When UAE-based photographer Waleed Shah took a topless photograph of himself holding his belly fat and posted it on Instagram last year, little did he know that it would spark so many different conversations, and across the world too – from physical insecurities and mental health issues, to the emotional scars parents can inflict on their children.
That photo would have just as easily been a standalone one, if not for part two of that story – when Waleed lost his best friend to cancer this year.
As a way of coping, he deep-dived into a photography campaign on the perceived physical imperfections of the human body, soon moving from those with physical flaws ‘to an intersection between physical and mental health’, Waleed says. The result is a black-and-white series titled Rock Your Ugly. It’s difficult to look at any one photo in the series without being forced to contend with a rush of emotions, and they’re not always easy emotions to confront.
‘Having gone through my best friend passing away shook me mentally; I’d never gone through such trauma,’ says the photographer. ‘And I had been feeling terrible for a couple of years and couldn’t understand why. It got me to a place where I was extremely unhappy and wanted to tell somebody about it. I wasn’t able to speak to my friends as they were too close to me.’ He found it easier to open up to strangers on Instagram as it was quite like how ‘talking to a therapist is easier because he’s a stranger’.
Initially, Waleed struggled finding people to be featured. A few said they were unwilling. A few who had overcome their issues agreed. Some who were struggling to come to terms with their problems also gave him the thumbs-up – in the hope being part of the project would help ease their journey a bit.
Once the project got going, it was an organic development. ‘I think for those who featured in Rock Your Ugly, seeing that I too was in pain made it easier for them to share their pain. That also helped me in dealing with what I was going through.’
He admits that listening to so many stories – some of them truly disturbing – did take an emotional toll on him. ‘I had to step back and stop shooting for 3-4 weeks. I remembered why I stopped: it is heavy stuff. But I also remembered why I started. Because it helps me see things I was oblivious to – the mental health side of issues, the side society doesn’t talk about.’
One of the most graphic stories – and photos – that features in the project is of Anushka, which depicts self-harm. Waleed speaks of how many people and publications find it too shocking and prefer brushing the issue under the carpet ‘even though it’s so important.’
The series has three messages, says Waleed. ‘One, to the people who are dealing with issues – which is pretty much everybody – that you’re not alone. Second is for those who are quick to judge. [Snide and rude] comments are what prevent people from discussing their issues with others. So those who are very vocal about a person’s appearance/behaviour, take a second and realise what your words can do to them.
‘But the most important message is for parents,’ he stresses. ‘Be careful how you address issues that are taboo or [attitudes or behaviour] that you don’t like in your child. Parents often put society’s view over their child’s physical and mental well-being. In the case of almost every person featured here, their issues started with their parents who didn’t understand [them well enough]. Give your kids the best advice that will help them; not advice that will make you look good.’
Waleed is now putting up these images in washrooms across the city. ‘[You get to read] a story that’s hard to read and reflect upon when you’re in public. This [the washroom] gives you the personal space to feel what you need to feel.’
Waleed says Rock Your Ugly has always been and always will be more about the conversation and the story rather than the image. The photos are unedited. ‘It was a very therapeutic process. The challenge now is in continuing it.’
HANAN WEHBI, 43, had four ribs removed and two titanium rods installed in her back to treat scoliosis
There was a point in Hanan Wehbi’s adult life when she had to learn how to breathe, walk and talk all over again. In 2003, after a 13-hour surgery, the girl who kids used to call the hunchback of Notre Dame in school had four ribs removed and two titanium rods installed in her back to treat the condition of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.
Less than seven months after, she ran a 10km race.
Featured as part of photographer Waleed Shah’s viral Rock Your Ugly series on embracing insecurities and beauty standards, Hanan now wakes up every morning with one sole objective – to get stronger every day.
The 43-year-old who works in media production in Dubai reached out to Waleed after seeing his work and how relevant it was to her. ‘I know each and everyone has something they are not happy with physically, and some sort of insecurity. But because my scars are extremely prominent and I have talked about it before, and I became a personal trainer a few years back, I thought I had a nice story to tell, and I would like to keep telling it.’
