Why Waleed Shah's Rock Your Ugly project is about more than body positivity

The project explores the relationship between mental health and body image through the emotional stories of UAE residents
Why Waleed Shah's Rock Your Ugly project is about more than body positivity

What is your biggest insecurity? How does that insecurity impact your mental health? It is questions like these that drove UAE photographer Waleed Shah to create the Rock Your Ugly project. The project explores how body image and mental health are intertwined, and details the journey from negative thought to acceptance. But don’t be fooled; Rock Your Ugly is not another body positivity campaign. “It’s a ‘Be You’ campaign,” Waleed Shah, photographer and creative mind behind Rock Your Ugly, explains. “Whatever is bothering you, whether it’s physical, emotional or mental, let it out. Rock it.”

Photographer Waleed Shah, creator of Rock Your Ugly, and the photo that started it all

Waleed started the project when he found himself overwhelmed by his own insecurity while simultaneously grieving a personal loss. As a result, he searched for a project to keep himself busy and created Rock Your Ugly, as he had always been interested in exploring others’ insecurities and mental health. What he found was the ultimate safe space; the process ended up being like group therapy. “I went through something myself that I hadn’t felt before and I realised the importance of knowing that I wasn’t the only person feeling this way. Seeing that others have been through the same or worse gave me hope that I could come out of it. I put myself through a therapeutic process and people started to resonate.”

As someone who has shared his story through the project, he understands how being vulnerable can lead to feeling empowered. “That photo I took of myself the first time opened up a new world for me that I wouldn’t have been allowed into if I had not been vulnerable.” It was this photo - originally shared on Instagram - that led to the now hugely popular project of which almost sixty people have used as a platform to share their own stories.


There’s Logina the make-up artist who perfected her craft because she was bullied in school for having vitiligo, and Srijita who was born with chronic eczema which developed into Mascular Amyloidosis – a rare skin condition that is a result of prolonged friction. Sara Al Madani shared how she developed an eating disorder because of peer pressure, while Hamdan Al Abri’s hair loss at an early age made him never want to leave the house.

Hamdan Al Abri

While every participant’s story is completely different from the next, there is a common thread, and unfortunately it will not surprise you. Society’s obsession with perfection is detrimental to self-esteem and exacerbates insecurities. However, society is not the only thing to blame here. In fact, Waleed suggests the problem lies with parenting. “Parents should be able to see through society’s unhealthy projections and not pass that feeling onto their children. The world is made up of these adults who become parents and deal with the issues their children are having with a ‘society first’ mentality. They tell their children ‘Don’t cry, lose weight, why does your body look like that?’ So, we end up growing up with deep emotional scars and we hide behind our clothes, careers and Instagram stories to cover it up.”

Through Rock Your Ugly, Waleed hopes parents learn to put their children’s well-being over what society deems right or wrong. “If your child has a concern then deal with it. Don’t cover it up in fear of what your neighbours might think. That negative association will stay with them forever.”


The beauty of Rock Your Ugly is that these are not necessarily success stories. They are stories of strong individuals that are working towards acceptance, and taking it one day at a time. “Some stories end on a positive note, but others don’t and that’s OK. It’s a snapshot of what’s really going on inside a lot of us; some issues are resolved and some are not, and that is OK.” 

Rock Your Ugly demonstrates how, although you may not ever be fully comfortable with your insecurity, you can learn to accept that it is a part of you and a part of your story, and that it is OK to love yourself – scars and all.

Waleed Shah showing Rock Your Ugly at Kaynouna

Rock Your Ugly is currently on display in Möto Rauch & Staub, Al Quoz and One Life, Dubai Design District. Waleed will be giving a talk on March 18 at the Apple Store in The Dubai Mall from 7pm. Follow Waleed on Instagram to stay up to date on all his exhibitions and other projects. If you’d like to be a part of Rock Your Ugly, visit waleedshah.ae

Photos: Courtesy of Waleed Shah