Embrace Being Different: An Interview with Olympian + Author Jessica Smith


Emily Winter

Jessica Smith, an Olympian, a motivational speaker, and a social media figurehead, has a long list of impressive accomplishments that trail her name. The newest one? Children’s book author. 

One would never guess that someone like Jessica, with a grand history of success, would have faced so many obstacles in her path. Born missing her left forearm and later suffering from severe third degree burns covering her body as a young child, the concept of body image was one that hit close to home. 

Armed with such vivid personal experiences, Jessica currently uses her stories of both success and hardship to inspire young people by means of motivational speaking. Her newest venture, however, is something very outside of the box…children’s literature. Her debut book, Little Miss Jessica Goes to School, aims to discuss concepts such as disability, body image, self-esteem, and social interaction. The ultimate goal: reducing the stigma that all too often is associated with physical disability. 

Using her personal experience as a guide, Jessica crafted the Little Miss Jessica series to prove to kids that being different is not something to hide, but rather to embrace. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jessica Smith about her newest literary endeavors, her past experiences that inspired her, and her future aspirations. 

Creating a children’s book was a very creative (and out of the box!) idea. What inspired you to write your first book, Little Miss Jessica Goes to School, and why use kids as your target audience?

Jessica Smith: Growing up with storybook role models who are invariably thin, beautiful, and flawless presents a distorted version of reality, and for children who don’t fit the mold (which, let’s face it, is almost all of them), it can be disheartening and isolating. Children’s books suffer from a massive under-representation of diverse ethnicities or a more all-encompassing spectrum of sexuality.

Little Miss Jessica Goes To School is based in part on my own personal experiences. I grew up with awfully low self-esteem. I was born missing my left arm – my parents were devastated and were told by doctors that it was simply ‘one of those things’.

When I was 18 months old, 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. Not the easiest start to life.

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 struggled to understand and come to terms with my identity and physical appearance. I had no control over the fact that I had one arm and significant scaring; I certainly didn’t ask to look this way.

So, I convinced myself that I needed to attain perfection in every other aspect. Anything that I could control I did. I starved myself believing it was the only way to feel accepted within society. I thought that if I could just have a body like the models I saw on TV and in the magazines then maybe people would see past my other obvious ‘imperfections’. Maybe then I’d be ‘normal’.

At 14, I was diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia and major depression. I, of course, kept all this hidden and battled with these secret illnesses for almost a decade longer, before I began the recovery journey. Throughout my journey, body image and self-acceptance are the issues that I continually struggled with.

Regardless of our physical appearance we are ALL subconsciously and consciously pressured to conform to societal beauty and body ideals. The constant barrage of negative messages and images that we are fed via the media has fundamentally resulted in generations of people who believe they aren’t perfect and therefore should hate who they are and the way they look. 

“I’ve always believed that promoting positive body image and self-worth at a young age is crucial.”

So I decided that I had to do more… 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.

Now, as I near closer to the birth of my first child, positive body image and self-worth are qualities I am adamant my children will grow up with, because of the example that I MUST lead. Children do what they see – so it is my responsibility to show them. 

But I also 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 fantasize. 

But children also need to see and read about characters that represent what they see in real life. They need to see characters with imperfections and characters with differences. And so, I wrote Little Miss Jessica Goes to School.

The book is not just about a young girl who has one hand on her first day at school. It’s about her journey in discovering that we are all different. In the story 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.

On top of your book you also run a popular social media campaign, JOIN THE REVOLUTION.  For those who are not familiar, can you talk a little about your JOIN THE REVOLUTION social media campaign?

JS: In an effort to combat the intense negativity associated with body image, I created the social media campaign titled ‘Join The Revolution’ which aims to encourage the use of social media as a positive platform for communicating. People of all ages and backgrounds are encouraged to simply take a photo holding the ‘Join The Revolution’ sign and upload to social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #bodyimagerevolution and #stophatingyourbody

In less than 12 months, this campaign has seen success both within Australia and internationally with support from thousands of women and men, including celebrities such as The Veronicas (Musicians), Layne Beachley (World Surfing Champion), Kirk Pengilly (INXS Band member) – just to name a few.

People power is the best power, so I am asking everyone to join me, because ultimately we ALL have a responsibility to join in a revolution of positive change and give ourselves and each other the opportunity to work collectively to reverse the insidious negative cycle that has become the way we approach body image. Surely we all want to do what we can to ensure that future generations are more accepting of themselves and each other?

If you could give one piece of advice to readers about body image, what would that be?

JS: Body image is the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception. We have the power to change the way we see, feel and think about our bodies. But it is important to understand that there is no right or wrong when it comes to weight, shape, size and appearance. Remember, many media images are unrealistic and represent a minority of the population, so avoid comparing yourself to others. Instead, work hard to accept yourself as you are. Setting positive, health focused goals rather than weight loss related ones is more beneficial for your overall wellbeing.

You are a former Paralympian swimmer, inspirational speaker, and now children’s book author. With so much success, what would you say is your single most proud moment?

JS: I have been very fortunate throughout my life to have achieved so many incredible things, all of which I value in different ways. I think the harder you have to work for something the more you appreciate it. So for me, each accomplishment means something different because it represents a time in my life when things were going great. But if I had to choose one single moment, it would be the day that I woke up and realized that my eating disorder no longer existed. It wasn’t any specific day, there was nothing unique about it, except that it was the day I woke up and no longer heard the voices of my eating disorder.

It may sound really silly that this is what I’m most proud of, but the fact is, that moment represented relief from a lifelong and exhausting battle, and finally there was a happy ending.

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Emily Winter is a senior at Connecticut College studying Psychology and Human Development. She is a three season varsity athlete, running cross country and track and field for her school.  In her free time, she dedicates herself to college health promotion on her campus, as well as to the college’s psychology department, both efforts of that which fuel her ultimate goal of becoming a school psychologist.  This past summer, Emily was an intern for the helpline at the National Eating Disorders Association.

This content was originally published on in 2015.