But even so, Hanan prefers to not make it personal – she counts herself as a very small part of the Rock Your Ugly campaign. ‘It was a collective of beautiful people who participated, so I never took this personally. I’m just happy with the success of the campaign. I saw this as a continuation of my efforts to shed light on scoliosis, to empower people with it, to say that it is possible to move on from it and lift weights and be strong.’
Straight after Waleed took her picture, they looked at it on his laptop, and Hanan says she immediately felt disturbed. ‘And then Waleed said, this is it. Because it was disturbing to me, and it made me not want to look at it, he thought it was the right one. So I think we were all trying to get to that point of disturbance – that wake-up call.’
She says what could have been a harrowing process was made easy by Waleed, helping her not feel as if she was an object for a photographer shooting her body. ‘His energy was focused on the cause, and he was easy to work with and very professional. I felt beautiful.’
But despite that, Hanan did not post the picture on her Instagram page. ‘I have family and friends I am not comfortable showing my bare body to,’ she says. ‘I have a very conservative family, and I think twice about most things I’m posting, whether it’s even the clothes I’m wearing. And I also felt it is such a personal side of me. In my job I have clients to whom I portray a certain image. So I’m more happy with people talking about it, not me talking about it. I’m happy with doing all the interviews but I want people to use it from their point of view, not from my point of view.’
While she didn’t expect the campaign to be as big as it turned out, with numerous interviews on TV and radio, Hanan has ridden that kind of wave before. ‘In the gym when I used to train I’ve had people come to me and say I’ve inspired them and it’s really encouraging to see people pushing through whatever weaknesses they have mentally, emotionally and physically. For this particular campaign I had friends come up and say to me that they cannot do what I’ve done, whether it’s sharing these images or talking about it.’
The photo also brought with it further progress in her quest to feel better and feel stronger. ‘If there’s one thing this series has done, it’s put things into context, and make me feel how lucky I am in comparison to other struggles,’ says Hanan. ‘Reading the other stories, I thought, wow, this is much bigger than I felt. It taught me that whenever you go through something difficult, looking at the context and the worse things that other people have been through can help. I compared my struggle to other struggles, which I don’t know if I can cope with, from cancer to being molested to being suicidal. I don’t want my problem to get to my head, to feel like I’ve been through a lot. So many people have been through a lot. I want to move on and feel that I am strong and I am inspirational.’
The response from Rock Your Ugly has been overwhelmingly positive for Hanan, and she is grateful to not personally have faced any negative comments with her story. ‘But I’m following Waleed’s journey with this and apparently there’s been some comments accusing the people who’ve starred in Rock Your Ugly of just wanting to be famous. Guess what – there’s no fame in being vulnerable and putting yourself out there. And even if there is, why not, we also deserve it. It’s not only models and celebs – everyone wants to be famous, everyone wants to be known for the right reasons. If I can inspire one person suffering from scoliosis, whether before or after surgery, then yes I want to be famous for that. I am putting myself for service, for my story and my images to be used for people to read my story and get whatever they want out of it.’
She prefers a debate, be it positive or negative, to the third option, of the transient nature of it all, and of the story just becoming a content filler – ‘like this is the new trendy topic that everyone wants to be a part of, and talk about, and forget the next day. I hope people understand the struggle and power behind it. It’s all good to promote the idea of loving yourself in any shape and form, but it’s key to see that this is reality and truth and needs to be discussed in the right context.’
Hanan is now treading firmly on her path of being fit and healthy and holistic ‘and trying not to see things from a superficial point of view. If I can be a part of this campaign in different formats and platforms, I’ll happily do so. Because it teaches you to always look inside not outside. It’s greener on the other side because the grass is fake.
‘I’ve seen the worst place in terms of physical weakness, and it’s a decision every day to wake up and feel strong and feel I have another opportunity to walk and run and do whatever I can.’
Waleed: Hanan was really cool to shoot as I originally shot Laura, who also has scoliosis and who was afraid to do the surgery, afraid of a lack of mobility if anything went wrong. Hanan is the polar opposite, and it’s beautiful seeing them together; I’ve put them up in a gallery side by side. Hanan got surgery done, got a scar, recovered, got titanium plates and is now a fitness nut. And Hanan was thrilled post shoot – she had always wanted to shoot her scar.
