Jessica Smith
An advocate for inclusivity, Smith wants children to shift their focus on what their body can do, rather than what it looks like. The shift in focus can go a long way in helping them deal with the challenges life throws at them. Image Credit: Supplied

“So many of us feel different for different reasons, whether it is obvious or not.”

It’s a feeling everyone can relate to – the feeling that you don’t fit in. For 38-year-old Jessica Smith, that is a feeling she is all too familiar with.

Born with her left arm missing, she suffered a horrific kitchen accident as a toddler, which left her with scarring on her neck and chest.

“So, I grew up looking very different and, because of that, feeling very different because I grew up in a society where I was told that my appearance impacted my success and my happiness. I was told [that] I was not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough or strong enough … all because of the way that I looked,” Smith said.

Not one to accept those labels, Smith said she dug into her innate ability to push boundaries, wanting to prove herself to the rest of the world. It started with turning her focus towards movement – a focus on what her body could do, rather than what it looked like. From climbing trees, playing with her younger brothers or kicking a football, she found her passion in swimming. The first swimming competition she participated in was at school, when she was 10 years old.

Jessica Smith
At a young age, Smith found her passion in movement, and swimming in particular.

“I beat all the boys and girls [who had] two hands and in that moment, I realised that I was being acknowledged for what I could do rather than what I couldn’t do and it was the first time I felt this sense of self-confidence and self-pride. I never wanted to let go of that feeling,” Smith said.

At 13, she was selected for the national Paralympic swimming team and represented her country for seven years. She calls the experience a phenomenal one, where she proudly wore the green and golden colours of Australia.

Jessica Smith
Smith was selected for the Australian Paralympic Team in 2004.

The battle never ends

Despite the sense of empowerment Smith felt during that time, she said that the struggle with body image never ended.

“I was actually forced into early retirement because I was struggling with body image issues. Even though I was representing my country there was still this idea that because I had a disability I wasn’t still quite good enough. It impacted my performance, it impacted my ability to represent my country. and so I retired at the age of 21,” she said.

From being an elite athlete, Smith wasn’t quite sure of how she should transition into whatever life had in store for her next. However, her experience being a sportsperson at the higest level of the game helped her set goals and find motivation to apply to other areas of her life.

“I guess by default I found myself representing the community of People of Determination because there wasn’t a lot being spoken about it at the time and I felt as if I had a responsibility to be a voice for other people who couldn’t voice their own [concerns], whether it was metaphorically or physically,” she said.

After reaching out to corporate organisations and community organisations, she realised that the most important group of people for her were children. And that is where she began working on a idea for a children’s book – Just Jessica.

Embracing diversity

Jessica Smith
Image Credit: Supplied

Her message was complex, but she wanted to translate it as easily as possible to a young audience – that it’s okay to feel different. If a young person can find themselves being comfortable with being different, they will be better equipped to deal with the challenges life throws at them, according to Smith.

“If they can learn to accept difference in all its forms when they are in their age of adolescence, they are able to understand more and have better skills to adapt to whatever it is they might be going through,” Smith said.

While the book focuses on her journey as a Person of Determination, the stories are meant to address the worries or anxiety a child might feel when they are in new or challenging situations. The book follows her journey through various stages of her life – her first day at school, her first swimming competition or the first time she plays an instrument.

“All of these things are relatable for every child and it is also a beautiful opportunity for parents and teachers to start a conversation with their own children and children in their classroom,” she said.

“We see difference every day and if we are able to have a book on the shelf that children can refer to and say ‘Oh, I’ve seen somebody who looks like that’ or ‘That person represents me’, they can feel validated and acknowledged,” she said.

We see difference every day and if we are able to have a book on the shelf that children can refer to and say ‘Oh, I’ve seen somebody who looks like that’ or ‘That person represents me’, they can feel validated and acknowledged.

- Jessica Smith, Australian Paralympian and children's book author

Focussing on more than just aesthetics

Smith has gone on to accomplish many things as a sports person and as a community worker, even receiving one of Australia’s highest honours – the ‘Medal of the Order of Australia’, which recognises Australians who have demonstrated outstanding service or exceptional achievement. However, the challenges never really end, and that, according to Smith, is critical to understand for parents as well as children.

In an age of social media and mainstream media pushing images that send a very particular message focused on beauty and aesthetics, Smith feels that parents should help their children focus on better understanding their bodies, and themselves.

“If we can empower our young children to feel confident because their body can move and it supports them and they feel strong and healthy, when those [negative] incidents do happen where somebody questions what they look like – because they will – children will be more equipped to deal with those thoughts, feelings and emotions. So it has to start with teaching our children the importance of valuing what their body can do and valuing other parts of our personality,” Smith said.

A simple exercise she goes through, whenever she speaks to school children, is to encourage them to compliment their friends for something that has nothing to do with their bodies or how they look.

“It is a little thing, but it is very, very important,” she said.

How parents can build resilience in children

Smith shared some simple tips for parents to follow, in order to build resilience in children to face negative feelings of isolation or feeling different, the first step is to evaluate how they deal with their own selves.

“We have to be very mindful about how we talk to ourselves and how we portray our own thoughts and feelings in front of our children. Are we allowing ourselves to be vulnerable for our children to see that those emotions are valid and necessary? Also, the way we talk to ourselves about the way that we look is impacting our children,” Smith said.

She advises parents to follow a simple approach the next time their child comes back home having had a bad experience with their friends.

Ask them how they feel, ask them why they feel the way they do, and work with them to find a solution that works.

“It is not for me tell them what is right or wrong or to question their feelings, but rather to allow them to know that I am listening … without judgment and without trying to fix it. If we can allow our children to talk about it, they will be internally processing their feelings in that movement, and then [we can] together try and find a solution,” she said.

It is also important to not dismiss negative feelings, or try to rush children out of the experience. She advised parents to let them sit with their feelings and process them so that they can find solutions to help them feel more positive.

“If we can build that sense of resilience and sense of self-esteem from a young age, when those moments do occur, they are going to feel so much more empowered to be able to say: ‘You know what? I’m comfortable with who I am as a person.”