Interview: Australian Paralympian, Jessica Smith

Recently awarded “Emerging Leader” for 2013, at the Australian Government Positive Body Image Awards, Jessica Smith has emerged as one of Australia’s most avid advocates for positive body image, and as one of Australia’s most sought after motivational speakers & presenters. An Australian paralympian who was born missing her left forearm, Jessica sits down for an interview with Nikki Heyder, Founder of NOOD.

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Nikki Heyder (NH): Jess, you have SUCH an inspirational story to tell and from what I know, you have been through so much in your life – both hardship and great achievement. This might be a really tough question, but if you could describe the MOST difficult experience in your life and the MOST rewarding or happiest time in your life, what would they be?

Jessica Smith (JS): Great question … ironically the most difficult experience in my life so far has also been the most rewarding!

I have struggled with negative body image my entire life. I was born missing my left arm – there was no explanation from anyone as to why this occurred, my parents were devastated and told by doctors that it was simply ‘one of those things’.

At 18 months of age doctors advised my parents to have me fitted with my first prosthetic limb. Unfortunately while struggling to get used to it, I accidentally knocked boiling water on myself and suffered third degree burns to 14% of my body.

I grew up looking and feeling different – in a society where so much emphasis is placed on physical appearance and the desire for perfection – I felt isolated and alone. I had no control over the fact that I had one arm or scaring, so I convinced myself that I needed to attain perfection in every other aspect, anything I could control I did. I starved myself thinking it was the only way to feel accepted within society. I believed that if I could just have a body like the models I saw on TV and in the magazines then maybe people would see past my other obvious ‘imperfections’.

At 16 I was diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia and major depression.

For more than a decade I lived with a devastating and deadly secret – my eating disorder. The anguish, despair, isolation and self hatred I felt on a daily basis momentarily eased when I found solace in Anorexia and Bulimia. But as anyone who has experienced the depth of an eating disorder will know, these feelings and emotions were simply amplified by my destructive behaviors.

I was in my early 20’s when I hit rock bottom and was hospitalized. This was the start of my recovery journey, which has been by far the most difficult journey and experience I’ve ever faced in my life, but also the most rewarding.

NH: When did you discover your love for swimming and how challenging was the journey to competing in the Paralympics?

JS: From a very young age I loved the water, but my first taste for competition and winning came when I was ten and I won a race at my school swimming carnival. No doubt it was the perfectionist in me that fueled my aspiration for winning, but I was also driven by a desire to prove people wrong and to push whatever boundaries I could!

Winning my first race resulted in so many positive emotions; I had beaten all the other kids at school, it was the first time I felt accepted… and I wanted to hang onto that positivity for as long as I could. Whether that was a good enough reason to embark on an international swimming career I’m not sure, but it worked for me. By age 13 I had been selected onto my first Australian Swimming Team (the youngest member of the team). I loved racing and the adrenalin that came with it. I also loved winning!

I felt invisible in the water – I felt safe … and I was being recognized for something positive for the first time. It was the one constant thing in my life for many years, when everything else seemed to be falling apart.

NH: What did it feel like to compete in the Paralympics – what are the top 3 lessons or discoveries you made about yourself during that time?

JS: The Paralympic Games in Athens 2004 were a bitter-sweet experience. I wish I could say that it was the most amazing experience of my life and how happy and excited I was to be there, but that would be lying.

Athens 2004 was the event I had been training towards for years, and the dream of winning a medal was agonizingly within reach. It should have been the most exciting time of my life – however, the 2004 Athens Paralympics were a nightmare, dark and depressing. I performed below expectation and failed to medal in the 50m and 100m freestyle, and 100m butterfly – my best events. My disappointment wasn’t just due to my underachievement – but finally the sorrow had mounted after years of deceit, personal abuse and self-loathing. My body betrayed me when she needed it the most – or maybe I had betrayed it for the final time.

My eating disorder had conquered my body and mind, whilst destroying my Paralympic dream in one fell swoop.

Although the experience overall was incredible, the pride I felt wearing the Aussie uniform and seeing my entire family in the grandstand is something I will cherish forever – but unfortunately it’s only been in recent years, and hindsight that I have been able to appreciate the enormity of what I achieved in the pool.

These days I appreciate the Paralympic experience that I had, and I can honestly say that the following 3 words sum up what I learnt about myself and others :

  • Humility
  • Commitment
  • Perseverance

And ironically it’s these three characteristics that I was able to apply throughout my recover journey.

Jessica's push-up routine.

Jessica’s push-up routine

NH: You retired from competing internationally in 2007, what was the reason behind this decision?

JS: I had dreamt of winning Paralympic Gold for Australia – so after the devastation of Athens I set my sights on competing in Beijing at the 2008 Paralympic Games.
But the mental anguish and self loathing remained and eventually my eating disorder became so all consuming that I had no choice but to retire from swimming – otherwise I know I wouldn’t be here today, my body just couldn’t take it anymore.

NH: Jessica you are now known for your very inspiring motivational talks and your key messages regarding positive body image. When did you decide to embark on this path (public speaking, sharing your story)?

