Recently awarded “Emerging Leader” at the Australian Government Positive Body Image Awards, former Paralympian Jessica Smith has emerged as one of Australia’s most avid advocates for positive body image
Jessica Smith is not only one of Australia’s most sought after motivational speakers & presenters, she has also been internationally recognised as one of the most influential role models of this generation and is on a mission to create much needed awareness within society about the importance of positive body image. In 2015 Jessica was a state finalist for Young Australian of the Year and has also won a Pride of Australia Medal. We sat down with her to find out what inspires her activism.
DtL: Hi Jessica, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your story so far?
Jessica: I was born missing my left forearm, then as a toddler, I suffered horrific third degree burns to 15% of my body after accidentally knocking a kettle of boiling water on myself. I didn’t exactly have an easy start to life. In a world where so much emphasis is placed on appearance, growing up I felt as though I simply wasn’t good enough and didn’t fit in. Low self esteem and an inability to accept myself unfortunately led to a decade long struggle with bulimia, anorexia and depression – desperately searching for perfection in a world where I felt so isolated & alone. While all of this was going on behind closed doors, to the rest of the world I was a high achiever, having excelled at school and University and also being a prominent athlete representing Australia in the sport of swimming from the age of 13 to 20. I successfully represented Australia at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, however my elation soon turned to devastation when the reality of my eating disorder took hold – I didn’t swim as expected. I returned to Australia, was admitted to a rehab facility and forced into early retirement. I’ve been in recovery for many years now and I have made it my mission to work tirelessly and proactively to promote positive body image and raise awareness about the seriousness of eating disorders & mental illness.
“Low self esteem and an inability to accept myself unfortunately led to a decade long struggle with bulimia, anorexia and depression”
DtL: You are very open about how you struggled with an eating disorder. Could you tell us how this impacted you and why you think it important to raise awareness?
Jessica: My eating disorder was destructive; It destroyed my youth and ruined so many wonderful opportunities, including my international swimming career which ended abruptly when I was just 20. I have many regrets about how I treated my body when I was younger, but today I’m so grateful that I am in recovery, and I have a responsibility to be a voice for others that are struggling and I also have a responsibility to give back to the people who formed part of my support network – my way of showing gratitude is to pay it forward and generate more awareness. The more we talk about body image issues, the easier it is to make an impact within society. We all have a responsibility to be part of the conversation.
“We can’t continue to blame the media industry if we buy the magazines and watch the shows that directly target our insecurities”
DtL: Do you think that the media has a negative impact on young people in terms of body image and self-confidence?
Jessica: The media certainly has a powerful way of influencing our thoughts and behaviour and I do believe that with the introduction of social media, young people in particular are constantly bombarded with messages that tell them they aren’t good enough and that they need to change in order to be beautiful or accepted within society. However, I think we need to avoid blaming the media and instead take proactive action by educating ourselves. We can’t continue to blame the media industry if we buy the magazines and watch the shows that directly target our insecurities. We have a responsibility to develop a critical eye and educate ourselves about how and why the media target our body image and self confidence – they do this because they are trying to sell us something. So it’s essentially up to us, to say NO and to take a positive stance by not allowing the negative messaging to impact our lives. We do this through more open and honest communication with those close to us.
DtL: What has been your proudest moment so far?
Jessica: Becoming a mother.
DtL: What are your most prominent challenges, and how do you overcome them?
Jessica: To be completely honest, my disability has never really been a challenge that I’ve had to overcome, rather I see it as an opportunity to learn new ways of doing things. Throughout my life some physical activities have been more difficult than others, for example learning to tie my shoe laces, or doing hand stands at school. But I’ve always found my own way of doing things. Since becoming a mother (I have a one year old daughter) my disability has been more profound in my life due to the fact that I have to do everything while holding a child. Even still, I have always had the mindset that I can do anything, I just have to be patient with myself and allow myself to find a way of doing things that I’m comfortable with.
“My disability has never really been a challenge that I’ve had to overcome, rather I see it as an opportunity to learn new ways of doing things”
DtL: Our research found 63% of those with a physical disability are likely to experience extreme bullying and social exclusion. Have you ever experienced bullying and if so how did you combat it?
Jessica: I have definitely experienced name-calling and people pointing and staring, but what hurt me the most when I was growing up was being excluded. Exclusion isn’t offered considered a type of bullying, however in my experience being ‘left out’ or deliberately excluded hurt more than any verbal or physical attack. Feeling rejected by my peers had a profound negative impact on my social interactions, I was often withdrawn and referred to as shy, but this was due to my fear of being left out – it was a very vicious cycle. It wasn’t always easy, but I forced myself to ignore this behaviour and instead surround myself with people who did value me and people who did want to be in my presence. It was also important for me to talk to people that I could trust, family members and close friends. I found that talking to people about my experiences made the heavy burden seem much lighter. Of course with age and experience I have learnt not to let anyone else’s actions impact my feelings. I’ve learnt that no one else can take away the power of my own feelings.
“In my experience being ‘left out’ or deliberately excluded hurt more than any verbal or physical attack”
DtL: You have written a children’s book entitled “Little Miss Jessica” which is about a little girl with one hand, on her first day at school. What inspired you to write the book?
Jessica: When I found out that I was having a daughter I felt an immense about of pressure to ensure that I ‘practiced what I preached’ – I knew that I had to lead by example, which for me meant showing her through my every day actions the benefits of living a positive life by being respectful to yourself as well as being tolerant of others. After years working with youth I recognised that my message about positive body image needed to be conveyed to a much younger audience through education. So I decided to get creative and write a children’s book. When I asked myself what it was that I really wanted to achieve by writing a book, the answer was simple — prevention, and leaving a legacy for my daughter. I looked back to my own childhood and realised that there was a complete lack of diversity in characters from books I had read. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with characters such as Barbie, Cinderella, Batman or Superman; these are the characters that ignite our imagination and encourage us to fantasise.
“Children also need to see and read about characters that represent what they see in real life”
However, children also need to see and read about characters that represent what they see in real life. They need to see characters with imperfections and characters with differences. Little Miss Jessica Goes to School; follows the journey of Jessica, a little girl with one hand, on her first day at school. This can be a daunting experience for any child, especially when they look different. But the book isn’t simply about a young girl with a disability; it is so much more than that. It’s about her journey in discovering that we are all different. In the story she meets other characters all who have a different appearance to her, and together they learn to appreciate who they and how they look, in spite of their differences. It’s a beautiful story that tackles issues such as self esteem, disability, body image, friendship, acceptance, tolerance and social connection and ultimately delivers a fundamental message for younger generations about self acceptance – a message that reminds us all that being different is OK.
DtL: What does the future hold for Jessica Smith?
Jessica: I’m in the process of writing two more books that will follow Little Miss Jessica’s journey through exciting new adventures, so watch this space and please follow me on social media so that you can stay updated!