For Fathima Zohra, also known as Zoe Zora, self-love used to be about losing 10kg. “I would tell myself I’d love how I look and feel when I finally get to my goal weight—even though I was already underweight and increasingly weak,” recalls the fitness-wellness influencer and mental health advocate.
The way she used to talk to herself is something many of us can relate to—whispered words of self-inflicted negativity, cloaked with unrealistic expectations fashioned by society’s outdated vision of beauty. Today, self-love manifests itself in the form of pulling 30kg weights—a mean feat for the 24-year-old, who, four years ago, met with a car accident that paralysed her from the neck down.
A quadriplegic with limited function of her hands, Zora belongs to an exceptional league of individuals who have had so much taken away from them, and yet, have managed to overcome a level of adversity others don’t even come close to in a lifetime. It has been a long, hard road for her to get to this point. “After being able-bodied for 20 years, suddenly becoming disabled was one of the most heartbreaking experiences I had to go through. I was an emotional wreck for a long time and I didn’t want to move forward in life,” she shares. “Not only did I have to deal with the loss of my body and the chronic pain, I also had to deal with the way people were treating me. It devastated me because nobody looked past my wheelchair. I want society to know that I am not wheelchair-bound; it is but a personal assistive device that gives me my freedom to get around.”
“Not only did I have to deal with the loss of my body and the chronic pain, I also had to deal with the way people were treating me. It devastated me because nobody looked past my wheelchair”
And she’s always on the go, all right. As programme manager at Runninghour, a sports co-operative on a mission to integrate people with special needs through running, she works on event management, conducting disability awareness activities while engaging with members and running guides five days a week. She also hits the gym and attends physiotherapy sessions every other day, and finds time to model, all while populating her Instagram feed with content of her fitness journey, mental health lessons, beauty obsessions and sun-drenched beach day outs.
Art of cocooning
There’s one more thing she manages to do that many tend to neglect—taking time for self-reflection to decompress and refocus before going to bed. “How we talk to ourselves is so important; it has helped me address, accept and overcome my issues and insecurities without any external influence. My biggest insecurity since my injury is that I have muscle atrophy in my legs because I’m paralysed. I wake up every day knowing they’ll be getting smaller and there is nothing I can do to stop it. So we have to take control of our thoughts around self-image before they consume us, delete images of ideal bodies that have been promoted for decades, and view our bodies—my body—for what it is. I try to never let my physical appearance be a component of my self-worth,” she explains.
Looking at Zoe Zora now, effervescent and eloquent with her luscious locks and toned arms, it’s hard to fathom what she’s been through. But little does anyone know that she was already on an emotional rollercoaster for a decade prior—probably a key reason why she was so conscious of the need for mental healthcare right from the start. “I was trapped in a dark phase long before the accident; depressed, dissatisfied and unhappy for all sorts of reasons, and had been in an abusive relationship that messed things up too,” she admits, elaborating on her years suffering from acute self-doubt—a product of extremely high expectations—and body dysmorphic disorder. “In a way, the accident saved me. All my existing trauma and cycles of negativity stopped, and I was given a chance to write a new story. Today, yes, I am disabled, but I am the happiest and healthiest I have ever been.”
Chrysalis: a transitional state
For a person who used to be in a constant pursuit of perfection, she has managed to reach a level of self-acceptance and unbridled gratitude that is admirable on all counts. “Recovery for me is not just of the body but of the mind too. It was especially hard at the start because everyone was focusing on my physical recovery, while it was the mental trauma that I was struggling to cope with the most. Someone was around me 24/7 so I wasn’t given the space or privacy to process the loss of my body and cry my heart out, even though that was all I wanted to do for months,” she describes. On top of the support from her family, physiotherapists and doctors, Zora also reached out to a psychologist. “There was a point where I was thinking about suicide and that was the ultimate red flag. I knew if I wanted to survive this injury, I needed to get professional help.” It took her a year of allowing herself to fully grasp the situation before she began valuing herself once again, and started picking up the pieces to improve and evolve her mental wellness and physical strength.