ANUSHKA ABRAHAM, 30, is a musician. She started self-harming at the age of 12
Anushka Abraham says she always explains the marks on her arm with an ‘I used to cut myself as a kid.’ But that’s not entirely true. ‘It happens sometimes in my adulthood when I’m really overwhelmed,’ she says, in the powerful piece of text that accompanies her photo for the Rock Your Ugly series.
Anushka started cutting herself when she was 12 or 13 – the first time ‘just for fun’, and then later after fights with her mother. Soon, she was addicted. ‘I don’t remember feeling pain, it was weird. It would just sting,’ she says.
It would be an issue that would continue. Hurting herself when feeling hopeless and misunderstood was the only thing that seemed to make sense for her, although not as frequently as when she was a child.
Recently, the yearning to ‘do so many other things rather than this masochism that’s not smart, not mature,’ coincided with her coming across Waleed’s posts inviting people for Rock Your Ugly. ‘I was like “I want this to be something I can rock!”,’ says Anushka. So she reached out to him in the hope it could push her into a better place.
She admits when they got to the topic, she herself was a bit taken aback – but the full extent of the vulnerability sank in only a day after the shoot when she realised how much she had revealed about herself and her issue. ‘I had a photo of my scars showing in the most obvious way. The realisation was hard. But I immediately also told myself I had chosen to do something and I was going to go forward with it.’
The end result didn’t disappoint in any way. ‘People were nice and supportive and it took me by surprise; they said I was brave, and I didn’t think I was – I did it on impulse. But I had thought it would then encourage people to talk about what they didn’t like about themselves and their struggles.’
The 30-year-old Indian expat who is a singer and songwriter says while her view about herself hasn’t really changed and it’s something she needs to work harder on, she has, however, become more comfortable with who she is. ‘I’ve tried to help myself through my life. I read a lot about what I was going through, learnt a lot about it, I understand why I do what I do. The comfort was that people didn’t look down on me. I expected people to go ‘who is this girl, get over your crap’ but instead people were just ‘you shouldn’t feel that way’. I didn’t expect all the niceness.’
Rock Your Ugly’s success works in tandem with the global conversation around mental health, and Anushka agrees over the past two or three years people have become more aware, more conscious of what they say. Mental illness is being acknowledged. ‘I don’t think it’s always in a healthy way, but Rock Your Ugly is pretty healthy.’
Anushka admits her family doesn’t know about the photo. ‘If they stumble upon it, yes, I’ll talk about it. But I don’t expect a good reaction and I’m OK with that. Some of my extended family saw it on Facebook and they gave it a like, but I don’t think they even opened the article and saw what it’s about! I’m ready to talk about it and I don’t expect any support.’
As for her friends, Anushka says a lot of them are often surprised she cuts herself ‘They say I just don’t seem like a person who could be that sad. Because I joke about it, that’s my way of feeling light, because something inside me feels so heavy.
‘The thought that the sun’s going to come up tomorrow has helped me often. If you wait until like 6am, you’re going to see light. It’s going to be fine. The sun will rise again and life will happen again.’
Waleed: This is one of my favourite stories, one that really touched me. Her struggle is a brutally honest conversation. And then after, I said to her, show me your blade, and her face went all sorts of colours. And I said show me where you do it. So we went to the bathroom. It was very emotional for her to see herself with the blade in the bathroom. At the end of our sit down she ended up throwing it away. Whether she got a new blade after, I don’t know. But I think at that moment something changed for her, and I was really proud of her.
KIMBERLY CAREY, 40, is a make-up artist. She has had alopecia since she was 19
Kimberly Carey uses the term blessed when she refers to her alopecia. In her text for Rock Your Ugly, she recounts how she’s been blessed to experience not one or two, but all three types of it – areata, totalis and universalis. An autoimmune disorder, alopecia causes hair loss on the scalp, face and other areas of the body.
The diagnosis soon gave way to a rollercoaster of emotions, with Kimberly being convinced that she was ugly, no matter what anyone said. She took cortisone injections in the bald areas of her scalp every 45 days, before sporting hats, wigs and scarves to hide her hair loss.
Then in 2012, she took a decision. She walked into a salon and asked for her hair to be cropped close – deciding to officially come out as a bald woman.
