I was struggling with my body image, so I decided to explore how other people felt about their bodies through a series of portraits and interviews. I found that each person has had a mental health issue in the past that manifested itself as body insecurities.
It's inspiring to see so many people come forward and share their self-esteem struggles. Some are over their issues, and others are somewhere in the middle where they're not too sure what to do. This is an honest, raw, unfiltered account of each person's state of mind at the time. The black and white photos are not altered in any way in photoshop, and none of these souls is wearing any makeup.
More images and stories are added daily on my website and Instagram!
Yasmin Mebar: "I Have The World Map On My Back"
I think I was around 14 when I started developing a skin condition called Tinea Versicolor. It’s a common fungal infection of the skin which results in discolored patches. I was in a summer camp at the time and we were supposed to go swimming when one of the girls had noticed a big patch on my back and she said in a very disgusted tone, “Oh my gosh, what’s that on your back?!” I was in shock and started to panic thinking that it was an allergic reaction to something. I told my mom about it and she took me to see a dermatologist. He looked at my skin under UV light (or something) and it looked so scary that my mom actually started crying.
The doctor then explained that this skin condition isn’t that rare and quite a few people have it. Apparently, this fungus can grow on anybody’s skin, but only certain skin types show it. And he’s like, “you happen to be the lucky one.” He explained that I couldn’t get rid of it and that it’s going to be with me my whole life. It reacts to heat and humidity, which is why it flares up in the summer. At that point, at age 14, I didn’t want anyone to see this on me. Every time people would see it, I would get a very strange reaction like, “Is that like a sunburn or are you peeling?” And I remember as a teenager I would lie and say, “yes, I‘m peeling it’s from a sunburn” and I had never even experienced sunburn at the time!
I remember trying everything. There are different ointments, shampoos you can use and even pills. I’ve never tried the tablets though, I probably will at some point. Sometimes it actually completely clears up and my back looks amazing! Then other times it’ll flare up or it might stay that way for the entire year, even when it’s cold. It’s really unpredictable.
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. However, it made me closer to my best friend cause I remember she would help me put on my ointments in hard to reach places on my back. It was really nice to have that close bond with her. And on the other hand, there were some friends who would point it out a lot and constantly make comments like, “maybe you should try something else” or “maybe you should go to a different doctor.” Just giving advice where it’s really not asked for. So yeah, it was a little bit hard growing up.
Then when I was about 24 I felt like I was fighting against something that’s going to be with me forever and there’s nothing I can do about it. So I thought, “I should start learning to love this, so-called, ugly part of myself.” I’m 28 now and I started really paying attention to my mental health and I felt like this was really connected to it. From a physical standpoint, I don’t like the way it looks, but I also don’t like the way it’s making me feel; allowing it to control me. Now, when I feel like it flares up too much, I won’t cover it completely compared to how I did when I was younger. Maybe I won’t go completely backless, but I would go to the beach. It’s fine with me. And if someone’s going to say anything, I’ll just be like, “Yeah, this is a skin condition.” Then if they’re genuinely interested in understanding what this is, I’ll explain it. So I’m kind of coming to terms with it as much as I can.
With relationships, it depends on the maturity of the guy that I’m dating. Usually, when I choose to be in a relationship with someone, that guy would be very understanding about it. But if it was something more casual or someone that I’ve recently started seeing then the reactions are more like, “Is that contagious?” I think I’ve gotten that reaction probably three times so far. And I’m just like, “oh my gosh. If it was, why would I let you touch it or not warn others?” It’s not contagious at all; you either get it genetically (cause my father has it) or it just develops from your environment if you live in a very humid place.
I do feel a lot more free from the burden of constantly trying to hide something. I feel like most of the time we play it up a lot in our heads, especially our own insecurities. Sometimes there might be insecurity that people won’t even notice, or they’ll see it, but it’s just not that big of a deal to them. I need to stop seeking validation from other people telling me that it’s fine and that it looks okay. Like physically it actually doesn’t bother me that much, it’s not like it itches or anything.
There was this one amazing reaction that I heard from a kid once who had seen my back. She shouted “Mommy, mommy, look, she has a world map on her back!” I actually started crying tears of joy just because this child is so innocent and the way she looked at it wasn’t in terms of beautiful or ugly; just that she sees a picture there. And I love traveling and I love connecting with people in the world so I was like, “Oh my gosh. I’ve got the world map on my back! Hell yeah!” So yeah, that was awesome.
Maha Aj: "If You Get A Nose Job, You Would Look Much Better"
I get bullied about my nose a lot, I keep getting comments saying “If you get a nose job, you would look much better.”. I used to be insecure about my nose when I was younger until I watched an episode of the Tyra Banks Show back in grade 7. It literally changed my life and the way I look at myself and people. The title of the episode was “Rock your Ugly” which means that specific thing that you’re insecure about, is the one thing that makes you unique, celebrate it, rock it and be proud of it, because every single one of us has an insecurity, if we keep trying to change and hide it, we will all end up looking the same.
Karina Sandhu: "Men Want To Marry Thin Girls"
I moved to India when I was about ten years old. I always had some extra weight on me so the bullying affected my self-esteem while I went to school there. I felt my relationship with food grew into comfort I’d turn to. As long as I could remember everyone had an opinion about my body. I’ve heard a mix between she’s fine she doesn’t need to lose more or if she would just cut out rice she’d lose weight faster. Regardless, everyone had their own five cents on the subject.
I once filled my plate up with food, I remember someone looked at me in disgust and followed with a comment. I felt so ashamed, I excused myself and found a washroom to throw up. I didn’t like the feeling, mostly I didn’t like what I was doing to myself. I couldn’t imagine putting my body through that ever again. I learned that compliments and critiques about your body from every person could be a general observation and preference, self-projection or inspiration. It’s not worth taking personal at all. Your own opinion about your body is what holds more importance over anyone else’s.
