Strong Woman Feature: Paralympian and Finalist for Young Australian of the year, Jessica Smith

Posted on 17 May 2015

    • Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to where you are?
    I’m a former Paralympic Swimmer, Positive Body Image advocate and a state finalist for Young Australian of the Year 2015.
    But my life as it is now is worlds apart from where it once was.
    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 accidently knocked boiling water on myself and suffered third degree burns to 15% 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 on my neck and chest, yet it was these exact things that made me hate my body.
    So I convinced myself that if I could just look perfect in every other way, maybe people would see past these so called ‘imperfections’. If I could attain perfection in every other aspect, maybe then I’d be accepted and treated ‘normal. This mindset led to wanting to lose weight - and 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 I’d be happy. At 15 I was diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia and major depression.
    For almost 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 behaviours.
    I was in my early 20’s when I hit rock bottom and was hospitalised. 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.

    • Why do you support The Butterfly Foundation?
    The Butterfly Foundation are the leading national organisation and voice, representing all people affected by eating disorders and negative body image – supporting a person with the illness, their family and their friends. Approximately one in 20 Australians has an eating disorder and the rate in the Australian population is increasing at alarming rates.
    I first heard about The Butterfly Foundation back in 2005 when I was in the midst of a destructive lifestyle shrouded with negative body image, bulimia, anorexia and depression. I had reached a point in my life where my eating disorder had literally taken control of every single aspect of my existence and I desperately needed and wanted help.
    Soon after my initial contact with Butterfly I was given the guidance and support I desperately needed and was put in touch with the required treatment facilities and support services in my area at the time. This support and assistance from Butterfly enabled me to start and maintain my recovery journey.
    Throughout my recovery journey I realised that what I needed most during my darkest days was for the issues surrounding Eating Disorders to simply be spoken about more, therefore lessening the negative stigmas that are far too often associated. The Butterfly Foundation were the only organisation that offered real advice and support. The work they are doing throughout Australia is invaluable and I now have a responsibility to give back to the organisation that literally saved my life.
    I am now one of the Butterfly Foundation presenters and educators, delivering workshops through WA and Australia to educate the community and professionals about the seriousness of Eating Disorders. We have also teamed up many times to help launch various national positive body image campaigns, such as my Join The Revolution campaign and the latest campaign, Don’t Dis my Body.
    Eating disorders are associated with significant physical complications and increased mortality. The mortality rate for people with eating disorders is the highest of all psychiatric illnesses, and over 12 times higher than that for people without eating disorders.
    The more we talk about these issues, the more chance we have of raising much needed awareness to help organisations such as The Butterfly Foundation to continue doing their incredible work within the community.
    • What do you think makes you strong? (mentally and physically)

    Ironically, all the things that people would typically think make me weak - such as my physical disability, my scars, and history of mental illness and eating disorders are the exact things that in fact give me strength.
    I think anyone who can embrace adversity epitomises strength. I certainly didn’t always embrace my adversities, but learning how to be more self accepting has enabled me to harness all my vulnerabilities and so called weaknesses and turn them into the motivation to make me stronger.
    Once you can master your inner strength … physically you can do anything.
    When I was competing as a swimmer, so much of my training focused around attitude and mental preparation. It goes back to all those really simple and cliché statements such as “If you think you can you will” well it’s true.
    Physically we are capable of so much more than we could ever imagine – it’s our mind that holds us back.

    I was always told that I couldn’t do things because I only had one arm – that never sat well with me, in fact whenever I heard those words directed at me it was as if something would switch inside me, and all of a sudden I’d make it my mission to do whatever it was the person said I couldn’t do.

    For example, push-ups & yoga! I can do more push-ups with better technique than most guys! I can also do a decent wheel pose – both thanks to my trusty medicine ball, and my attitude.

