Fathima Zohra, 24, became a quadriplegic after a car accident.
“The accident happened four years ago and resulted in me breaking my spinal cord, which left me paralysed from the neck down. During the first few months, I was heartbroken and in complete denial of what happened. Apart from having to adjust to the loss of control and sensations, I also had to deal with the physical challenges that came with the injury. In addition, I had to get used to the way people were treating me – strangers would scrutinise my body. That really took a toll on my mental health.
As I had been able-bodied for 20 years, getting used to a new body was really difficult – I had to relearn how to do everything. The muscles that help me breathe were affected, so I can’t breathe properly and struggle with doing simple tasks. Plus, the autonomic regulation of my body temperature was disrupted, so I am always shivering or overheating. I am also constantly in pain.
While most people assume that not being able to walk was the biggest challenge, it was actually the least of my problems – I struggled more with no longer being able to do the little things like standing up to hug loved ones.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel insecure about my new body. I went through a long period of hating it, and would cover myself by only wearing baggy clothes. And because I’m paralysed, I have muscle atrophy in my legs. It’s my biggest insecurity: I have to watch my legs get smaller every day, knowing there is nothing I can do to stop it. However, I’m learning to accept that it is my reality, and actively choosing to befriend my condition so that I can develop a better relationship with my body.
It took a lot of hard work, which included therapy, for me to regain confidence and empowerment. I realised I shouldn’t invest my time and energy on things I cannot control, like when people stare, so I decided to instead focus on being a disability advocate and spreading awareness on the importance of inclusiveness. I don’t want any disabled person to feel isolated and excluded from society the way I did.
I currently work with Runninghour, an inclusive sports club that promotes the integration of special needs through sports, and as a programme manager, I work with people who are visually, intellectually, physically or hearing challenged. I learn so much from them every day, and it is very important to me that I use my story to help change the conversations about people living with disabilities.
To be honest, the change has been a painful experience and I don’t think I can ever completely accept what happened, but I have definitely come to terms with my disability. Body acceptance doesn’t mean having to love every part of your body – it could simply mean that you understand that your body is not a barometer of your worth and happiness.
Shifting your focus to what your body can do for you, rather than what it looks like, can be difficult, and it took a life-changing injury for me to realise what my body did for me. And while I might not love my body every day, I am still really happy with everything it does for me.
It is also OK to be neutral about your body. These days, I remind myself that practising neutrality doesn’t mean I can’t simultaneously practise self-love.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Vee Chin
STYLING Debby Kwong
ART DIRECTION Adeline Eng
HAIR Ann Lin
MAKEUP Lolent Lee & Eunice Wong