In the midst of a raging body positivity movement, encouraging women – and sometimes, men – to throw away their body scales, calorie counter applications, and anything that might lead them on a path of self-hate and fat-shaming, Dubai-based photographer Waleed Shah takes on a slightly different approach.
It’s hard for all these people because, the average joe is not used to being in the limelight, and the public figure is used to being in the light in a very beautiful way and doesn’t want to taint that image.
His new photo project, titled Rock Your Ugly, shifts the focus from just the body, looping in the vital element of mental health and acknowledging the spectrum of experiences and feelings that people have with and about their bodies, embracing more than just the “positive,” in an ongoing series. The photos are accompanied with stories of the people in them, where they share their insecurities and how they are dealing – or not dealing – with them.
"So my body insecurities are mainly my belly as well as my chest area, I’ve grown to get used to them but that doesn’t mean I’m not bothered by them still. But I’ve started to embrace my body and I now love going to the beach and pool, and I’m here to set an example for other plus size individuals. Actually, my new aim in life now is to become a male plus-size model." -Hassan
“I always wanted to explore what other people felt about their bodies,” says Shah, describing a time of his life when he felt uncomfortable with his body after gaining more weight than he was used to. “This was like a, ‘you share your pain, I share my pain,’ sort of thing. When people would open up to me about their deepest, darkest secrets that they never told anyone about, I’m then comfortable to tell them about my feelings, and we’d share our pain together in the one or two hours we hang out together.”
I learned how to perfect the curse of throwing up after meals. You might witness how much and how quickly I can eat meals; see me shoving food down my throat you’d think that I had a great appetite.
"I come from a family where the women have a generous bust. That’s 9 women including my sisters and cousins, but I felt like [mine] were too small. [...] it made me feel more like a boy because I didn’t have that feminine part of me that says 'hey I’m here'. Funny thing is that everyone who meets me finds it hard to ask me about my arm, but the reality is that it’s actually the least thing that bothers me now, and it probably masks the fact that I have other insecurities about my body." -Lotus
Shah describes this experience as a virtual group therapy session, where people read about others’ experiences with and feelings about their bodies, while seeing them in the photographs, often at their most vulnerable, in a raw and intimate reflection of human beings’ relationships with their bodies and minds. With that, they might feel that they are not alone, and might even be encouraged to share their own worries, experiences, secrets and traumas. “[What] I want to happen and that has happened already is for people to see [the photos] and see themselves in them, and decide to reach out to somebody and talk about their issues.”
...Instagram is more often used to edit and filter one’s appearance than to speak up about how they feel about it.
"Lately I’ve been following a few women here on social media who struggle with [bloating] too – and that’s helping. So here’s to a bit of honesty and a bit of bloat and a big reminder that you’re gorgeous. Let’s rock this, bellies and all." -Danae
While Shah is not a mental health expert nor is his intention to conduct actual therapy, his series of photographs start a dialogue – that is potentially and actually healing, both for the subjects of the photographs and the people who follow the series – about things that are often very difficult to talk about and are not given many platforms for exposure, especially in the age of social media, where Instagram is more often used to edit and filter one’s appearance than to speak up about how they feel about it.
"Growing up as an Indian woman, I had felt this pressure of upholding an image of a female that was culturally expected. Since I was a kid, I would be guided to cover that body part up, [told that] men want to marry thin girls, [or] 'you look pretty fair skinned, stay out of the sun'.“ -Karina
The starting point of the conversations between Shah and the people he photographs is body insecurities, but Shah recalls every conversation he had and the friends he made through those photo sessions, and explains that when people start to speak up about their insecurities, they find themselves opening up about childhood traumas, stories of loss, abuse, and any deep-rooted issues they might have, and what started as a photo session turns into a heart-to-heart between friends.
"I learned how to perfect the curse of throwing up after meals. I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for the past two years. You might witness how much and how quickly I can eat meals; see me shoving food down my throat you’d think that I had a great appetite. You might see me wearing tight dresses and shorts when I go out and think that I have an abundance of confidence in myself and my body. I learned to drink sips of water in between bites, so that the food would come up easier as soon as I’m done eating. My story isn’t something that would inspire the world, but it inspires me for who I became today and how I got over this without any help." -Myrna
During my first month after child birth I didn’t eat anything. I was on water and juice only and lost 15 kg.
For this to be relayed online to thousands of people, creating a snowballing of heart-to-hearts and an expansion of a dialogue that started one-on-one in a private room between photographer and subject, is quite a radical thing. And the stories do not begin and end at insecurities, but the photos and the stories attached to them explore the ways body image insecurities and mental health are both inextricably connected. Like a dialectic of sorts, when the ball starts rolling on body image insecurities, people begin to let out all of their other experiences and traumas.