      • What makes you FLAWSOME?
      To me being Flawsome is about being genuine and true to myself. Being perfectly imperfect is definitely one of my life motto's.
      These days there is so much pressure on women to dress a certain way, have a career, be a mum, and balance all these things effortlessly … We are all trying desperately to fit the mould of what a ‘perfect woman’ is …. I’m yet to meet someone who has achieved this. I certainly haven’t and I don’t think I ever will!
      Apart from my obvious physical differences that many others in society see as imperfections, I’m also far from perfect when it comes to day to day life. I try my hardest to stick to a routine when it comes to being active, but let’s be honest life always gets in the way and some times I eat on the run and skip workouts.
      I also always say things before I’ve had enough time to process the potential consequences in my head … this usually only happens when I’m with my family though.
      Apparently I also have very low tolerance and patience levels … I’m not sure how entirely accurate that is, but my family have been saying it to me for years!
      • Who inspires you to be strong?
      Over the years I think certain people in my life have inspired me at different times, and all for very different reasons. As a former athlete I always admired other athletes who could push their body to the extreme and achieve amazing results. These days, it’s my family who inspire me to stay strong both physically and mentally.
      • How do you think living an active life makes you stronger?
      Being active and exercising regularly is so important for overall health. Science tells us that there are endless benefits from staying active, but apart from this for me personally; when I’m active I feel good. And when I feel good I feel confident, and feeling confident consequently means feeling strong within myself both mentally and physically.
      • How do you share your strength with others?
      I think it’s important to not only share my strengths with others, but to also be transparent and honest about my vulnerabilities and my weaknesses.
      After battling with anorexia and bulimia as well as depression for over a decade, I have experienced first hand the trauma, damage, and relentless heartache that eating disorders cause, both physically and emotionally. During my recovery journey I saw first hand 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 travel throughout Australia speaking to young people about the importance of positive body image and self acceptance.
      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.
      • What has been the biggest obstacle that you've had to overcome?
      My internal dialogue as a young woman and the extreme self doubt that I experienced every day from about the age of 9!It’s something we can all relate to, that inner voice telling us that we aren’t good enough. Unfortunately it was these voices that almost destroyed my life. Thankfully I’m no longer suffocated by such negative thinking.
      • When you're not feeling strong and confident, what do you do to get back on track?
      Gosh, as a woman I constantly have moments where I feel a lack of self confidence, but I think given my experiences throughout my recovery, I can now more easily identify when and why I have these moments of self doubt. I try not to dwell on any negatives in my life, and just always remind myself that this moment will pass. It’s important to not dismiss the times when we don’t feel strong and confident, our bodies and our minds are constantly trying to tell us something – usually if we aren’t feeling great it’s for a good reason, and we need to take a few moments to just check in and become aware of what’s going on so that we can move past it and start feeling great again!It’s simply about becoming more aware and taking the time to listen to your body – it will tell you what it needs.
      • What has been your greatest accomplishment?
      I’d have to actually say that I have 2 great life accomplishments so far, both being extremely different and therefore I can’t measure them the same.
      1. Representing Australia at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, this was by far the greatest sporting achievement – all my hard work, dreams goals and aspirations became a reality, and wearing the green and gold  the most the awesome experience I’ve ever had.
      2. Being in recovery for my eating disorder. Towards the end of my long term battle, I honestly didn’t think I’d live to see the age of 25. I had lost all sense of hope and sense of being. I look back now to those terrible times, and I feel so proud to have come this far and to have not given up, even when I desperately wanted to.
      • What would your message be to women who are struggling to fell strong, confident and happy?
      If we want to feel happy within ourselves of course we need to feel comfortable with the way we look. In order to get to that place mentally we need to free ourselves of negative thinking, because ultimately our thoughts affect our decisions which affect our behaviours 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. The same applies for exercise and keeping active.
      So if you want to find that balance, start respecting yourself by literally fuelling your body with what it needs. And respecting it with exercise that you enjoy! 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.
      What you think – you create. Simple.

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