As it happens, I know exactly where I was 10 years ago: 22 and miserable, I was about to graduate from college and into the Great Recession. I had a broken heart, a degree in literature, an unmedicated anxiety disorder, and a bunch of work experience that had taught me plenty — about what types of jobs I didn’t want to have.
So when friends started posting throwback pictures and anecdotes as part of the #10YearChallenge on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram this week, contrasting images of themselves in 2009 with their 2019 glow-ups, it was easy to imagine my own transformation pictured alongside theirs. In the last decade I’ve published two novels and started wearing mascara when I know I’m going to have my photo taken; what I’ve lost in manic, youthful allure I make up for in actual adult accomplishments and a better grasp on my angles. (That’s what I tell myself, anyway.)
The story of how I got from there to here sounds pretty good, too. There’s hard work! Therapy! Leaps of faith! Creative breakthroughs! Believing in myself!!
But scrolling through photos of me taken over the course of the last 10 years, I found, to my surprise, that I didn’t want to share any of them. I didn’t want to dunk on my 22-year-old self for having bad boyfriends and worse bangs, and I wasn’t in the mood to congratulate my current incarnation for having managed to leave her so far behind, either.
The 10 Year Challenge combines many of my favorite things: self-documentation, mild-to-moderate self-exposure, softcore nostalgia, and transforming the messy glut of experience into neat narrative. So you would think I’d love it. I thought I’d love it.
I didn’t want to dunk on my 22-year-old self for having bad boyfriends and worse bangs.
And clearly a lot of people who are not me are having fun with silly old photos of themselves, or have found meaning in contemplating how far they’ve come since 2009. There have even been iterations of the meme that try to move away from the question of aesthetics and toward accomplishments: a Twitter version asked participants not #HowHardDidAgeHitYou (or, as Slate pointed out, how much better your posing is now that you carry a camera with you 24/7), but to share what you’d been working toward 10 years ago and what you’re up to now.
For me, though, I can’t escape the fact that in every iteration, we’re asked to place ourselves in the categories of “before” or “after.” Even when we talk about transformation — the way that red-eyed college senior in the ill-fitting dress was planting the seeds for the glamorously turned-out selfie-taker you see before you — there’s a sense that now has replaced then.
Social media is always a context-free stream of data for viewers to interpret, often badly: a picture of a beach vacation that can’t possibly convey the long, tense silences the photographer was experiencing over dinner with her partner every night, “relatable” tweets about depression that fail to mention the fact that the writer is in real danger of losing her job if she can’t figure out how to get better. But usually those pieces of information are part of an ongoing flow; there’s a sense that you’re setting out data points, not charting a graph from here to there. Because that graph is only supposed to go in one direction: up and up and up. 10 Year Challenge posts don’t just impose a story onto our lives, they impose a specific kind of narrative in which we are always making progress, which is a particularly American obsession.
What if your life doesn’t appear to fit into a #10YearChallenge-type narrative? Ana Valens wrote for the Daily Dot about how being a trans woman who works in journalism means she has no interest in sharing pre-transition images of herself, both because they could be used by people seeking to harass her and because she doesn’t like looking at them.
“It’s painful to unearth my pre-transition years and show how I looked to people who met me after I transitioned,” Valens wrote. “I’m not proud of who I was in 2009. … Don’t get me wrong, I accept that part of my life and I’m happy to talk about it because my teen years were formative to who I am today. But I also need to set a boundary to protect my identity as a trans woman. That means refraining from posting photos of myself during my pre-transition years so I can tell my story in a way that’s affirming for me and only me.”
Valens goes on to point out that there are a host of other reasons why a person might not want to post about where they were 10 years ago — be it a situation that doesn’t bear revisiting, like an abusive relationship or a loved one’s death, or even if they just had the audacity to gain weight instead of losing it.
In my case, my life is a perfect #10YearChallenge story: It does, in fact, chart something that looks from the outside very much like progress and success. And in fact, looking at it from the inside, there has been plenty of progress and success. But it’s never come in any form that felt or looked like a straight line; every piece of good news has been counterbalanced by setbacks and disappointments, both minor and major.
There’s never been a day of my life when I was as happy as a list of my accomplishments and my most-flattering selfie would suggest, just as the truth is that even at the worst moments of being 22, there was almost always a small good thing or two to appreciate. I remember in particular the week my friends and I came to refer to as Zan’s Blanket of Self-Pity period, when I lay on a couch wrapped in a literal blanket without moving for days and days, until a friend showed up and told me to get in the shower. Once I was clean again, she cooked us lunch. It was hard to feel quite so dramatic with a full belly and my sweet friend in front of me, patiently coaxing me away from my very worst self and toward a slightly better one.
Why in the world would I compare myself to her? She was just doing what she could to survive, and look at that: She did.
“I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” “whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
I’ve spent the better part of this decade trying to come to an understanding with the version of myself who was at best confused and, at worst, willfully self-destructive — trying to understand how I ever could have been her in the hope that I will never, ever have to be her again. That’s been my 10 Year Challenge, and I’ve told that story piece by piece, through Instagram and on Twitter, in essays and Tumblr posts, and many, many emails to my very patient friends and family.
You’d think that telling stories for a living would mean I was resigned to the artificiality of their conventions. Every narrative imposes an arbitrary beginning and end onto information. That’s why we like stories so much: They organize things for us and suggest that there’s always a moral, a lesson, an arc, and an end to what we’re going through.
But instead, my work has made me more sensitive to narrative’s power: to how badly we want stories, and how willingly we believe them, and as a result, how incredibly important it is to tell them carefully.
So all I can really say about the last decade is that I was a person when I was 22, and I am a different person now. Not better or wiser or cooler or anything except older, and different. It feels false to put us side by side because it makes us look like we belong in the same category: apples to apples. But she’s a baby terror, sick with something she doesn’t understand, and I’m her mother, and I’m so exasperated by her I can hardly think. We’re made of the same body, but we’re not the same person.
Why in the world would I compare myself to her? She was just doing what she could to survive, and look at that: She did. I didn’t replace and cannot erase her. Together we’re something like Theseus’s ship: Even as she was taking apart the planks that Zan at 15 and 19 and 20 had built for her, sanding the floors, believing herself to be a fully formed after, I’m dismantling and rebuilding her even now. It’s impossible to say where one of us ends and the other one begins. Of course it is. We grew up together. There has never been me without her. ●