JS: After battling with anorexia and bulimia as well as depression for over a decade, I have experienced firsthand the trauma, damage, and relentless heartache that eating disorders cause, both physically and emotionally. During my recovery journey I saw firsthand the lack of support and services available and I knew then that I had a responsibility to be a voice for others and to give back to the people who formed part of my support network.
I guess in some ways I am also continuing to help myself by sharing my story, it may seem slightly selfish but the more I am able to talk about my own journey the more I am accountable to myself and so I do this to stay true and honest to myself. If doing this helps even just one other person, then I know it’s worth it.

NH: From a nutritional stand point and from what I have seen myself, I feel like social media today can have a very negative effect on young women – showing images of how society ‘expects’ them to look or perhaps what the current ‘trend’ is regarding body image. What is your opinion on social media and how it affects or distorts our psyche?

JS: Social Media is a relatively new way of communicating and has many positive aspects, especially the ability to connect people and for the sharing of information. But there are also many negative aspects to social media;

We are ALL subconsciously and consciously pressured to conform to societal beauty and body ideals. The constant barrage of negatives messages and images that we are fed via the media has fundamentally resulted in generations of people who believe they aren’t perfect and therefore should hate who they are and the way they look. Social media is unfortunately another platform for the distribution of these negative messages and images. We currently live in a world where our technology advancements have broken down many barriers, but in doing so it has also created different barriers. Social Media is here to stay, so rather than fight against it I think we need to embrace it, and do what we can to ensure that we ourselves generate positive messages which will hopefully encourage others to do the same.

NH: How do you think healthy eating, nutrition and a balanced lifestyle contribute to finding happiness within yourself? If someone wanted to change their lifestyle habits and start REALLY loving their own body (a rarity amongst so many), where would you suggest is the best place to start?

JS: If we want to feel happy within ourselves of course we need to feel comfortable with the way we look, we need to free ourselves of negative thinking because ultimately our thoughts affect our decisions and these affect our behaviors and our reality. But in order to think clearly we need to ensure that we nourish ourselves and our brain with the best foods that we can. Rather than thinking of food and eating as way of controlling our appearance, we need to start appreciating the value of nutritious foods and how they assist us all in achieving overall health. I think too often we get confused by the emotions that we have subconsciously linked to food and diet and exercise and as a result we complicate things. It’s not rocket science … when you eat well and you nourish your body it will directly impact your overall health. So if you want to find that balance, start respecting yourself by literally fueling your body with what it needs. As cliché as it may sound, any change you want to make in life has to first start with your thoughts. Go back to basics and ask yourself what it is you want to achieve health wise and then set yourself goals along the way to make it a reality.

NH: You have personally battled with your own demons regarding body image – what 5 things would you advise to others who are going through the same thoughts and issues?

JS: Negative body image has had a profound impact on my life, but now that I am in recovery I can appreciate that it has made me who I am today and without those experiences I wouldn’t have a story to tell.

If anyone else is struggling with negative body image I suggest the following:

  • Share your concerns with someone you trust… Ask for help
  • Surround yourself with positive people who are genuinely supportive
  • Make contact with organizations such as The Butterfly Foundation
  • Limit your time spent on social media or looking & comparing yourself to images
  • Don’t lose hope! You can and will get through any moment of negativity … it WILL pass

NH: Through my own social media channels, I see pictures of more and more people holding up a poster which reads “JOIN THE REVOLUTION” – tell me about this incentive and how can everyone get involved to help spread and share your message?

In an effort to combat the intense negativity associated with body image, I created the social media campaign titled ‘Join The Revolution’ which aims to encourage the use of social media as a positive platform for communicating. People of all ages and from varying backgrounds and cultures are encouraged to simply take a photo holding the ‘Join The Revolution’ sign and upload to social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #jointherevolution. These images aim to initiate conversation and give people the opportunity to start a POSITIVE dialogue about Body Image.

In less than 12 months this campaign has seen success both nationally and internationally with support from thousands of women and men, including celebrities such as The Veronicas (Musicians), Layne Beachley (World Surfing Champion), Kirk Pengilly (INXS Band member), Chris Bath (Channel 7 reporter), Kurt Fearnley (Paralympian), Kelly Cartwright (Paralympian), Kayne Tremills (ABC3 Television Presenter), Guy Leech (Ironman) – just to name a few.

Now is the time for working together to promote positive body image, and we can do that by simply TALKING & generating AWARENESS. The more we embrace and take part in open and honest conversation about Body Image the sooner the negative stigma can be alleviated. Together we can create a Revolution of positive change, together we can reverse the insidious negative cycle that has become the way we approach body image.

NH: Finally, what is in the pipeline for Jessica Smith? What do the next 12 months have in store for you?

JS: I’m simply doing what I can to get to as many schools and events throughout Australia sharing my story and encouraging people to Join The Revolution! Lots of travel and exciting times in 2014… watch this space!

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To ‘Join the Revolution’ print Jessica’s poster and upload it to your social media accounts. Learn more about Jessica Smith by connecting with her here: Website, Facebook, Instagram.

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