20220315 Jessica Smith
Jessica Smith was born without an arm, but she's not letting that hold her back. Image Credit: Supplied

Aussie expat in Dubai Jessica Smith noticed that she was different from other kids fairly early in her life; she was born without her left arm, and an accident at age two with boiling water that gave her third-degree burns on 15 per cent of the body had left her with scars. “When I got into my teenage years, you know, like any other person going through adolescence and the pressures you feel … I looked at my body and thought, ‘My arm is never going to grow back and I’m always going to have scars on my body’, so I thought about it. I started to think, if I lost a little bit of weight, maybe then I’d fit in, so I started to diet,” she explains in an interview with Gulf News.

By age 13, she was already counting her calories and shuffling around her macros (amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats). It was around this time that she discovered something that would help her with her own confidence: swimming. This was good and this was bad. The good news was, in learning to swim and focusing on it, she was discovering something that would give her self-worth and confidence. The bad news was, she could disguise her unhealthy eating habits and excessive exercising as a requirement of the team.

By the age of 15, Smith was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Both eating disorders take a toll on the body and mind. With anorexia, a person trying to control their shape and size will turn away from food; while someone with bulimia will be trapped in the cycle of binge and purge. Occasionally, a person will transition from one to the other, or display symptoms of both. US-based John Hopkins Medicine puts the number of women suffering with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa at 0.5 per cent and 2-3 per cent respectively. The most common age of onset is between 12 and 25, it adds.

Heading to the Olympics

Despite a diagnosis of eating disorders and depression, Smith continued to be hard on her body in the water as well – and it paid off. At age 19, she had succeeded in making the 2004 Paralympic team.

That year, when she didn’t win at the Athens-based races, however, she was devastated. “I was supposed to win three medals. I didn’t – I felt shame, guilt, and finally made the decision to go to an in-patient facility. I had hit my rock bottom,” she says. To get better, she admits, she had to walk away from her triggers – one of which was the competitive spirit swimming would invoke in her. And in doing so, she had to rediscover who she was – “I had to ask myself, ‘Who am I without swimming?’”

Slowly, through therapy and by working on herself, Smith overcame that negative self-talk and went on to become a motivational speaker and children’s book author. It was also while healing that she realised the manacles of stigma that had shackled themselves to society were there because of the non-normalisation of people with disabilities. The mum-of-three illustrates her point with an incident – she tells us that she and her kids were in a park when a child began to point and say to his mum, ‘Look ma, she doesn’t have an arm.’ The mother immediately hushed the child and gathered him away.

This, says Smith, is exactly the problem. Children will be curious, but by talking in hushed whispers all we do is create a cloud of ‘wrong’ over differences. She explains, “We must say, ‘Yes, that person is different – and that’s okay’.

“The world would be pretty boring if disability wasn’t part of society, it adds to our humanity and our conversations. The language that we use around different friends and disability is very important but it’s not just the words, it’s the intentions behind it. So I don’t mind the word disability; to me, I’m proud to be a female with a disability, because my disability has shaped everything about the person I am as a person today. It has given me so many opportunities rather than stall or prevent opportunities, so we need to see disability in the beauty that it is."

Teaching kids about body image

That we are each of us singular and special, that’s what she tries to teach her children. How? “By making sure my kids see me in places of vulnerability, places of empowerment, so that they know that feeling all of their emotions is completely healthy and normal. The more we allow our children to experience the emotions that we have, the safer they feel,” she says. “And I think this is really important when we talk about body image and accepting all of our differences, because body image is something that we will always experience both in a negative and a positive at different stages in our life and if we can be more equipped with how to manage our feelings, then body image concerns will be much easier to navigate as our children grow up, so that’s what I’m hoping to support my kids with.”

It's not like the old body issues have just been spirited away, she adds. “It’s an ongoing journey, you have to work at it all the time and it’s worth working at all the time.”

Helping kids develop a healthy narrative
Here’s an exercise Jessica Smith, Paralympian asks school kids to do an exercise. The motivational speaker explains: “When I go into school is to ask everybody to look in the mirror in their own time, in the safety and privacy of their own house and look in the mirror and find something that love about themselves. And it can take a while, because so many of us have been raised to find things to loathe about ourselves. Changing that internal dialogue and internal narrative to be more positive and respectful for ourselves first. When we respect ourselves and treat ourselves with kindness, we will receive that same respect and kindness from others. But it has to start with us.”
Nadia Brooker, Counselling Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, says: “It is very important to support children to develop a balanced sense of self in order for them to develop and grow into positive, healthy and happy individuals. Some simple tips regarding improving body image include:

Noticing the positives in yourself every day: We can easily get caught up in the things we’re unhappy with or think we should improve on, and often forget the things we have achieved or enjoyed.
Listening to your body: Pay attention to what makes you feel good.
Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself.
Be critical of the media that you see and always be wary of false comparisons.
Try to engage in mindful eating and healthy physical activity.
If you’re struggling, talk to someone about it and access professional support.”

One thing Smith does struggle with is a dash of fear at how the world will behave with her children because of her. “Kids can say things that are hurtful without knowing that they are being hurtful,” she explains, adding that she often thinks about how her kids may handle teasing about her disability. She hopes normalizing conversations about disability and differences can help with that.

She adds that the conversations centering on differences come easily in her home – she is Australian, her husband is Iranian, and their families are all of different nationalities as well; this makes talking about shifting perspectives, expectations and narratives a little smoother.

Smith whose book ‘Jessica Goes to School’ – part of the ‘Just Jessica’ series, out today - was created for a similar purpose – to stoke the fires of curiosity, to engage children in conversation about what it means to be unusual. In it, a girl called Jessica is excited about school, but when she does a boy points out that she has but one arm. “It offers a conversation starter about disability and difference. It is a beautiful story about disability, about acceptance, about love, difference, inclusion,” says Smith.

Jessica goes to school.
An illustration from the children's book 'Jessica Goes to School'. Image Credit: Supplied

Strength often derives from a hard journey – but the road ahead need not be potholed and rough. It all begins with a conversation - after all, as Smith says, “Wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same?”

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