My last two years of high school had a significant effect on me. I was overweight, I had braces in addition to that my eczema was flaring up. My eleventh grade prom I remember finding myself comparing to the other girls. I felt so disappointed and unhappy with my reflection, I wasn’t who I wanted to be. I admired the way they looked and carried themselves, it inspired me to be the best version of myself. The next morning and that entire summer, I worked out and ate healthily. The gym and dancing made me fall in love with my body, I would look at myself and think “I feel beautiful”. I developed a healthy relationship with my body. Through this process, my confidence grew as a result of acceptance. I accept that my body will fluctuate in weight throughout my life. Every day I make a choice to accept myself in every phase my body goes through.
Growing up as an Indian woman, I had felt this pressure of upholding an image of a female that was culturally expected. Since I was a kid, I would be guided to cover that body part up, men want to marry thin girls, you look pretty fair-skinned stay out of the sun“. It was my normal. I am more than fortunate that my parents supported my education and encouraged me to study in the field of my choice. So when I recently started modeling, they weren’t the most thrilled. Especially since they expected my career to be solely dedicated to along the lines of my fashion design degree. After all, they did move their lives to Dubai for me to do so. Which is why I understand their disappointment when I started working as a full-time model.
The life and opportunities that I now have presented to me are because of my family’s sacrifices, hard work, and investment in my education. I wouldn’t be able to take on anything that I am pursuing without their support. Although it’s not a career they expected from me, I wish they eventually come to be proud and understand it’s something that I enjoy doing. Over the years I also started to realize that people are going to talk regardless of what you do. This especially is true in the Indian society I grew up consciously pleasing. How you look, what you do for a living, how you choose to live your life etc.
So ultimately, it’s not worth dwelling over. I can’t stress enough about the fact that life is incredibly short, it isn’t owed to anyone. So why waste your precious time worrying about things that won’t matter in a few years. Instead, we could be focusing our energy on what makes us happy.
Lotus Habbab: "When I Was 11 Months Old I Fell Off The Bed And My Arm Was Resting In Between The Spaces Of The Winter Heater"
Well, I can’t hate anything I have, because it is a part of me, but what I do is I try to play around with what I wear to serve that certain area. Sometimes it’s more than one thing, but I can’t actually pick one because they’re all kind of equal. First, it would be my chest area. I know it would be silly for me to obsess over something like that as it’s just a body image, which with time I learned. But when I didn’t know better, it used to bother me a lot, and I come from a family where the women have a generous bust. That’s 9 women including my sisters and cousins, but I felt like they were too small. And when I used to be shy and shrug my shoulders it would be more noticeable and it made me feel more like a boy because I didn’t have that feminine part of me that says “hey I’m here”. It felt more like there was nothing there, which also affected my relationship being closer to boys than girls. I would say boys viewed me as a boy, but I believe it’s because I viewed myself this way, they felt it.
One thing that bothered me as I was growing up, was my arm as well. When I was 11 months old I was sleeping near my older sister, about 7 years older than me, my brother had a fever, so my mom was with him all night. I fell off the bed and it was wintertime, and my arm was resting in between the spaces of the winter heater. It took time for mom to wake up and come to me and that’s why my arm was burnt. I remember wearing long sleeves, and half sleeves in the summer to hide it, and I would worry about the perception people would have when they see my arm because I’ve had kids get freaked out when they see it. But I also remember the last time that it actually bothered me. It was also the experience that led me to get over it. I was about 12 and was wearing a jeans jacket in the middle of the summer like I always did, but my sister told me that if I wanted to join her and her friends, I have to leave the jacket at home. I felt pressured at that moment but knew that having my sister beside made me feel safe. I then started building the confidence and accepted that it was fine, even my family would remind me that if I ever want to remove the burn marks, I can go for the surgery. Funny thing is that everyone who meets me finds it hard to asks me about my arm, but the reality is that it’s actually the last thing that bothers me now, and it probably masks the fact that I have other insecurities about my body.
To be honest, nothing bothers as the fear of gaining back the weight I’ve lost, and it’s part of my motivation to stay active and watch my food. To some people I wasn’t fat, to others “I gained weight” and was “losing my figure”, but it’s what people say that sometimes get to you. But that was a tough journey for me because, besides what I was hearing from the people around me and my family, and sometimes jokes go a little too far, I figured out that I wasn’t gaining weight because I was just eating, especially since I had stopped junk food for 6 months before I’ve reached that stage. I realized that I was gaining it because of complications in my stomach, and once I had understood that I started losing weight because I was helping my body by stopping the food that wasn’t properly digesting in my stomach. But now I’m just left with some loose wiggly thighs and other parts of my body.
My sister actually played a big part in me becoming comfortable with my body. I used to wear shorts to all-girls pool parties to hide, and she was always pushing me to lose the shorts, and eventually, that time came, as I grew older and started accepting that part of me. It just shows you that being in a different environment and around people that love you really changes your perspective on life.
Joelle Van Schaik: "I Got My First Open-Heart Surgery When I Was Just Under A Year Old"
So I have this scar on my body, which is about I think 20 centimeters. I have a congenital heart defect, which means I had it the moment I was born. I got my first open-heart surgery when I was just under a year old, then a second one when I was nine years old. I have like five or six different defects which no one in the world has in this combination. The second surgery replaced a valve for an artificial one, so you can actually hear my heart ticking like a clock.
As a girl getting older, you generally start getting insecure about your body. I started comparing myself to other girls and then got insecure because they don’t have this ugly scar. Well, I thought it was ugly at that time but I think as I got older I learned to live with it more and better.
Physically I can only do 70% of other people’s 100%. I get tired quickly and need more time to recover. If I’m working 3 or 4 very long days I might need 2 days to recover where other people may only need one. It doesn’t make me feel great because I’m super motivated and feel responsible. I want to do more but physically I can’t sometimes. I’ve learned to know my boundaries and listen to my body. I’ll take a break when I need to but sometimes the people around me also need to remind me to take it easy.
