images by Southbank Centre: Karol Wyszynski
An abandoned cash-converter store tucked away in the city centre of Bradford, West Yorkshire, is probably the unlikeliest place to begin a revolutionary campaign on body image.
But it is there in 2016 during the very first Women of the World (WOW) festival Bradford where the I Am Perfect As Me campaign was created by a group of 12 fiery young women, the very first WOWser volunteers hailing from schools across the city.
The campaign has sparked vital conversations on body image in an age where “generation selfie” are assailed with pressures on how to look and who to be curated by the digital cauldron of social media, creating what WOWser, 17-year-old Iram Rehman says is one of the biggest challenges faced by her generation. “Social media is a platform that is being used negatively”, she said. “There are all these edited images of celebrities that present women as something they’re not and it has a negative, psychological impact on young women.”
“Through the campaign, we focus on what’s on the inside, that’s what makes you such a good person. It’s about showing you’re perfect as you despite all your flaws”
Indeed a recent survey of almost 1,500 teenagers and young adults found that Instagram was the worst social media network for mental health and wellbeing. But the focus on body image pressures amongst young women has also eclipsed what fellow WOWser 17-year-old Mehmoona Pervez, feels is an increasing source of anxiety for her male peers, with four out of five men prone to anxiety about their appearance.
“The whole Kardashian culture has become a vehicle for internalised patriarchy and women are really being objectified. It really sexualises women and makes them think they need to look or behave a certain way to be approached by men,” she said. “But pressures are equally as diminishing for young men because as young teenagers, they’re having to go on Instagram and see all this negative content about the fact they don’t have a six-pack.”
For 17-year-old WOWser Mariyah Kayat, the I Am Perfect As Me campaign, an injection of body positivity in a digital space where there is little, is about reclaiming and redefining the suffocating idea of ‘perfection’. “There’s a lot of emphasis on the fact that body image and certain looks are what makes you perfect. But it’s about who you are as a person”, she said. “Through the campaign, we focus on what’s on the inside, that’s what makes you such a good person. It’s about showing you’re perfect as you despite all your flaws and everything that has happened to you.”
During the first WOW Bradford, the WOWsers organised a holi paint fight aimed at challenging body stereotypes written on placards with explosions of holi paint. The volunteers also handed out roses with compliments hand-written on tags attached to them to strangers walking past. The now iconic slogan: “I Am Perfect As Me” was chanted during the holi paint fight as Beyonce’s ‘Who Run The World (Girls)’ blared along the cobbled pavements of Bradford; and so I Am Perfect As Me made its public debut in a kaleidoscope of holi powder and blooming roses.
“And so I Am Perfect As Me made its public debut in a kaleidoscope of holi powder and blooming roses.”
Speaking of how the campaign was born from the collective experiences of all the young WOWsers, Mehmoona said, “When we first came together for the WOW festival, all of us had our own stories. We’d battled different issues and we came from different backgrounds. But the similarity that we all shared is that we were passionate about body image. So when we first started the campaign, we wanted it to be about body image, bullying, body positivity, family and our home lives, but we really wanted to focus on having a positive outlook in our communities too.”
Three years on, I Am Perfect As Me has now gone on to WOW London where earlier this year, an I Am Perfect As Me panel discussion was held at last year’s WOW Bradford for the first time, and also at this year’s WOW London where the school’s day was named after the powerful campaign. It is set to return to WOW Bradford once more for another hard-hitting panel discussion.
Speaking about the very first I Am Perfect As Me panel she took part in and her personal struggles with mental health and body image, Mariyah said, “The first time we did our panel in Bradford, everyone was crying. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. It was the first time I openly, publicly talked about my story, my mental health and everything that I’ve gone through. I think we were crying in support for each other because we were hearing all these stories, and we just thought to ourselves, ‘We are so strong. We go through all of this every day but we’re still standing.’”
Unsurprisingly, I Am Perfect As Me has found a life beyond WOW where it continues to be championed by Speaker’s Corner, a collective of women and young girls who campaign on social and gender issues.
Now based in the infamous abandoned cash-convert store, Speaker’s Corner was co-founded by the first generation of WOW Bradford WOWsers and volunteers. Throughout the year, various events are held in this social sanctuary from sessions on stress relief, public speaking, to international activism.
But perhaps its most profound impact is amongst the young Bradfordian women who proudly wear its influence like a crown. “I Am Perfect As Me allowed me to gain more confidence. I couldn’t speak in front of a room of people before, but because of the campaign, my confidence grew, and it allowed me to express my views and opinions which also let me impact young women and girls who came to our discussions”, said Iram as she spoke of the impact I Am Perfect As Me on her own life. “Some of them joined Speaker’s Corner as well!”, she added laughing.
For Mariyah, it not only allowed her to break down the stigma of mental health when it came to conversations with her peers. It also found its way into her home, bringing down the mental fortresses built in her mind which prevented her from speaking openly about it at home.
“I’ve grown a lot and that’s happened through the I Am Perfect As Me campaign. It’s only now I’m comfortable saying, “I’m mentally struggling”, and it’s not something I’m ashamed of anymore. Even at home, we can talk about it openly. Me and my mum can have these conversations when we couldn’t before.”
“WOW Bradford is taking place from 17 – 18 November at Kala Sangam Arts Centre. Full festival details here.”