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UAE photographer Waleed Shah’s collection thumbs its nose at beauty standards
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aleed Shah, an United Arab Emirates chemical engineer turned photographer who has worked with Nike, Toyota, and Patron Tequila, released a new collection earlier this year, Rock Your Ugly: A Middle Finger to Toxic Beauty Standards.

This series includes black and white pictures of over 50 men and women and zeroes in on parts of their body that might otherwise make them insecure. Each photographic subject shares a story about their experience with their body. 

Shah’s first photographic subjects were models whom he had to convince to take part. However, as time passed and he spread the word, people began contacting him asking to be photographed. 

He reflects on how he named the campaign. “Most campaigns are called ‘the beauty of’ or ‘the art of’ which I find too vanilla. The word ‘ugly’ came from a conversation with Maha Jaafar, someone I shot, and she described how Tyra Banks had a show a long time ago called ‘Rock Your Ugly.’ I loved the name because it takes people by surprise. Most people don’t know how to feel about it and either love it or hate it, which I personally love.”

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Participants’ experiences include injuries and illnesses such as cancer, eating disorders, alopecia, and vitiligo, as well as chronic health conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome that can lead to being overweight. Some also discuss colorism, the racist idea that lighter skin is more beautiful. Others have dealt with self-harm, child abuse, and drug addiction. One woman in particular speaks eloquently about being victim-blamed and shamed for surviving assault. 

The stories highlight mental health issues. Shah believes the anxiety and depression that body insecurity can cause are very real health problems, just as real as diabetes or cancer. Constantly seeing airbrushed and filtered images of people online only makes these problems worse, and Shah pushes back against the trend of ‘perfect’ images with his book. 

Shah includes a photo of himself clutching his large belly, as he gained weight after a back injury stopped him from being as athletic as he used to be. This experience inspired this project, the latest of several photographic collections. 

“I was unhappy with my body after [my injury] ten years ago. I gave up on my body. Stopped working out and ate until I was uncomfortable with my body. I took a portrait of myself and posted it on Instagram and explained the story. People resonated with it, so I decided to explore everyone else’s insecurities. But it wasn’t until my best friend passed away from cancer that I started this actual project as an escape from my grief. The project helped me grieve, as I was comfortable opening up to strangers who opened up to me.”

"The word ‘ugly’ came from a conversation with Maha Jaafar, someone I shot, and she described how Tyra Banks had a show a long time ago called ‘Rock Your Ugly.’ I loved the name because it takes people by surprise. Most people don’t know how to feel about it and either love it or hate it, which I personally love."
– Waleed Shah
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He talked with his wife about his changing body and about this project and says that her commentary on life opened his eyes to many issues. The book has touched many readers, which makes sense given that body image is a fairly universal issue. 

“People have responded very positively to this project. People in it talk about a sense of relief and a weight of their shoulders having come off with the story. People who read it mostly relate although the stories are quite diverse because we all suffer more or less from the same issues. There are a few people who get offended by the imagery thinking it’s sexual exploitation but once they dig deeper they change their mind.”

He would love to see more mainstream media representation in the Arab world about diverse and real human bodies and accepting yourself and others the way we are. As Shah says “We all have things we don’t like about ourselves. But why hide them, when we can rock them?”

TrooRa Magazine | December 2021
Text Cristina Deptula
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