The next set of emotional roller coasters she experienced was one purely of highs. Rejoicing in the liberation, Kimberly decided to go a step further and turn to make-up. ‘I couldn’t control [what was happening to] my hair, but I could control what went on my face,’ she says. Before she knew it, the Dubai-based expat had kicked off a modelling career, going on to become the first African-American woman with alopecia to represent Runway Dubai season 4 and the Tips and Toes Top Model campaign of 2016. From there it was only a short step to a make-up business.
‘Rock Your Ugly was not my first time doing advocacy for alopecia awareness,’ says the 40-year-old self-confessed go-to gal for anyone losing their hair. ‘People come up to me all the time because when you’re vulnerable, you’re valuable. I guess they found a little bit of value from me. People from different circles started to feel comfortable to say I acknowledge you, I see you [as you are].’
Rock Your Ugly’s biggest sell for her was its focus on a singular message – a factor that meant everything to her: ‘People coming out and actually being themselves and not what the world wants them to be.’
But despite all the years of having led her own movement for alopecia awareness, the process wasn’t a straightforward shoot and go. ‘What Waleed makes you do is actually tell the story of how you came to be with what you have. Telling that story is never easy. But eventually we were able to get through the tell-all part and go into the photoshoot session where we had to be creative and figure out how to impactfully express what having alopecia in the Middle East is all about.’
Not surprisingly, plenty of old emotions resurfaced during the process of the shoot. ‘I remembered what it was like to lose my hair, what it was like going through the process of accepting myself as a bald woman, and then now, embracing the baldness,’ Kimberly says.
But it’s a process filled with import, and that’s all that matters for Kimberly. ‘Any way I can get women and men to feel comfortable about their perfect imperfections, I’m all for it. So many people have so many issues. It’s all about how they’ve overcome those issues and how they live with them and don’t allow them to overtake their lives.’
The attention she has been receiving post the shoot has been nothing short of empowering for her. ‘And why not?’ she asks. ‘The problem with people nowadays is they don’t know how to live out loud; especially for things they cannot control about their selves. You either allow it to run you, or you run it. The people in the Rock Your Ugly series have let the former happen for too long.’
The American expat says this also comes with establishing a few rules. ‘One of them is not letting anyone tell you how or when to live your life. Importantly, you have to learn how to say ‘no’ to a lot of things. A lot of times people don’t live fulfilling lives because they’re used to being people-pleasers. It’s when you stop living to please people that you actually please yourself.’
Waleed: Kimberly is this super confident, spiritual person that emanates this positive energy and wants to help the world. And because she looks different and is confident in her difference, people look at her and go ‘oh this person might know something I don’t.’
LOTUS HABBAB, 25, is a filmmaker. At 11 months, she fell close to a heater and burnt her arm
When she was 11 months old, Lotus Habbab fell off her bed while in Saudi Arabia, and her arm ending up on the room heater, burning it severely. ‘I remember telling Waleed, people think the biggest issue for me is my arm,’ she says. ‘But my arm just helps hide other insecurities about myself. My arm is so small to me, I grew with it, I love it and it’s part of me.’
The realisation that not everyone is perfect and that people with imperfections are special in their way was a lesson Lotus learnt growing up. She remembers always wearing long-sleeved tops, worrying what people would think were they to see her arm with a large burn mark, kids getting freaked out when they saw her arm...
But around age 12, she came to accept her body and she thanks her sister for that; it was she who once in the middle of summer coaxed Lotus to leave behind her denim jacket and step out revealing her arms. ‘It’s something I’m very grateful for,’ she says.
‘If I grew up thinking my hand was going to be a problem I would have grown up to believe it. But I’d grown with my arm, so I actually thought of it as a conversation starter.’
It’s such a part of her, that when her dad suggested surgery for her arm, she was appalled. ‘My first reaction was looking at my unburnt arm and saying “so I’m going to have two of this and none of the burns?”. My dad was so shocked.’
Although Lotus had sent her entire story – from her insecurities of having a small bust and feeling like a boy, to her fear of putting back all the weight she had once gained due following some stomach issues – to Waleed before the shoot, the 25-year-old wasn’t prepared for the volley of thoughts that came barrelling down at her during it.
‘Waleed came up with the idea of wrapping something around the chest area, and I was trying not to think of how I look, or what people would think of it, or how my friends or family would react.