Bottom line is my scar is still there, I can’t do anything about it and all my friends are like, “it’s just a part of you.” But when I meet new people, it’s this little insecurity; always there, always with you, always thinking “would they see it? Are they going to ask about it?”.
Still, at this point in my life, I believe that everything happens for a reason, even though you are forced to make hard choices or get rejected. Because of my condition, I had to stop dancing at the dance academy back in the Netherlands, which was my passion and biggest dream but then I think, if no one told me to stop right there, I would never be where I am right now. And that is enjoying Dubai, experiencing wonderful things, meeting great new people, and living (as much as possible) a healthy life.
Huda Shahin: "My Face Started To Grow Towards One Side And My Chin Started To Go Off-Center"
When I was a child, I fell off the top bunk of my bed and broke my chin. I didn’t have the ability to communicate how much pain I was into my parents at the time, so it took them a while to actually take me to a hospital. I come from a small town in Egypt where the medical facilities aren’t that great, so the doctor just patched me up and sent me home without any regard for long term consequences. As I grew older, my face started to grow towards one side and my chin started to go off-center. And it’s not a slight deviation, it was clearly visible, like, you can’t miss it.
It was frustrating growing up, not only because my face started to get deformed but also because all my family had really beautiful sharp jawlines. This deformation in my face started to really impact my confidence. Till now I choose which side to take photos from and if I really like a person I’ll sit on my prettier side while we’re having a conversation. I’ve actually never spoken about this to anyone who isn’t super close to me, so I’m hoping that by putting this story out there it’ll bring me to get over it. Because I really do want to get over it. In the past whenever I would tell anyone about it, I would feel really uncomfortable around that person and kind of distance myself from them because now “they know”.
These days it’s actually not that obvious anymore, because I had fillers done a few years ago. You really have to concentrate to see it and if I don’t tell you about it then you probably would never notice. The fillers are just a quick fix and not a permanent solution. There’s a surgery that I could do but it’s quite major, expensive, and would cause a lot of bruising. The recovery time is really long and I’m just not in a point in my life where I’m ready to do that.
You know when I talk about my chin, I think about people who are dying and starving in the world and it makes me feel so silly. But then I get even more insecure about it because I can’t talk about it in fear of people judging me for this little thing. But to me, it’s actually not little. It’s like when a child loses his teddy bear. It’s quite a big deal for the child but it’s insignificant the rest of the world. So, maybe I’ll get the surgery done when I retire or something, or maybe I won’t. I have no idea. Maybe I’ll be at peace with it one day and see myself as a beautiful woman.
Laura Brocca: "I Have Scoliosis And I Wear Backless Dresses"
I have idiopathic scoliosis; we found out about it when I was 5. I had a really bad cough or something and was asked to get an x-ray of my chest done and that’s when they first saw that my spine wasn’t straight. Nobody really knows why it happens when it’s idiopathic and not injury or puberty related. After that, my entire life suddenly revolved around scoliosis. Honestly, I don’t remember a time when it didn’t. I traveled 4 months out of the year (including summer holidays) to osteopaths around the world and actually never made it to the first day of school (fun fact.) I was enrolled in swimming classes everyday until I was about 14/15 and was old enough to argue that I had to focus on studying and I would just raise hell and refuse to go. I hated it because I was forced into it. My mum always cared about physical appearances a good amount and has always been very beautiful, and (I’m sure unintentionally) brought my scoliosis up all the time, whether it was about my posture while I was doing homework or walking crooked or not fitting into my clothes right (even when I was 10.) She’d come up to me and physically try to push my hip in and stretch me out or yank at my clothes to try magically make them fit better.
I know that I have been aware and extremely self-conscious about it for decades now. I didn’t properly wear a bikini until I was an adult. I’d wear them maybe around a close girlfriend but whenever we were in groups I always usually had some kind of an open shirt to cover my torso or a one-piece or I just didn’t swim at swimming parties. It still makes me pretty uncomfortable.
The thing about hooking up with guys and not wanting to mention anything about it when we first meet because that’s weird and talking about it assumes that I am sure we’re gonna hook up. But I also wonder with them not knowing, whether I should prepare them for an “abnormal” torso situation. Initially, I never thought about warning dudes and I still don’t really do that unless I know them well or feel like they’d notice it immediately (and it’d be more comfortable out in the open instead of an elephant in the room). But I have had people ask me or be a little shocked. And there’s no bigger turn off (to both parties involved) than having to explain your physical deformity, a.k.a something traditionally considered detrimental to your sexiness, in the moments right before a hookup. Also, masseuses have turned me away out of fear of “breaking my back” and shop clerks as well as assistants I work with have flagged me down worriedly and told me that they know the condition and suggest that I have to get it treated immediately. Oh and I forgot about this one; one of my closest friends once looked at me seriously and said, “you’re perfect from your chest up”.
My ex would comment on how lopsided I’d look sometimes just in the most blazé manner, as though it was just fact and I wouldn’t be hurt by it. But it was a toxic relationship and he was often making me feel very insecure by pointing out my flaws. Once I was at my brother’s and he wanted me to put on some of the clothes he made for a new project and alter them a bit, I later showed my ex the photos and he said (without hesitation or anything) “oh, that’s weird. Why would he want to try them out on you?” “Odd choice”.
So moments like that are hard because people will just let something slip and I don’t indulge them or engage in it. I just let it slide. Also, because people are not used to seeing this, I get a lot of weird reactions where people don’t know what to say because they think I have to hide it. They’ll say things like “are you sure you want to wear that?” Unless I’m asking “Do you think you can see my scoliosis?”, which I’m very open about with my friends and everyone, then don’t mention it. I have scoliosis and I wear backless dresses now!
