Emirates Literature Foundation Blog (ELF)

Book Review: Rocky Your Ugly By Waleed Shah

By: Rupkatha Bhowmick

Hear from one of our passionate readers!

Rock Your Ugly by UAE-based photographer Waleed Shah chronicles human vulnerabilities arising from body imperfections and insecurities and turns them into empowering narratives. The beauty of this book lies in the collection of over 50 real-life experiences depicted through thought-provoking black and white photos, highlighting how body image and mental health are interconnected. 

Living in a world where body-shaming is a real challenge due to certain set, often toxic, standards of body image, Rock Your Ugly is a refreshing breakthrough. The book offers an unfiltered look into the lives of real people and their bitter experiences, often at the hands of family and friends, causing a negative body image. One of the narrators Hamdan Al Abri sums it up nicely, “Sometimes we place a huge burden on ourselves to look a certain way.” 

Body positivity is hard to achieve if deep-rooted baggage remains unaddressed. The accounts of shared pain and struggles associated with body image, thus, unsurprisingly, offer a healing touch, stressing how such conversations can be normalised through acceptance, awareness and empathy. 

Diving into the narratives, Rock Your Ugly includes painful yet empowering accounts of physical, child and drug abuse, self-harm, obesity, eating disorders, anxiety and depression, battling cancer and skin conditions such as vitiligo, psoriasis, alopecia that are considered contagious and mocked upon. Through mindful curation of real-life experiences, the book shows how after years of pain when a person embraces body imperfections it is immensely liberating. “I have the world map on my back,” proclaims Yasmin Mebar suffering from a skin condition called tinea versicolor, a fungal infection that results in discoloured patches. 

Instead of driving awareness about health conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome and insulin resistance in women, society brands them as fat and lazy. Fairness is still held as a barometer of beauty! Such toxic body standards often drive people to bleach their skin, opt for rhinoplasty, liposuction and laser hair removal procedure yet not be happy at the end. The book rightly argues if such procedures ever teach us to embrace our real body insecurities.

At the same time, Rock Your Ugly celebrates each narrative by smashing toxic beauty standards. The author himself who was athletic until a crippling back injury is seen holding his bulging belly. It is a strikingly powerful image bound to resonate in a world where body insecurities are often hidden behind edited photos using Instagram filters. 

Rock Your Ugly helps to heal from deep scars as its narrators are seen in their most powerful yet vulnerable forms – with shaved heads, burn marks, scars left from surgeries and even self-harm. 
In one such immensely powerful and touching account, cancer survivor Luz Salem Villamil said, “After I finished chemo, it was difficult for me to feel confident going out. On my thirty-second birthday, I was wearing a scarf (I always wore a wig or a scarf) and it was hot, so my best friend removed it for me during the party. I felt so free. I thought, I’m done and then I never wore a scarf or wig again. I was bald, like pretty bald, like razor-shaved-my-head kind of bald. People used to be like, what …. is wrong with her? And in my head I’m just thinking, you don’t even know!”
Importantly, Rock Your Ugly shines the spotlight on mental health, driving home a powerful message that anxiety and depression are ‘real’ illnesses, just like kidney failure, diabetes or cancer and can cause havoc if not addressed. Otherwise, why would perfectly beautiful people suffer from bulimia? The book also questions why there should be shame in shedding tears if we are in pain, as narrator Nawal El Masri says, “I would love people to understand, to stop being ashamed of tears.”
The book also highlights how women, especially, are expected to abide by certain societally accepted norms. In this context, Srijita’s account is extremely empowering yet heartbreaking – as a child who had developed early, she was physically abused by a perfect stranger and the pattern continued as she grew up through pain inflicted by closest friends. “To this day, I am held accountable for these actions. I am told by women and men that I should have known better that I was basically asking for it.”
As a reader, some of these narratives resonated deeply – as I too have hidden the growth in my left underarm by never wearing sleeveless clothes, which has now become a habit. But then I found comfort in Shah’s words, “We all have things we don’t like about ourselves…why hide them, when we can rock them?”
A must read, Rock Your Ugly not only upholds body positivity but delves into deeper issues of toxic relationships, physical abuse and health conditions that often cause people to be unhappy about their bodies. 
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