‘Waleed told me there’s no pressure, and that I just had to remember why I was doing this. That’s when I realised the message I was putting out there was much more important – I want people to see how my arm is burnt, how I love my weight, how I’m working every single day on being better.’
The outcome was far from what she expected, both in terms of reactions and how she felt. ‘People were so proud of me for speaking about what I’ve been through, for putting it out in public, and telling me it’s not something ugly. I didn’t know how big it was until I read other people’s stories, and it was so eye-opening. But talking about something so personal also kind of gave me relief. And I had realised early on I did not want to let anything around me make me feel I am being judged.’
Lotus says she’s aware the pictures could make some people uncomfortable, but she says she’s completely comfortable with that. ‘If it gives you discomfort somehow it means it’s touching you. Whether for your own self or for someone you know. Maybe it makes you realise you’ve been harsh on someone, or you said something wrong one day…’
She is now looking at collaborating with filmmakers in Riyadh, writing a movie, talking about similar important topics, touching on physical health but especially the mental aspect. ‘It all does start from the inside after all.
‘So many people really benefited from the Rock Your Ugly story and the whole campaign and I’m so glad. People were sharing their pain with me, and I encouraged them to speak to Waleed and get their message across. That was comforting, that you’re not alone in this perfect world that’s online and looks so perfect from the outside but is such a fight from the inside.’
Waleed: Lotus had this huge burn mark and I assumed that was what she was going to talk about. But when we met, she started speaking about a host of other issues – from having small breasts and not feeling like a woman around her female family members to feeling like a tomboy. And I’m just sitting there wondering, what about your arm. And she was like, that doesn’t bother me at all. She doesn’t remember ever not having the scar, so is very comfortable with it. And it got me thinking – this is the very definition of don’t judge a book by its cover. What she’s struggling with emotionally is completely different from what you see.
TAC, 21, is a musician who struggled with weight issues
At one stage in his life, Tac was so skinny you could see his spine when he bent. Then he swung to the other end, and put on so much of weight he struggled to even get out of bed. At another stage, he had such a healthy physique, he went on to become a power lifter.
This see-sawing of body weight affected not just his body, but his mind too. And the time his battles with his body were the most severe, the time he calls the most relevant, was when he looked the most fit, in his teen years as a power lifter. ‘I was the most uncomfortable while looking the most healthy. That confused me a lot,’ says the Egyptian expat based in Dubai.
And for the 21-year-old, that’s the crux of the Rock Your Ugly shoot – how it’s always more about how you feel than how you look.
‘It’s a very weird concept to people to be comfortable being fat. And I understand that, as you keep seeing all these fit-looking people everywhere. But the health of your body from within means so much more than what it looks like from the outside. It’s a foreign concept to prefer being fat to visually physically fit.’
Tac’s story on Rock Your Ugly isn’t exactly effusive – it’s all of four lines. Soon after his photo came out, he says a lot of people got in touch wanting to know more about his journey. ‘I found that very interesting as I never really thought it was that big of a deal. But it opened a lot of discourse on the topic, and that’s what I thought was necessary. When it comes to insecurities people have a lot of history to it when they speak about it. For me that bit wasn’t that relevant -– I would rather speak about how I got out of it.’
The musician and sound engineer says it was Waleed’s passion for the project that also made him comfortable to share his story. ‘He has a genuine presence about him that makes you feel like you have no choice but to feel vulnerable about him.’
For Tac, the shoot helped bring to the surface more of the good emotions than the distressing ones. ‘I felt happy I had gotten out of the mindset I was in before, of never being comfortable with my body, of caring about the amount of food I was eating over whether it was healthy... I was always very visually vocal about my progress with self-esteem – posting pictures of me shirtless. But it didn’t really hit me how far I’d come until I was facing the camera.’
Despite all the positive responses – both internally and externally – the photo did elicit some scepticism. Tac says people have had misconceptions about his story. ‘They were concerned about my weight and [whether it was] healthy to be the way I was, and that was completely fine.
‘Just for educational purposes, I made sure to explain to them that even with the weight I am at, I could be healthy. Being vulnerable comes with its own set of criticisms and that’s important for the conversation, so I was OK with it. I look at it positively, that people took time out to comment negatively.’