I’ve considered surgery a lot. My mum doesn’t want me to get it done, but hasn’t given me much of an alternative other than “go swimming every day”. I’ve always wanted to just get it over and done with so I don’t have to deal with the issue anymore, but my mum has always been against it. It’s a really risky surgery and can leave you paralyzed or with loss of feeling in various parts of your body. The surgery works by fusing certain vertebrae in your spine, which ultimately means a large decrease in your flexibility. And I don’t mean like let me do a backbend flexible, I mean like I can’t bend down to tie my shoelaces as I used to flexible. Or I would but it would strain my spine (considering that I’d have to get a few vertebrae fused as my scoliosis is a double curve). It’s more of a squat to bend closer to the ground situation. I’m getting to the point where I want the surgery and I change my mind on the daily. A big deterrent for me, other than the risks, is the price – $120,000. I could afford it when I was younger through my parents, but considering costs I have now, I’d either have to save up a ton or figure out residency in Italy and try to apply there with insurance.
And that’s something that I do want for myself but then, on the other hand, I want to remember that morally I think people should be okay accepting and seeing different types of bodies and not just the same one every single day. I think beauty is definitely subjective. My favorite moments are when I look at someone and I think they’re stunning but my friend looks at them and they’re like, oh, I don’t know. Yes, there are global standards of beauty like women with little noses and big eyes but for the most part, you don’t know what a person finds attractive.
Hamdan Al Abri: "I Didn’t Want To Go Out Because People Might Think I Have A Disease"
I had a lot of physical insecurities growing up like thinking that I have a big nose or I was too dark. And then I hit puberty and I started getting body hair and zits and I saw people on TV and their skin and body were flawless.
Then around 2005, I realized that my hair started thinning out and now I had a brand new thing I had to be conscious about. My hair was thinning out pretty slowly so it wasn’t too noticeable until a few years (thats what I think anyway). My hair or hairstyle was a huge part of my image and I always stressed out about my identity if I had to cut all my hair off. So I kind of kept the hair going for as long as I could. And then when I realized my hairline was going back to the back of your ears, I was like, “God, I don’t want to be one of those people who hold on to whatever hair they have left with this big bald spot on the top of their head!”. One day I woke up and decided that today was the day I was going to shave it all off. When I went to the barber and did the deed it was very liberating, I wasn’t going to let something like my hair (or the lack of) define who I am as a whole.
Having to also deal with a skin condition called Seborrheic Dermatitis (a skin condition that causes dandruff-like spots to appear on your body especially the scalp. There is no cure for it) was and at times still is really stressful and the ironic part is that being stressed out makes the condition worse. I was always worried that people would see it and be disgusted by it. And now that my head is bald it is even more prominent, so at first, I was wearing caps and hats to hide the condition and it is something that I think about and stressed about on the daily. And It happens out of nowhere. Like when I’m on holiday my head would be perfect, then as soon as I come back to Dubai and I have to stress about the rent and my music it comes back full blast. So that really bothered me. I think at one point I was like, “I don’t want to go out because people might even see these blemishes think what kind of disease does he have?” But now I’m coming to terms with it. Its a process and I am beginning to control it, trying to live a healthy lifestyle, trying not to stress out too much, not caring too much what people think.
I think sometimes we place such a huge burden on ourselves to look a certain way, be physically perfect in every way. And in this day and age we live in it is even more amplified. We place too much unrealistic importance on having distorted perfect physical attributes and we forget that the most important part is loving ourselves, all our perfect imperfections included, loving who you are as a human being and treating others the same way you want to be treated. Love yourself.
Danae Mercer: "Let's Rock This, Bellies And All"
BLOATING – it happens. It happens A LOT, especially when we travel (hello salty food and water retention), are approaching our periods, or are stressed. One study showed that 16 – 30% of folks experience regular bloating. I definitely do. And sometimes, if I’m really honest, that’s hard. It makes me feel fragile and puffy and awkward. But lately I’ve been following a few women here on social media who struggle with it too – and that’s helping. So here’s to a bit of honesty and a bit of bloat and a big reminder that you’re gorgeous. Let’s rock this, bellies and all!
Azza Al Mughairy: "After Giving Birth I Was On Water And Juice Only And Lost 15kg"
So I just gave birth. And of course I gained weight and I’m not the same size. During my first month after childbirth, I didn’t eat anything. I was on water and juice only and lost 15 kg. I was so scared. The stretch marks drama and oversized outfits got me depressed till about last month when I realized it doesn't matter. I stopped dieting and wore my loose clothes and embraced the fact that I just gave birth four months ago. Now I eat everything.
Sara Gojer: "My Skin Burned Because Of Laser, Could’ve Just Tried Waxing"
When I was 18, I went to a party with a bunch of people I knew. There was this person there who was way older than me, someone I really looked up to and who I would go to with all my stories. I remember lying down halfway through the party because I was dead tired. Before I knew it, he was lying next to me and totally took advantage of the situation. It wasn’t something I really wanted. When I woke up the next day, it brought me down on so many levels because this was someone I really looked up to in life. I tried talking to my mom about it but she was horrified, started yelling at me and took me to the doctor to get me checked and get me medication to deal with the situation. And like, honestly, no one spoke to me. And I think that as a teenager, like somebody really should have sat me down and asked me, “how do you feel about all of this?” I went into a shell and this whole thing turned my world upside down. It completely shattered my sense of physical and emotional safety. I didn’t want to trust people anymore and this shaped everything in my life after that.
Rewinding a bit for context, I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of boys and I was always the tomboy, outplaying cricket and whatnot. When you’re a kid, it doesn’t really make a difference, but as you grow up, people start expecting you to do things a certain way. Especially living in India, it was very difficult for me because I never felt like I really fit in. I’ve never been happy with my body and I think it has a lot to do with growing up in a country where you’re constantly judged. When I was a teenager and started wearing makeup my mom used to tease me. And I know parents say things to you like jokes or whatever; they’re also human, but these things stick with you. She used to say, don’t wear lipstick, “it makes your face look like a pig’s bum.” So for a while, I didn’t wear lipstick and I told myself I don’t care, but I really did care.
