Saturday, August 10, 2013

Facing the awkward years head-on

Earlier this year, I stumbled upon a photo project on Facebook called "The Awkward Years." The basic idea of the project is to showcase an adult holding a photo of themselves during an awkward phase of their life. The creator of this project, Merilee Allred, begins it by telling her own story next to a photo of her adult self holding a picture of her 5th grade self. Allred tells the story of her youth. It is one that you would never imagine for the beautiful red-lipped blonde. Her memories of that time in her life are filled with insecurities that grew as a result of being bullied.

By the time I finished reading her story, I had tears in my eyes.

The point of Allred's project was not to show off how beautiful she has become but rather, to show people that she overcame that time in her life. Despite everything, she grew up. She made it out of school and as an adult, she is working to prove to teens that life does get better.

I immediately contacted Allred to be a part of this project. When I pulled out the picture that I was going to be photographed with, I grew very nervous. I had joked with my friends in Utah about that teenager in Northern Virginia, but none of them had ever seen a photo or could really picture what I described. Showing this photo would make all my stories real. They would bring back that girl who I have tried so hard to escape. The one who was chubby, wore glasses and braces, was picked on by her peers for being overweight or wearing high waters. Who was made fun of for being pigeon-toed by her fourth grade teacher, who was poked fun at in the hallways because her "mother allowed her to wear that," who was called a "cow" and who eventually, had to wear a back brace through all four years of high school because of scoliosis.

When I looked at the 9th grade picture of my 13 year-old self, I was overcome with emotions that I suppose I had suppressed for quite some time. I wanted to cry and I wanted to laugh. I could not look at that photo without feeling embarrassed.

Writing about my younger years of awkwardness and feelings of insecurity was surprisingly therapeutic. I experienced a surge of emotions that were all very raw and I felt transported back to that time of my life in a way that is hard to articulate.

But that girl grew up too.

It has been months since I shared my story and I am no longer ashamed or embarrassed to let people know that little girl in the photo is me. I was terrified to post my picture on Facebook because of the teasing comments that I was sure to get. Instead, I received support and encouragement from my peers. My photo, along with others in this project, has been on, Good Morning America's website, all sorts of photo project pages, on television in Utah, and the list goes on. I am now excited that this photo has been exposed to the world because of the support that I have received and because each time I look at my adult self standing next to my 9th grade self, I feel proud.

It turns out that many people have stories of their own. And those of us who initially came forward in the beginning stages of the Awkward Years Project have inspired others around the world to share their stories.

It is also sad to know that so many people have experienced bullying. My hope is that teens who are feeling awkward or not good enough or ready to give up can read our stories and see how far we have come.

It isn't easy to revisit the past. I don't always recommend it. If I could go back in time, I would visit my younger self and tell her to not listen to the mean things the other kids say. To not feel ashamed for being different. To walk with my head high and know that it gets better and so do I. And that when push comes to shove, I am stronger because of my experiences.

In a way, this project did allow me to tell my younger self all of those things and oddly, I feel better.

Visit the official website for the Awkward Years Project here.