Tac often refers to reflection as a lost art during our conversation, and says this slant towards talking-all-about-it is especially key ‘in this fast-paced age. Dubai has been my home since I was born, but you don’t really have time to talk about these things here – as you live pay cheque to pay cheque, you have to put a lot of your insecurities aside. Such discussion is good for people to understand there is a way out of it.’
Waleed: Tac is another ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ person. I’m thinking he’s a big guy, I’m sure he has some issues about his weight. And then he takes his shirt off and is so comfortable, he’s not trying to hide anything. He talks of all the body shapes that he possessed at various points, and says ‘to be honest this is the body shape I’m most comfortable in, and this is the one I’m keeping. I make sure I eat healthy, and get checked by the doctor every six months, and I’m all good.’
I was like ‘wow’. This is a different form of plus size, and it’s so cool. A lot of people, even though they embrace how big they are, they are always striving to lose some weight, which is not a bad thing. But to see someone say ‘I don’t want to be any other weight’ was mind-boggling for me. I still struggle to understand it, to be honest. Much respect to him for embracing it.
ASEYA NASIB, 35, is a body empowerment coach, with depression and a scar on one ankle
Aseya Nasib refers to clinical depression as a staple in her life. First diagnosed with the condition when she was 16, the Emirati-American says having it for such a long time means it’s almost as if it’s who you are – ‘you’re not able to distinguish yourself from your mental illness’.
The 35-year-old has always been very open about her struggles battling depression, ‘so there was no major coming-out moment for me’, she says. ‘Besides, I’m a plus-size model, so used to the limelight, and am a blogger and have a podcast, so am very open about these things.’
But the focus of her picture in Rock Your Ugly was not of hitting rock bottom, or being comatose for a while, or thinking she wouldn’t make it to her next birthday. It was of her broken ankle.
An accident had shattered her ankle in seven places leaving her wheelchair-bound for three months. ‘That was a pivotal point in my life, one that forced me to slow down and evaluate everything that I was doing,’ she says. ‘So when Waleed got in touch with me and said the shoot would be about my insecurities, I said ‘the only thing I am really insecure about is the scar on my ankle’. (Aseya had a metal plate with screws placed inside her ankle, they were removed this year as they were causing mobility issues).
Just prior to the shoot, she had undergone her second surgery in her ankle ‘and everything was healing. So having that in the forefront of the image was a reminder of everything I’d gone through so far.’
Aseya terms the entire process of the shoot both empowering and traumatic. ‘While I am used to my scar, seeing it through somebody else’s eyes, was a massive deal, and that was actually traumatic. Seeing the enormity of everything my body had gone through, in essence.’
While the scar is what draws the viewer’s eye in Waleed’s photograph of Aseya, ‘what people seemed to have connected with more was the mental illness part of it. That was a bit surprising to me. But it was so great that my story resonated with so many people. Several people wanted to reach out to me and share their stories as well. That aspect of the series became its whole entity.’
Aseya says it was especially interesting for her family ‘as they knew about my mental health history, but also because they were also there with me for those three months that I couldn’t walk. They thought the photo was a very strong image.
‘I’m a smiley positive person anyway, so that was my most natural expression – laughing.’
Aseya is pleased with the responses the picture is eliciting. ‘The reaction I got from most people was ‘it looks like you’. That combined with such an intense backstory… it happened organically as I’d spoken about my struggles before.’
Her broken ankle also helped her walk towards a new direction – she has set up a company called The Magic of Being and offers women’s empowerment coaching classes and conducts events based on body positivity and self-love. ‘The Magic of Being came up because I was forced to slow down and think about what I was doing with my life, and I decided I wanted to create a bigger impact; that’s where the company began from.’
She attests to the power of the series as a whole – starting conversations, not letting discussions die. ‘Rock Your Ugly has been shot in such a beautiful way, such an impactful way, and includes so many different people. It’s wonderful that so many different people are talking about it.’
Waleed: Photographing Aseya was a bit tricky because there were two issues – her depression and her broken ankle. Even though the photo is about her ankle, the story is about clinical depression – how to deal with it, what it is really, and what Aseya is doing in her life to educate the world about it and help people with it. It’s a tricky story to tell, because having her ankle shattered spiralled her into depression again, but because she had the time to reflect on what more she could do to help other people, she got out of that cycle.’