I thought coming to Dubai would make it all different. And in a way it did, because you get a lot more freedom here, but there’s also way more pressure to be feminine. I actually remember when I first came here, I was doing a video for someone and he made a comment about my nails in the video even though they were clean. He wanted a woman with long, painted nails not short filed nails. Then I got into events and it was a whole new ballgame that was even crazier because everybody has so many stereotypes for women. I don’t see that much pressure when it comes to men but women have to wear particular clothes, do their eyelashes, do their nails, and everything else and I’m not into any of that stuff.
I tried the beauty checklist lifestyle when I first came to Dubai and before I knew it I reached laser hair removal. You start with one body part and then they sell you packages for multiple body parts and before you know it, you’re practically living in the laser place. 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 the laser. I don’t think it will fully heal now. You could have just tried waxing.” It all grew back anyways. It was a waste of money and a waste of time. It’s pretty much a con job because they tell you that this is like magic. You do it 5-10 times and you’re never going to have trouble again but in exactly a year it’s all back to normal and you have to do it again. The irony is that I did all this at a time when I didn’t actually have a lot of money. Instead of paying for important things, I was doing laser and it didn’t make any sense at all. 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.
When you travel to other parts of the world, you realize how none of this really matters. You can go to a club in your jeans and sneakers and it’s perfectly okay. You can get in anywhere you want without people scrutinizing you from top to bottom to see whether you fit their checklist.
It took me a while to realize that none of this was meant for me. I realized that unless I fully accepted myself first, nobody else would accept me. I also realized how important it was to surround yourself with the right people because the right people love you whether you look like shit or not. It’s good to be the best version of yourself, but not to be put in a box and not to be forced to be something or someone you’re not. I also think a lot of it has to do with sexuality. Were you asking for attention? Well now deal with it. After what I’d been through, I just thought that it’s not the best thing to fully express my sexuality. I didn’t want to put myself out there because something bad could happen at any time. I still think that it’s there somewhere inside me and it’s a part of me that doesn’t let go completely because I don’t feel safe. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that you can be strong and you can be beautiful, that you can be feminine and you can feel protected.
Recently, I’ve been eating healthy and working out a lot. I was talking to a friend of mine and only then I realized how much I judged myself and how I don’t see the things that other people actually see in me. She told me, “You need to just accept that you are beautiful and that it doesn’t matter how much you weigh.”
From the time I was 16, I’ve not been single. I would always end up in one relationship after another, like emotional daisy chains. Just two years ago, I decided that I needed to work on myself. So I stopped dating and stopped trying to find myself in other people. I started with meditation and yoga. On the outside, I looked brave but on the inside, I didn’t really know how to live life on my own. I didn’t know how to do a million things on my own. Now I’m realizing step by step that I can do everything I want alone, but just because I can do it alone that doesn’t mean I have to do it alone. And that’s why I love living in this house (Home of flow). It’s because I found people here who really love me. We are like a family. Every single person in this house has been through a rough time but we feel like we can really let our guard down here and let people in and people will be there for us.
Dia Hassan: "When I Left Insurance I Threw Away Every Suit I Owned"
I never really had two different personas growing up. I kind of knew I was more in touch with my true self. It was clear early on when I started doing music and I knew l that I didn’t want anything to do with a job even to the point that I didn’t end up going to university, but then I had to find random jobs. The first thing I did was promoting cat food wearing a Garfield costume. And I guess a year or two down the line when my mother had cancer I was in a situation where I had to pay rent. I was 18/19 and I couldn’t afford rent other than a living room in someone else’s apartment. I remember that the rent was about 2000 dirhams a month. In the beginning, I was managing that amount from odd jobs I was doing like promoting products and working in a cinema. Then, of course, the seasons slowed down and I needed to sustain my mother to the point where she needed to have medical insurance because there was no way we were going to cover the bills. So that made me decide to take on a full-time job.
That’s when the second persona began forming. I was in this office during the day becoming this corporate person because of the money but every single night I would transform into this other person where it’s all about the music; playing shows and pushing the band forward. And that was a very strong driver in who I was or who I am. And even today, when I would go into meetings or meet people the first thing they would say is “hey, what’s happening with Juliana Down?”. It’s actually becoming more of a burden to answer that question. Maybe because I feel like it’s a bit of a failure.
Going back to the house story, I think the first time I started wearing my hat, how it was when we were touring in Spain and the UK. It developed into is becoming this other persona. So if I had corporate meetings I’d be in a suit without a hat but then going into like meetings with the band I would stop at a petrol station, change into my like band attire and the hat. I wouldn’t let anybody who knew me from the band world to see me in a suit. Even people who are close to me, for example, Karen, she’s not seen me in a suit. We were dealing with Audi for three years and we weren’t even together. So there was that sort of persona that I’ve managed to create to the point that people thought I was a full-time musician, and that was what I wanted. It was the kind of life that I was after. Anyway. Um, yeah, that interest kind of developed into more of the insecurity. Not so much that I don’t like the way my head looks or like my face looks or whatever. It’s a personality thing.
There’s also the fact that I have no hair. I started losing my hair when I was about 18 so I decided to shave it off. It’s funny because when I go into a meeting without a hat now I feel I could look aggressive. Just because of the bald head. So that hat is kind of a barrier to tone me down as well.
I feel like when I’m wearing the hat it’s the creative personality, the personality I want to be at, it’s not the guy in a suit. And it’s not about the hat itself, it’s the character who I was representing wearing the hat. The hat represented everything that is not corporate. It represented the creative life, the music and everything else that I was pursuing. So when I left insurance, I threw away every suit I owned and said to my self that for the next couple of years, whatever it is, I’m going to be working hard and try my best to be more successful wearing a t-shirt. Fast forward two years later, I think we’re doing okay.
