Inspiring is an understatement when it comes to Jessica Smith’s story! A Paralympic swimmer, mental health ambassador/speaker, author, Cosmo Woman of the Year 2017, and mother of two, Jessica has refused to let society define her limits. Born without her left arm, she struggled for years with body confidence issues, before discovering her extraordinary talent for swimming. It certainly wasn’t all smooth sailing from there though, as battled both depression and an eating disorder. Today she is an internationally recognised positive body advocate, using her experiences to empower and inspire others! We had a chat to her about embracing your differences, how motherhood has changed her and what it means to ‘have it all’.
Growing up, you’ve said that you felt a little different. How did this change when you discovered your talent for swimming?
I was born without my left forearm and then as a toddler I was fitted my first prosthetic arm. But while struggling to get used to this new aid, I accidentally knocked a pot of boiling water onto myself when I was 18 months old, suffering third degree burns to 14% of my body.
From an early age, I was conscious and sensitive about my disability and scars. I always felt different to other kids, which only exacerbated my introversion. But I had an innate ability to push boundaries. I wanted people to notice me for what my body could do, rather than what it couldn’t. So I started using my body physically and of course the natural progression was into sport. I was a natural swimmer and it really did become my sanctuary. The water was catharsis and provided much relief from the pain I was feeling because of my physical differences. Training gave me focus and competition provided the impetus to succeed. Swimming literally enabled me to get through so many difficult stages during my teens and early twenties. I felt safe in the water and empowered because my body was finally being recognised for something positive.
You’ve spoken openly about your struggles with depression and an eating disorder and you created the body positive social media movement, ‘Join The Revolution’, why is it so important to have these conversations?
Body Image is an issue that is so complex, and it’s becoming more of a negative issue for so many women and men. The only way to combat the stigmas that are associated with body image issues and eating disorders is by speaking about them.
How do you find balance in your life?
Over the years I’ve come to realise that the idea of balance is an illusion. The way society as a whole perceives balance is skewed. We (women) need to manage our expectations better when it comes to achieving ‘balance’ because life isn’t something that can be equally distributed. So many of us want it ALL, and we want it all NOW. I believe that we can in fact have it ALL, just not all at once.
As women we all wear many hats - we are daughters, sisters, MOTHERS, career women, athletes, scientists, WIVES, authors, artists, musicians, CEOs, (the list goes on). But we can't be all of those things at the same time. The same goes for our health and wellbeing, sometimes our nutrition will be great but our sleep may not be, due to circumstances beyond our control. Or, our fitness might be on track and we might be feeling really strong, but our social life and relationships are lacking because of poor time management. The reality is, that the more we strive for the perfect balance, the more likely we are all to fall short ... because it doesn't exist.
Yet in our pursuit for perfection, we put so much pressure on ourselves, and ironically the end result is exactly what we do not want - we end up stressed, sick, under performing and we communicate less, internalising the negative.
Having it all - requires management and acceptance, not balance, because we cannot possibly give 100% of our time and energy to more than one thing. When we allow ourselves 'permission' to prioritise different areas of our life at different times, we take that pressure off ourselves to achieve the perfect balance, and ultimately that is when we are most content.
You have two children now, Ayla and Reza, how have you changed since becoming a Mother?
Motherhood has changed me in so many ways. I haven’t slept in about three years! I’m much more patient and aware of myself. It’s such a challenging time though and I have had some very tough times trying to juggle life with two kids. I’ve had to turn down a lot of work which has often left me feeling inadequate, however I realise that I need to say NO in order to prioritise my family.
Learning to accept my body has been my biggest challenge, but over the years it has definitely gotten easier. Motherhood has played the most significant role in my learning to really appreciate and accept my body. That being said, I didn't love everything about being pregnant, and I did find myself worrying about how to regain my pre-baby body.
As I grew a life inside me, and my body began to change, I found it difficult to accept the transitions that were taking place, all of which I had absolutely no control over. I gained a significant amount of weight, and I remember telling myself that I would work hard to lose it once my baby was born. To be honest it was really scary to have those thoughts again, especially after working so hard to be stable in my recovery journey for so many years.
But something profound happened the moment I gave birth. A genuine sense of admiration, for myself and my body. I did it! I survived childbirth and had a beautiful baby to show for it. I genuinely began to be grateful for for my body that day. We hear it all the time, but you never truly understand what those words mean until you grow, birth and feed a tiny human with your own body. I’m in constant awe of mothers everywhere and I truly believe that motherhood is the manifestation of nature at its highest potential. Only now do I feel a genuine connection with myself and my body. Motherhood has taken away my existential woes and replaced them with an awe of human existence.
Speaking of children, a few years ago you released your first children’s book Little Miss Jessica Goes To School which celebrates children’s differences . Can you tell us a little about this?
When I was growing up there were no characters in books or on television that looked like me. I grew up with Barbie and Disney Princesses. There was no diversity in the characters I saw, just beautiful flawless females who I aspired to look like. But that was never going to happen.
I toyed with the idea of writing a biography, with the aim of putting pen to paper to share my story to inspire others.But the next question I faced was how and why my book would be any different to what was already on the market? I realised that my story wasn’t unique and I didn’t want to just create another self-help book or pages of personal memoirs. When I asked myself what it was that I wanted to achieve, the answer was simple – prevention.
I have been sharing my story publicly as a motivational speaker for many years, and my goal has always been about preventing anyone else from taking the same destructive path as I did. My target audience for the past five years has been youth, in particular young females, and although I believe I am able to connect and make a difference with this age group … I’ve always believed that promoting positive body image and self worth at a young age is crucial.
I thought back to the characters that I grew up with and realised that the sheer lack of diversity was a concerning issue. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong about characters such as Barbie, Cinderella, Batman or Superman – these are the characters that ignite our imagination and encourage us to fantasise. But children also need to see and read about characters that represent what they see in real life … Characters with imperfections … Characters with differences.
“Little Miss Jessica Goes to School” is not simply about a young girl with one hand on her first day at school. It’s about her journey in discovering that we are all different. She meets other characters who also have a different appearance to her, and together they learn to appreciate who they and how they look, in spite of their differences. The book tackles a range of issues such as self esteem, disability, body image, friendship, acceptance, tolerance and social connection. The book delivers a fundamental message for younger generations about self acceptance – a message that reminds us ALL that being different is OK.
What’s one piece of advice you hope to share with your children when they’re older?
Always be honest with yourself.