Through my work as a journalist, instructor and fitness ambassador, I’ve encounter some truly inspiring people and it’s now time to share their stories. This post is only the start of a series of interviews I’ve started collating. I hope reading about their experiences, thoughts and dreams will touch your heart and fire you up to live fully and passionately. Be bold. Be you.
Meet Jessica Smith, Paralympic swimmer, healthy body image ambassador and motivational speaker. I’ll let her tell you the story of how she came to compete for Australia in Athens, beat an eating disorder and inspire those around her.
Q: If it doesn’t affect you to talk about it, how did your lack of body love manifest itself?
Being born with one arm and then sustaining 3rd degree burns to my neck and chest as a toddler after I knocked boiling water onto myself, I grew up with a host of body image issues. I always knew that I was different and from a very early age I lacked self-esteem and any self-confidence. Basically I was embarrassed and ashamed of my appearance from as far back as I can remember.
Q: What do you love about yourself?
The thought of loving myself has really been a difficult concept to accept. And to be honest I certainly don’t love everything about myself. However, these days I do see my imperfections as blessings in disguise. I know that my disability and scars have in fact opened up many opportunities that I otherwise would never have had, for example being a Paralympian. I’m not sure that love is the right way to word it, but I do accept myself now and I am very grateful for my body and what it has allowed me to do. I try to focus on what I’ve achieved rather than what I lack. For years I chased the idea of perfection which lead to a very sad and miserable existence, so when I finally accepted that perfection didn’t exist I was able to breathe .. and smile. That’s what I now love about myself …having the strength and ability to accept myself.
Q: What was your turning point in body image? How did it come about?
The turning point for me came when I was hospitalized in early 2007. I had finally hit my rock bottom both physically & emotionally. I just could no longer go on living that way, I was so exhausted and I was in so much pain. I had lost my friends and my family, but even worse .. I had lost myself. I was so alone, however I didn’t want to die (I had attempted suicide twice prior) I wanted to live, and I knew the only way I was going to do that was to surrender and start recovery. I met other women who were in recovery for their eating disorders and it was so reassuring to be able to speak with other women who understood what I was saying, and to know that they were now living a life of freedom gave me the hope I desperately needed to start my own recovery journey.
Q: What simple strategies have helped you develop a better body image or what still helps you?
One day at a time. This became my mantra. In the early days and to be honest even now sometimes, I struggle with negative self talk. I had to constantly reassure myself that everything was going to be ok. Each day I have to tell myself that I am worthy of life and happiness. When it comes to more practical things in regards to food, I have to eat a balanced diet and I can never under eat. This is what works for me. I know what foods trigger me and I know when I am emotional I need to be very wary of my surroundings and I need to ensure that I seek support if I feel as though I’m struggling. For me I will always have an ED, so its learning how to live with it rather than push it away, which almost always causes more anguish. One of my main strategies these days is simply talking – I talk openly and honestly about my experiences and I encourage others to do the same. The more WE talk about body image and eating disorders, the more chance we have to alleviate the negative stigma that unfortunately exists. By talking to people and sharing my story I aim to encourage people to accept their differences and embrace diversity. Body Image is how we think and feel about our appearance … the only people who control what we think and feel … is US. Therefore we have the power to change our own thinking, and that is where it starts.
Q: What advice would you give young girls?
Young females are constantly bombarded with messages and images in the media telling them how they should or shouldn’t look. Unfortunately research and statistics state that approximately 90% of females aged between 12 -18 are on a diet of some sort. To me this suggests that youth in particular are extremely vulnerable to the messages and images that are being portrayed. We have developed generations of people who are dissatisfied with the appearance and who they are as people. We constantly judge and compare ourselves to one another, so is it any wonder that we are all so confused when it comes to simply being happy and content with who we are. I often talk to audiences of young women and men who tell me that they don’t love themselves at all, in fact many of them say how much they hate themselves. It’s heartbreaking to hear this, but I also understand, because for many years I hated myself too. Sometimes telling people to love themselves can be extremely overwhelming, so I encourage people to start with trying to not hate themselves. Some days are tougher than others, and convincing yourself that you love who you are can seem far-fetched, but if we can start with some compassion for ourselves, and remind ourselves that we don’t need to hate ourselves, then the next step is focusing on loving ourselves. It is something that we all need to be proactive in. We need to start shifting the negative self-talk so that it becomes positive, eventually our positive mind set will out weight the negative and we can then start to treat ourselves with respect and self kindness. Young girls need to start giving themselves a voice. I encourage young girls to talk to each other and their peers, shed some light on how you are feeling and what issues are concerning you when it comes to Body Image. Seek help if you need it, and keep speaking until someone listens to you. Don’t surround yourself with people if you feel judged or insecure about your appearance, remember no one can make you think of feel bad about yourself, the only person who can do that is you.
\Q: How do you now help others?
I now work as a motivational speaker travelling to different towns and cities where I talk to young men and women about the issues associated with negative body image. I also work as a private mentor and work with clients on a personal level sharing my experiences in an attempt to help individuals work through their weaknesses to achieve a life free from negative body image and eating disorders.
Q: How do you think others can help those affected by a lack of self esteem or healthy body image?
In general I think we all need to educate ourselves more about body image on a whole. The more we know and understanding something the less daunting it is and the more likely people will openly discuss it. I think if we can communicate openly about negative body image and the seriousness of eating disorders, then the destructive stigma will undoubtedly fade away and then finally we will feel comfortable when people reach out for help because we will know where to guide them or what support is best to help them on their journey.
Q: What changes would you like to see regarding body image?
Personally I think so much more needs to be done to highlight the serious nature of Body Image issues. Unfortunately we still live in a world where discrimination based on appearances is prevalent. We are encouraged to compare and judge ourselves based on images that are depicted to be ‘idealistic’, and when we don’t look like those images we believe that we are therefore simply not good enough and we need to do whatever it takes to improve ourselves. I strongly believe that Eating Disorders need to be recognized as a serious mental health illness, and therefore I believe the health sector needs to identify it as a priority area. I think the media industry has a lot to answer for when it comes to sending inaccurate messages out into society about what is ‘normal’ and what isn’t. The media needs to start presenting more varied images and they need to openly state which images have been photoshopped or enhanced. Don’t get me wrong I’m not against the media or the advertising industry, I just think that in recent times many images that have been published don’t represent a true parallel of what society really looks like and consequently the wrong messages are getting through to young women and men. I believe that much is being done to bring awareness to these issues, however there does need to be more open and honest communication on the topic of body image. It’s time this awareness develops into change, and these changes actually transpire and are sustained.