Saskia: "I Edit My Nose In All Of My Images As I Don’t Find It Pretty At All"
When people see me for the first time they think “wow, she is so confident”. Some told me they were a bit intimidated by the confident looks that they hesitated to approach me and were surprised how nice and shy I am in reality after they spoke to me. It’s funny because deep down I am not confident at all and it surprises me every time that on the outside, I mirror an entirely different image compared to how I see myself.
My self-esteem stayed in the year 2002 when my family moved from the big city to the countryside and I had to change schools. Not the best time at all as all the students were in the same class for two years and knew each other already. Not to mention that teenagers are difficult to deal with and very mean. For quite a while I struggled to find friends in the new school because I’ve always been quite an introvert but then succeeded and met some lovely people who I could spend time with, also outside school.
However, a part of the class – the “cool” kids” – never accepted me. For them, I stayed the “new girl” for years and they even bullied me. They said mean things, stole my homework, threw my shoes into the garbage while I was in gym class and mocked me for my looks. Especially my nose, which, at that time was a bit too big for my face and is normal for many kids in that age. Of course, I didn’t know this at that time. The bullying lasted until grade 10 when I finally changed schools and started my apprenticeship as a foreign language correspondent. When I left school, I also left my self-esteem there.
I was a completely different girl now, who went from not caring about looks at all to “I need plastic surgery”. This thought became obsessive very quickly and still persists until now. Listening to others saying you are not pretty for years stays in your mind and can’t be erased easily. This constant need to change my looks and never being happy with myself lead to a mild form of depression which got worse over time. Several incidents in my life between age 21 and 25 made me lose my trust in people and doubt myself even more.
When I was 21, I moved to a different city to work in a renowned company to write my Bachelor thesis. There, I met the wrong kind of people who pulled me down with their negative way of seeing life and didn’t want me to be happy, just because they were not happy. Shortly after, my depression reached its peak. I would progressively miss more and more social outings, spend more and more time alone in self-imposed isolation, and tell myself that it was just because I’m introverted, or that I was ‘tired’. I was tired, but not for lack of sleep. This was actually a symptom of my depression.
The first big step for me was realizing that I was mentally unwell. It took me a long time to do so because I was convinced it was just a “phase”, a slump in life which everyone has. This “slump” lasted for years without me noticing and as unbelievable as it sounds, there was not a single day during that time in which I was completely happy or that I would consider a good day. The lack of emotions and constant overthinking made every day feel “meh”. Then, one day, I decided for myself that this is not an acceptable life anymore and I made an appointment with a psychiatrist to get the necessary help, which was anti-depressants and therapy sessions with a psychologist. After speaking to the psychologist regularly during a time span of over six months, digging where the depression came from, why it persisted and what in my life I have to change to get this demon out of my head, I felt much better and could feel good without any medication.
To heal, I took some steps that some would consider as drastic, but to me they were necessary. I moved to Dubai, changed jobs, found new friends who encouraged me to be whoever I wanted to be instead of pulling me down and I changed my lifestyle entirely. I went out more often, learned photography and editing and constantly improved myself, inside out. I’ve seen a huge improvement in my mental health and am a different person now, who can finally be happy and enjoy the beautiful things in life. My depression is still there, I think it always will be, but I know how to handle it so that the “dark cloud” does not take over my mind again.
As much as I feel better, my self-esteem is still low and to be honest, if I had the money, I would get a rhinoplasty right away as I am still conscious about my nose. I edit it in all of my images as I don’t find it pretty at all. I know that a new nose won’t make me a better person but it would definitely make me happier and give me a huge boost in confidence. There are so many other people just like me who struggle with depression and low self-esteem and that is why it’s so important to raise awareness in order to prevent others from reaching the same horrible depths that I did.
Open up to your loved ones, family, friends, partner – they will listen. You are not alone and people are always more helpful and compassionate than you think. And if you ever feel like reaching out to me, please do. I’m all ears.
Tac: "When I Look In The Mirror I See A Beautiful, Sexy Man"
I went through all the body types you can think of. I was skinny, I was fat, I was a powerlifter but I was never comfortable with my body. I had great physique as a powerlifter but I couldn’t move. I was walking pretty awkward and sweating a lot and it just didn’t feel good inside. The second I realized that it was how I felt and the vulnerability I experienced when I was honest with myself, I naturally started eating what was healthy for me. I stopped caring about the amount of food I was eating as long as what I was putting in my body was healthy. With that came a natural realization of how beautiful I actually was. I was comfortable, I moved freely. When I looked in the mirror I saw a beautiful, confident, sexy man. My flaws on me were like rocks on a mountain. My skin was better, my beard grew better and I had no cholesterol or blood pressure issues anymore. The main thing that I tell people now is that the second you are vulnerable and honest with yourself you won’t have to force diets or other negative experiences. It will naturally come to you.
Myrna Ayman: "I’ve Learned How To Perfect The Art Of Throwing Up After Meals, I Wear A Size 1"
Until 2016 I was a person who had the highest confidence in my body and I was ready to eat McDonald’s 3 meals a day and I weighed 64KG, so I started working my very first job and the whole idea of me losing weight and going to the gym was something that never came to me at the time.
I met a person who I clicked with and our chemistry was great, we thought that this friendship would last a long time, or so I thought. Then one day my friend said, “Myrna why don’t you start working out, maybe lose a little bit of weight so you can shape your body better.” Frankly, when I heard that, I didn’t even care until I realized that they were in this friendship for my looks and not for who I am. I then started falling into depression and all I thought about was that they left me for the sole reason that my body wasn’t good enough for their liking and just wanted to be around me for their own image.