"During my first month after child birth I didn’t eat anything. I was on water and juice only and lost 15 kg. The stretch marks drama and oversized outfits got me depressed till about last month when I said 'fuck it'. I stopped dieting and wore my loose clothes and embraced the fact that I just gave birth four months ago." -Azza
Shah has pointed his black-and-white lens on some of the figures who have a large presence and following on Instagram, but he also wanted to reach every other person, those who might not even have a presence on social media, to do the same and to cultivate a community that is not at all limited to the Internet, but that can take on a life of its own and begin to include people from around the world, of different backgrounds. “It’s hard [for all these people] because, the average joe is not used to being in the light, and the public figure is used to being in the light in a very beautiful way and doesn’t want to taint that image. It’s actually equally difficult for both of them.”
Do you; forget what the internet these days is talking about.
"I edit my nose in all of my images as I don’t find it pretty at all. I know that a new nose won’t make me a better person but it would definitely make me happier and give me a huge boost in confidence." -Saskia
I edit my nose in all of my images as I don’t find it pretty at all.
One of his subjects, Dubai-based musician Hamdan Al Abri, used to have a full head of hair, cornrows and all, before he began to develop bald spots due to stress and white patches due to a skin condition, so he shaved his head. Entrepreneur and lifestyle blogger Huda Shahin also opened up about a childhood incident that resulted in a deformity in her chin and what had become one of her biggest insecurities for the rest of her life. When people like Abri and Shahin open up, they bridge the gap between them and those who follow them, encouraging an honest dialogue and showing people that everyone suffers from different issues and insecurities, and that this can become a common ground and a space for healing where everyone can connect to each other through those very issues.
"I think at one point I was like, 'I don’t want to go out because people might even see these blemishes think what kind of disease does he have?' But now I’m coming to terms with it." -Hamdan
Shah recalls cases where he would approach people he knows with certain assumptions as to what they might speak about, and he turns out to be completely wrong. “Lotus, for example, has a burn on her arm, and when I contacted her, I thought 'Lotus will probably tell me about her arm,' but when we talked, she didn’t even mention her arm at all, she started talking about her breast size and that she compares herself to her family who all have larger breast sizes, and by the end of our conversation I was like, ‘yo, Lotus, what about your arm?’ and she’s like, “oh that!” but yeah, she didn’t even bother,” Shah laughs.
"When I was a child, I fell off the top bunk of my bed and broke my chin. As I grew older, my face started to grow towards one side and my chin started to go off center. These days it’s actually not that obvious anymore, because I had fillers done a few years ago. You know when I talk about my chin, I think about people who are dying and starving in the world and it makes me feel so silly. But then I get even more insecure about it because I can’t talk about it in fear of people judging me for this little thing. But to me, it’s actually not little." -Huda
My mum always cared about physical appearances and has always been very beautiful, and (I’m sure unintentionally) brought my scoliosis up all the time.
But Shah does not force his personal opinions or how he feels about himself or people on others – what’s empowering about this series is that it acknowledges that no one body type is good or bad, but he also goes beyond this to say, that does not mean that someone who wants to change their body or a body part – through plastic surgery, for example – is wrong either. On the contrary, the most important thing, and what’s highlighted the most in this series and through the articles, is how the person feels and for them to take their time to think through that and make their own decisions based on what makes them comfortable. “It’s about how you feel. And my whole point is, do you, man, forget what the internet these days is talking about.”
"My mum always cared about physical appearances and has always been very beautiful, and (I’m sure unintentionally) brought my scoliosis up all the time, whether it was about my posture while I was doing homework or walking crooked or not fitting into my clothes right. My ex would comment on how lopsided I’d look sometimes just in the most blasé manner, as though it was just fact and I wouldn’t be hurt by it. I’ve considered surgery a lot but then on the other hand, I want to remember that morally I think people should be okay accepting and seeing different types of bodies and not just the same one every single day." -Laura
It is that room for honesty, personal growth and healing that make this photo series genuinely inspiring, not because it sheds light on people’s body insecurities or because it preaches to people to accept who they are – it is simply a call for people to open up, share, and to value their own thoughts and feelings about themselves above all of the other noise coming from a million avenues at once. It is now time, not just for pushing people to love and accept themselves, but to embrace the times that people feel bad about themselves as part of their journey and as their right to feel and do whatever they want with their own bodies.