The Arab world is no stranger to body-shaming scandals. Remember when Egyptian state TV suspended eight female TV presenters over their body-image? Or when flight attendants on EgyptAir were described as "overweight" and "old" by one politician in the North African country?
The digital age has given birth to a different kind of conventional beauty standard; one quick scroll down your Instagram feed can probably confirm that. So-called influencers adhere to such ideals and seem to perpetuate the misconception that there exists an exclusive set of criteria that must be met in order for an individual to qualify as "beautiful." In turn, that has led to serious mental health issues among individuals. The topic of mental health is inadequately discussed in the Arab world and is still subject to social restrictions as well as misconceptions.
To combat such standards and stigmas, Waleed Shah, a UAE based photographer and a serious Nutella lover, released a series titled "Rock Your Ugly" to remind people that beauty has absolutely no standard. We're all unique in our own little ways.
"I'm hoping it highlights that mental health is a real thing and not a figment of someone's imagination," Shah told StepFeed.
How it all started
"In January of last year, I was pretty uncomfortable with my belly, I took self-portrait and posted it on Instagram but didn't really do anything about till the summer."
Whilst on vacation, Shah's wife began calling his Pablo Escobar, poking fun at his belly. It then hit him that he had to lose weight. He read a book titled "The Obesity Code" and dropped 10 kgs in three months.
Shah had always wanted to explore other people's insecurities when it comes to body image but never really got around to it. A few weeks ago, Shah lost his best friend to cancer and that's when he decided to turn his idea into reality.
"I decided to pick up this project and see it through it. The process was like group therapy. I would listen to someone else’s pain and share mine."
Shah's series is a combination of photos and stories. Each subject in the series tells their own story in relation to body-related insecurities. Some of the most inspiring stories Shah has come across include these three listed below.
Anushka started cutting herself at age 12 or 13 "just for fun." But, as problems with her mother became a bit more intense, the habit of cutting herself became a much more serious issue.
"I went to my room and grabbed a cardboard cutter and started cutting myself. Then for at least a year or two, I was addicted. I didn’t even know what triggered me sometimes," she told Shah.
The image was taken at Anuskha's apartment, in her bathroom to be more specific.
"After seeing the image she decided to throw the blade in the trash, then took the trash out and throw it in the garbage disposal shoot," Shah wrote.
Yasmin was about 14-years-old when she developed a skin condition known as Tinea Versicolor, a common fungal infection of the skin which results in discolored patches. The condition affected Yasmin in many ways during her upbringing.
"I think especially as a teenager it affected many things. I would refuse to go to the beach if I noticed it flaring up, unless I was going with my closest girlfriends and we were going on a ladies day. I’m not necessarily conservative or anything, I don’t mind going to mixed beaches, but if it was flaring up I just didn’t want the boys to see me," she said.
Over the years, she began realizing that she is fighting against something that is going to be with her forever. That's when she decided she needs to learn to love this "so-called, ugly part of myself."
Meet Sara Gojer
Gojer grew up in India and thought coming to Dubai would change things for her.
"In a way it did, because you get a lot more freedom here, but there’s also way more pressure to be feminine."
Before she knew it, she decided to invest in laser hair removal.
"I became a regular, until my skin got damaged and then eventually burned. I went to a doctor and showed her my skin and she was like, 'Why did you do this? Your skin is burnt because of laser. I don’t think it will fully heal now. You could have just tried waxing,'" Gojer said.
"The funniest part is that when you’re doing these things you don’t realize that you’re doing them blindly, to feel more confident, but in reality all this actually makes you feel more insecure."
The message behind the campaign:
Shah told StepFeed that most of the issues had a lot to do with parenting and how sometimes your own blood is to blame for your insecurities.
"Most of our parents don't make it safe for us to talk to them when we feel misunderstood," Shah explained.
"They worry more about what society might think rather than the well being of their own child. So they point fingers at our bellies and tell us not to eat that cake instead of understanding that we may have polycystic ovaries."
Shah then highlighted the problem and stigma attached to mental health issues in the Arab world - especially with regards to parents and their children.
"They [parents] tell us [kids] that only crazy people see therapists instead of recognizing that depression is a real illness."
"Sadly, we grow up with deep emotional scars that carry with us to adulthood and do everything we can to hide behind our clothes, careers and Instagram filters," Shah concluded.
The photographer plans to continue the "Rock Your Ugly" series indefinitely. If you'd like to take part, make sure to reach out to him here.