That’s when I started to stop myself from eating, and if I ate something, I would force myself to throw up. I go do cardio at the gym even when my body had zero energy, but I somehow had this as a daily routine and turned it into a habit. Forcing myself to throw up also became a habit and I didn’t notice the danger of this until a year later. I kept this whole thing a secret, and I was afraid to tell my family or friends worrying that they would think I’m going crazy or that I’ve lost my mind. I went from 64 to 44 KG in a heartbeat, which traumatized me.
Unfortunately, I’ve learned how to perfect the curse of throwing up after meals. I wore a size one or size zero on a good day, but never above a size four. I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for the past two years; you might witness how much and how quickly I can eat meals; see me shoving food down my throat you’d think that I had a great appetite. You might see me wearing tight dresses and shorts when I go out and think that I have an abundance of confidence in myself and my body. I learned to drink sips of water in between bites, so that the food would come up easier as soon as I’m done eating. I can throw up simply by tensing my stomach muscles, a process that is unnatural for most people now comes quite naturally to me. You might realize that I snack several times a day, picking at a bag of Trail mix or a breakfast bar because I am constantly hungry, but the only food that I can eat without feeling the uncontrollable, intense urge to throw up afterward are those I deem “safe.”
When I lost my aunt in 2017 and witnessed her death in front of me, I got scared of how this could be me if I don’t stay healthy and try to save myself from cancer or other illnesses. But I would be lying to you if I said that I stopped thinking about my body shape. One day, sitting home alone, I realized how I was wasting my time obsessing over this stupid issue, just because it started with a comment from someone else, and realized how I was ruining my life instead of enjoying it.
Others try to compliment me by saying “you don’t need to lose weight” or “you’re so skinny already” or “you’re so pretty.” But I’m very sensitive to others noticing my physical appearances and to me, these pitiful reassurances hurt more than they help. There are also people who try to feed me as if shoving a chunk of bread or a cup of frozen yogurt in my face will suddenly cure me of my eating disorder. I need to learn how to eat on my own terms, whether that means eating too little or too much. I need to learn how to ease my fears about food and begin to love it again because, in the end, my eating disorder isn’t really about my weight. It’s all about how to love yourself and feel the beauty within your soul so that you’re able to show it externally.
Me today is me before 2016. I wouldn’t say I don’t care if I’m fat because I would be lying to you and to myself if I did. Although I do believe it’s always great to take care of yourself in a healthy way. I try to walk with confidence and keep my head up, straighten my back and remind myself to believe that I have the perfect body and that people should accept it because, at the end of the day, they love me for who I am and not for being sick and obsessed with mental issues.
My story isn’t something that would inspire the world, but it inspires me for who I became today and how I got over this without any help. I regained weight and maybe I’m still underweight because I’m at 49 kg, but now my body speaks for itself and shows that I have the shape of a beautiful woman.
We really need to love ourselves for who we are, and every single woman should know her worth and believe that she’s beautiful just the way she is no matter how fat or skinny she is because all women are perfect the way they are. Don’t ever change yourself for someone because some people are temporary and you’re permanent to yourself.
Hiam Salibi: "I Hid In A Municipality Dumpster In Al Khan Till My Mom And Stepdad Drove By And Picked Me Up"
I grew up as an only child with my dad and we had the occasional GF and sister come through. Yeah. My mom and I were separated when I was about five and I didn’t see her until I was 16. My dad was extremely strict. I was never allowed to do my eyebrows in school. All the girls got to do their hair and makeup and shave their arms and legs and go out. I was like the hairy, ugly, Harry Potter looking kid that everyone made fun of. None of the boys liked me. When I was in the 8th grade one boy said he liked me and made me believe him then later I found out that all my classmates were in on it and would make fun of me behind my back.
So I developed this complex in my head that I’m ugly for a very long time. They didn’t know how abusive my household was or how my dad shaved off my eyebrow once because I tweezed them a little. Then when I grew older and I moved to St Mary’s on my last few years, I turned into the bully and always tried to be the “popular kid”.
When I was 16 the headmistress noticed that I was disturbed and had a chat with me. I said that I wanted my mom and she made it a point to find her. My mom came to school and we planned my escape from my dad. I packed a garbage bag full of my books only and hid in a municipality dumpster in AL Khan till my mom and stepdad drove by and picked me up. She took me in with her husband and my two new stepbrothers literally did like this whole makeover for me.
At that point my body was fine, but I still felt ugly. So I started to eat and I got really fat. I didn’t care how I looked. I was upset and angry all the time. I always felt that if I don’t have a boyfriend, I’m classified as ugly. So if a man doesn’t love me and I’m alone and I go out, I have no one to give me attention. So I needed to always have a boyfriend so that I can always feel secure with that person who thinks I’m pretty. I haven’t been single since I was 15. I’ve always, always had a boyfriend and they were all longterm; six years, four years, etc. And then I get stuck in it because I feel that he’s the only person that thinks I’m pretty.
When I go out and I see girls I feel like I don’t fit in. They say hi and all, nothing’s wrong but in my head, I think these girls have their own groups and I don’t fit in. And like they all take photos of themselves, and she’s an influencer and she’s this and she’s that. And then I come home and I’m like, “should I get my nose done?” Like what do I need to do to be able to be one of those girls that go out and everyone finds pretty and wants to hang out with?
I recently got a comment that I had a hairy face and so I went and I spent almost 10,000 dirhams on laser hair removal in the past 6 or 7 months with all these sessions I could’ve invested that money in my company. I could have done something else with it. It’s like that for me. If someone drops a comment like, “oh you look like you gained some weight” then I go into immediate starvation mode.
But recently, I met a few new people in my life that have helped me see myself as a beautiful woman, and that’s the mindset that I’m growing into. Now I don’t mind someone taking a picture of my profile and seeing my big nose. What’s going to happen? Nothing. This is my nose. Photoshop won’t make me more beautiful. You’re still going to see me in real life. I going to look left and right and you’re going to see my nose. I can’t have a Photoshop filter on me all day, so why would I hide it?