“The first thing I re-learnt with my hands was to apply lipstick and it felt so good—that changed everything”
“The first thing I re-learnt with my hands was to apply lipstick,” the beauty junkie reminisces excitedly. She felt a deep desire to do something for herself first, not from a vanity point of view but for a well-deserved boost of confidence and sign of independence. “One morning, a friend wearing a bold lip visited me and all I wanted was to put on lipstick; it made me so sad when I realised I couldn’t. It’s not the same when someone else puts it on for you because I’m the type of person who has a specific way of doing her make-up.” It was at that moment, in her hospital bed, that she made up her mind about slicking on a crimson bullet—Gucci’s Rouge à Lèvres Voile Lipstick in 25 Goldie Red, to be exact, gifted by her best friend. And to her utmost surprise, managed to glide it on exactly how she liked it. This beauty gesture alone gave her all the motivation she needed to kick start re-learning a ton of other essential movements on her own, and it was only a matter of time before she was single-handedly using her phone, feeding herself and eventually, working out again.
“I don’t think people realise how traumatic it can be to suddenly not be able to do something you love. I went from being able to do everything with one hand to now using two hands just to put on lipstick, but it makes me ecstatic to do it on my own. It was right after this achievement, which made me feel so good, that I realised I can do whatever it is I set my mind to—I just had to try. And that changed everything,” expresses the tenacious Capricorn.
It’s been over 40 months of rehabilitation and therapy, plus about 700 days in the gym, and it’s safe to say she no longer dwells on negativity. Instead, she sets her eyes on new goal after new goal in order to manifest more positives in her life. “My goal is to do a full beat again,” she says, grinning at the thought of putting on a full face of gorgeous make-up.
When asked about how buzzwords like ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ play a part in supporting her community, she is quick to call out the lack of representation across all platforms and industries. With 15 percent (or over one billion) of the global population living with disabilities, they form the largest minority group on Earth and yet, we rarely see them in the spotlight. “There are representations of people of colour, diverse body types and different ages, but where are the people with disabilities? Diversity shouldn’t just be about commercial opportunity or being on trend—and as the major minority, we shouldn’t just be inspirational reminders to non-disabled people to appreciate what they have before they lose it. We need to be part of everyday conversations, from fashion to beauty to fitness and beyond. Only then will inclusivity truly be unlocked,” she asserts.
“Diversity shouldn’t just be about commercial opportunity or being on trend—and as the major minority, we shouldn’t just be inspirational reminders to non-disabled people to appreciate what they have before they lose it”
As a young woman who takes great care of her hair and skin—which can be a challenge due to medicine-triggered breakouts—she invests in quality products, while her workout videos reveal the importance of suitable gym apparel as well as the accessibility of gyms and disabilities-friendly equipment. For someone who can pull her own weight, in more ways than one, she can only use the pulley machine at the gym, but if she were to go without her brothers or an exercise buddy, the staff there isn’t fully equipped to assist her in the specialised way she needs. “Disabled people don’t just deserve to be celebrated and empowered, we need to be seen and heard in society, rather than isolated into a special needs sector.” To normalise this, Zora advises a reality check and a mentality shift. “I am an active consumer of fashion and fitness; and some days, make-up empowers me while other days, skincare provides an inner and outer glow boost, making me an avid beauty customer as well, and yet, there is a lack of representation for people with disabilities in all these industries.”
The solution? “More market-specific brands and platforms stepping up to the plate,” she answers. But also, ‘normal’ businesses and the general public becoming more aware and more equipped to help integrate people with disabilities into society. “Especially within the fitness industry, when they think of sporty people with disabilities, para-athletes come to mind—but not all of us are on that professional level. The majority of us work out because we need to strengthen ourselves—our minds and bodies depend on it. And when I get stronger, I get happier too,” she shares. “Since everyone is trying to be more inclusive, we should all do our part to co-exist harmoniously without having to feel out of place or judged for doing what we love, or simply, just trying to live our lives.”
“In the midst of all my suffering I found my real purpose. I know what a privilege it was to live without a disability for 20 years, and I know exactly how lonely and frustrating it can get as a person with disabilities. This is why I am speaking up so loudly—and proudly—about what I’ve gone through, and what I’ll keep going through, so that others in my community never have to feel alone and hopefully, one day, find their source of inspiration, just like I did,” she proclaims.
Photographer: Darren Gabriel Leow
Fashion director: Desmond Lim
Beauty director: Alli Sim
Beauty editor: Dana Koh
Hair and make-up: Grego using MAC Cosmetics and Keune SG
Photographer’s assistant: Melvin Leong
Fashion assistant: Khad Normani
Outfit: Zoe Zora is wearing Loewe sweatshirt and pants; Venna earrings from OnPedder