In 2015, weight loss Instagrammer Stephanie Seabrook went viral for writing on her stomach the cruel comments she used to hear about her weight. She then had skin removal surgery and initially got thousands of comments of support, but a few weeks later, people starting accusing her of photoshopping her pictures.
“At first I tried to just shrug it off, and not reckon about it, but it started to get progressively worse and more frequent,” Seabrook, 30, tells PEOPLE of the cyberbullying.
She learned that a girl she met through Instagram was really photoshopping her pictures and posting them all over to drive the hateful comments.
“I got death threats, and people said I should go kill myself because I’m pathetic,” Seabrook says. “They thought that I was a liar and a fraud when I was just trying to be loved and accepted like anyone else.”
Stuck in “this emotional state of not being able to deal with” their comments, Seabrook started regaining the 150 lbs. she had lost.
“I was getting really depressed, and I couldn’t admit to everyone that I was gaining weight because I felt that I had a duty to be there for these people who said they could relate to me,” she says. “I didn’t want to disappoint them.”
Unsure of where to go from there, Seabrook did start photoshopping her own pictures, thinking it would stop her followers from leaving. Instead, “it made everything ten times worse.”
She chose to completely shut down her Instagram account, and reached out for help from a therapist, family and friends. Though the entire experience was hard, Seabrook says she’s in a much better place now and appreciates what she went through.
“It made me a much stronger individual and a much stronger woman,” she says. “In hindsight, it made me comfortable with who I am and regardless of what people reckon of me, what really matters is what I reckon of myself.”
And on Inauguration Day 2017, after about nine months away, Seabrook reactivated her account with a full-length photo and an honest post about what happened and how she regained 100 lbs.
“I said that this is where I am, this is who I am, and you can either accept it or not,” she says. “I’ve been trying to promote self-worth and self-like, and realizing that even if someone is gaining weight it has nothing to do with fitness and health, it has everything to do with what’s going on in their lives, and sometimes that’s okay.”
Seabrook is working on losing weight — she’s lost about 40 lbs. so far — but it’s purely for her health and the hope of having a baby with her husband. She says that being honest about her experience and admitting her mistakes on Instagram has changed her life.
“Opening up in Instagram helped me open up in real life. Having the strength to do that in front of thousands of people I don’t know has given me the strength to do that with the people I do know,” she says. “There’s a sense of freedom and peace when you can show the world who you are without dread of being ridiculed. I’m comfortable with myself.”