I used to always wear pants with a jacket tied around my waist. Now I’m like, who cares? I go out and get comments like “you gained weight.” I’m like “yeah, I did.” Or if there’s a photo of me with no makeup on, they’re like “oh, you look tired.” I’m like “no, I just didn’t put any makeup on.” Just because I didn’t put makeup on doesn’t mean I’m exhausted. This is my face! I mean don’t get me wrong, I don’t attempt to look worse, I do put some effort to look nice, I am a girl, after all, I just don’t let it get in my head.
Everyone has their insecurities, but I think it got to a point where it depressed me. I was so close to getting a nose job then I decided that I’m going to accept myself for who I am. I also made the decision that I’m going to get rid of the idea that I need a man in my life to feel validated all the time. I’m quite exhausting as a girlfriend. I needed constant validation like “I love you, you’re beautiful” and all that. But now I’m starting to scale it back and talk to myself more and not put on so much make up. I actually threw away all my makeup. I only have four things I put on my face all the time.
Omar Elbakary: "My Chest Is So Unmanly That I've Questioned My Sexuality"
I'm constantly frustrated and depressed when I go on Instagram though. It makes you believe your life is just crap. It's like, "Whoa, what the hell am I doing here?" Everyone else is posting happy, perfect pictures in perfect locations and perfect poses. It's a constant flow of depression that makes you think that you're always missing something. The same feeling when you walk into a mall and all these shops is urging you to buy me, buy me, buy me. What’s the gratification you get with all the likes and notification? So when I saw the Rock Your Ugly I felt like I was at home. It gave me this sense of calmness and peacefulness. I would love to have my news feed to look like that. Just real pictures, real situations, not overly making it ugly, just natural as it is. It reminded that each person has their own shell and their own shit they're going through and that life is okay. It doesn't need to be perfect. I don't need to look perfect. Of course, it doesn't hurt to look after yourself but not for the sake of getting the perfect pictures but the sake of living longer or even just being able to do anything physical comfortably. I know I'm not in a position to judge but have this constant urge to leave a comment saying, “please just stop!” I won't judge you if you post a picture of yourself with your belly, with your scar, having a fight or in your home with your dishes stacked up in the sink or whatever, just be yourself. I'm tired of judging and tired of feeling that there's something missing.
I've been always insecure about the top part of my body. My belly and how unmanly my chest looks, to the point that I sometimes doubted my sexual orientation. It sounds super weird but a big portion is also fueled by porn. It makes you feel that you need to look a certain way or be a certain size to be able to please yourself and your partner. And that impacts your self-confidence. Even with ads and movies, you feel that the whole world trying to paint a certain picture for you that in order to be confident, manly, successful or happy you need to look in a certain way. And is that the case? I don't think so. I know people who have their life together on paper (great looks, health, finances, partner, family, etc) but they're not happy because of the constantly feeling that there's something missing. They're always in pursuit of getting something bigger or better. Sometimes it's even the case of “upgrading” their partner.
Most of the time I feel like I’m not “worthy” of having a nice body. I think its stems from a point in my life where I was constantly lying about everything. It all started when I was eight years old. My parents got a divorce and they would channel their anger through my younger brother and I. Every week I would go and see my father then later on I would lie about my life or what's happening with them or what's happening with my mom's side just to avoid any arguments or anger from either parent. So I started to think that it's okay to lie and that I can lie and build whatever life I want. At some point, I started to believe my own lies. I started lying to myself believing that I want certain things in life when I didn’t. I even got myself into a marriage when I was relatively young. I was 23 years old, we were friends then dated for a bit and the next logical step is like to get married. That's like a milestone or something. But I didn't really give myself time to truly be honest with myself. I wanted to protect this image or this target achievement of being married. She a great person but we were just the worst versions of ourselves.
In 2017 I had a wake-up call. I don't know what pushed me to do but I managed to get out of that marriage. I didn’t want to have a relationship where I was living a double life, pretending everything is nice and rosy like Instagram when it's really not. Luckily I had a friend of mine who was going through almost the same thing and we went on a self-exploration journey and got into all sorts of activities trying to have better versions of ourselves. I started putting myself out of my comfort zone and I naturally stopped lying to myself. I started to be more true to myself, and it all depended on whom I'm around with and whom I'm in a relationship with. If I don't feel like doing something then I’m just upfront and honest about it without being rude.
I’m generally a people person. I love meeting new people and I think the whole body insecurity thing pushed me to focus on the intellectual side rather than just going to a club and meeting people based on how they looked like, or how I looked like for that matter. I now need to dig deeper and get to know the person behind all these layers of clothes or skin or whatever. But of course, I’m still insecure about how I look so I sometimes shy away from interactions. However, I have a very understanding partner, I love her to death. She’s been constantly trying to push me to be myself rather than hide in a corner.
I do wish I looked different, but it also scares me. How would my life change if people perceive me differently? would I be around shallower people? I'm not saying that whoever looks good is a shallow person. Sometimes I feel like, I don't want to change. I’m just going to rock whatever I have. And lately, I feel like I’m finding the right crowd to be around with this attitude.
Hassan "Tiny" Shams: "I’m Here To Set An Example For Other Plus-Size Individuals"
So my body insecurities are mainly my belly as well as my chest area, I’ve grown to get used to them but that doesn’t mean I’m not bothered by them still. I took the step forward to change my lifestyle and started working out three years ago, you would never catch me at the pool or beach shirtless with my friends, let alone with strangers around me.
But that has started to change because I’ve learned that you as a person put thoughts in your head that people are looking at you, making fun, or find it weird “wow someone that big has the confidence to not cover-up”. I’ve started to embrace my body and I now love going to the beach and pool, and I’m here to set an example for other plus-size individuals. Actually, my new aim in life now is to become a male plus-size model and I believe this portrait will be a brilliant start for my portfolio.