost last month when nearly a half-million strangers “liked” a photo she posted on Facebook of herself in a bathing suit.

For the better part of a year, Tyson has documented her weight-loss journey online and spoken out against cyberbullying through her Facebook fan page. She also raises money for the nonprofit Kind Campaign, a movement, documentary and school program dedicated to addressing female bullying.

Tyson, 23, has been busy in the past 18 months: She graduated from college with a degree in exercise science, was almost cast on the NBC show “The Biggest Loser” and lost more than 70 pounds.

Just as important, she said, she has learned to stand up for herself and other bullying victims.

According to a 2010 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, 20 percent of students surveyed reported they were bullied by peers. Another 20 percent of students admitted to bullying others. Adolescent girls are nearly twice as likely as boys to experience cyberbullying.

There is much more attention paid to cyberbullying now than when Tyson was in middle school, something she sees as progress. October is National Anti-Cyberbullying Awareness Month and schools across the country now host anti-bullying presentations like the ones done by the Kind Campaign.

Bullying again grabbed national headlines this week when Wisconsin news anchor Jennifer Livingston responded on-air to an email from a viewer that called her a bad role model because she is overweight. During an Oct. 2 broadcast on WKBT-TV in La Crosse, she responded to the viewer by drawing attention to bullying.

“I leave you with this: To all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, your sexual preference, your disability, even the acne on your face, listen to me right now,” Livingston said. “Do not let your self-worth be defined by bullies. Learn from my experience — that the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.”

When Tyson saw Livingston’s video, which quickly went viral online, she immediately thought of the awful comments she got when she posted a photo of herself on Facebook a few months ago.

“She got it one time, I was getting it thousands of times,” Tyson said. “I could definitely relate to her and her feelings about being called fat. It’s something no one should say to another person.”

This summer, Tyson, for the first time in her life, put on the bikini that hung in the back of her closet. When she “didn’t hate” the way she looked in the mirror, she decided to share the photo with the 3,000 or so fans of her Facebook page.

Many of the comments were supportive, but Tyson was stunned by the intensity of negative comments, including ones that urged her to kill herself. Hurt by comments that reminded her so much of middle school, she removed the photo.

“I’m dedicating my life to kindness now and all I’m getting are these negative, hateful, hurtful comments. It tore me apart,” she said. “They must be in a really bad place in their life to say that to someone they don’t even know.”

Her inbox was soon flooded with emails from people asking her to repost the photo because they found it inspiring. Buoyed by the support, Tyson took another bikini photo, this time next to a sign that says “Confidence is Beauty.”

The response was again overwhelming.

In less than a month, the photo received nearly a half-million “likes” and almost 50,000 comments. The number of followers of her page jumped to more than 56,000. Most, but not all, of the comments were positive.

Tyson read very few of them, choosing instead to respond to the negative comments only with a video about kindness.

“You never know what someone is going through when you pass them on the street, when you see them in the hallways at school, when you see them at the gym, or even when you see the photos they post online,” she says in the video. “Chances are you don’t know their story, so don’t judge people. You can make an enormous impact on someone’s life with just the words you say to them, so always, always, always be kind.”

Sharing her story will undoubtedly help girls who are struggling with being bullied, said Molly Thompson, co-founder of the Kind Campaign, whom Tyson befriended after seeing a segment about the campaign on the TV program “Dr. Phil.”

“By simply starting that dialogue, it opens up the stream of conversation for people to know this doesn’t have to be an experience everyone has to go through,” Thompson said. “Sharing the experiences you personally have lets other people know they’re not alone in their experiences.”

Tyson’s experience of feeling lonely and isolated after being cyberbullied is similar to what many young girls go through, Thompson said. Those feelings can be intensified when the bullying is done through anonymous online comments, she said.

“It’s already bad enough, but to know it’s a stranger that is saying such cruel things to you is difficult for a young girl to process,” she said.

Tyson’s mother, Teri, said she wasn’t aware at first of the extent of the middle school cyberbullying her daughter experienced. Amanda Tyson just didn’t talk about it.

“She just withdrew from everybody, from all her friends. She used to be an outgoing girl and played sports,” Teri Tyson said. “It was sad. It was unbelievably sad.”

Years later, while a student at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, Tyson was watching television when she saw Thompson and Kind Campaign co-founder Lauren Parsekian speak about their own experiences of being bullied.

At the time, Tyson said, she was “looking for something to get my mind off of what had happened in my life.”

She immediately reached out to Thompson and Parsekian.

“They changed my life, those girls,” Tyson said. “They helped me through my past bullying experiences by letting me know I’m not alone and introducing me to so many people across the country who are dealing with the same thing.”

With the support of her “Kind Sisters,” Tyson’s self-confidence grew to the point she felt brave enough to audition for the “The Biggest Loser.” Through Twitter, she caught the attention of casting directors and was invited to a casting call in Boston.

That went well, and was followed by more auditions, requests for home videos and a trip to Los Angeles.

Ultimately, she wasn’t cast on the show, “the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she said.

“I wanted it so bad. I really, really thought it was my destiny to be on this show,” she said.

Kerry Shanahan, a casting director for the show with whom Tyson has stayed in contact, said it was obvious Tyson was determined to change her life, whether or not she was on the show.

“You could see that light in her eyes, that drive,” she said. “She was already in the process of making a change. The casting process seemed to solidify she wanted to better her life.”

Dejected by the rejection, Tyson returned to Maine with no motivation to lose weight. She was miserable for months and gained 10 more pounds.

Then a friend invited her to go to The Biggest Loser Resort in California, a weight-loss program not affiliated with the television show. There she found a support system in people who could relate to her struggles with weight.

“That place is seriously a lifesaver for people and it was for me,” Tyson said. “People ask me where I find my motivation. It’s from this group of people. You have to surround yourself with people with the same goal.”

After a week at the resort, Tyson was ready to embrace change. She now works out six days a week — sometimes for a couple of hours a day — and often eats dinner separately from her family so she is not tempted to overeat.

She turns regularly to her Facebook page to document her exercise routines, meals and the emotional ups and downs of losing weight. Her fans are just as open with her.

“I love all these people so much and they help me more than they’ll ever know with their kind words and encouragement,” she said.

It is amazing to see how people respond to Tyson and look to her for support, her mother said.

“They open up their hearts to this girl,” Teri Tyson said. “She’s helping a lot of people go through the same journey.”

Like thousands of people online, Thompson, the Kind Campaign co-founder, has watched Tyson transform her life physically and emotionally.

“It’s been incredible to see her journey and her ups and downs over the past few years,” Thompson said. “It’s so wonderful to see what a good place she’s in and what an inspiration she is to so many people across the country.”

For Tyson, it is still a little strange – and sometimes a lot of pressure – to have people look up to her. She has 4,000 unanswered emails in her inbox, all from people who support her weight-loss success and growing self-confidence. She said she is now confident enough to pursue her dream of moving to California and helping girls lose weight.

“I never, ever in a million years imagined myself as a role model with the way I felt about myself growing up,” she said. “I’m a completely different person today than I was back then.”

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