SALT LAKE CITY — “Remember the years between being a cute kid and the awesome person you are today?” That question is the basis of a new Tumblr project by started by a Salt Lake woman.
The Awkward Years Project was started by 35-year-old Merilee Allred, a User Experience Designer who lives in Salt Lake City, three months ago as a way to practice photography. The idea, she said, came out of a conversation with a friend about Allred’s “nerdy” and “awkward” past.
“It sparked this idea. Why not show a before and after? I would feel proud to show how far I’ve come,” Allred wrote. “And why not extend this out to family, friends, and strangers? We’ve all had those awkward years in one form or another. Whether it was braces, big glasses, zits, awfully-styled hair, or victims of terrible fashion, we can all think back to at least one photo that is especially incriminating.”
The project, she said, is not just about showing off how awkward people were compared to how lovely they have become; it is about opening up about their past and showing teens experiencing a similar state that it will be OK.
“I want people to be proud of who they’ve become. I want youth, especially those who are currently going through a rough time, to know that they are great people in the making,” Allred said. “I want to show them that their lives are only just beginning, to see their potential, and to not let bullies get them down. It’s the differences that set us apart from everyone else and we should celebrate that."
Allred started the blog posts with one of herself at age 11, standing in front of crooked “80s blinds.” The picture shows a 5th grader with permed hair and large glasses.
“I was so awkward that I had a hard time making friends or standing up to bullies. I even have a hard time showing what I used to look like because of always getting teased back then,” Allred said. “But I figured if I can share that part of my past next to the person that I turned out to be, I can embrace my little nerdy self and be okay with it!”
Each of the following posts shows a smiling Utah resident, holding a picture from their past. The stories included with each picture elicit more emotion than an empathatic laugh and comparison to one’s own awkward stage.
"Throughout the course of my life, leading up to this photo, I had worn leg braces, had my fourth grade teacher lead the school line down the hall walking pigeon toed to make fun of me, had worn an eye patch in elementary school and braces and a headgear,"wrote participant Autumn. "As you can see in the picture, I was also chubby."
She goes on to describe how shortly after the picture was taken, when she was 13 years old, the school discovered she had scoliosis. She spent her four years of high school wearing a back brace to correct her condition.
“I had great friends in high school, but my awkwardness of my younger years was never forgotten by my more popular peers,” she continued. “Looking at this picture brings up many emotions. A lot of sadness over the way I was treated and what I went through. But also pride, because I bore it all and the outcome isn’t so bad."
Even the images of those who might not have been considered physically awkward add a different perspective — empathy — to the dialogue of the blog.
“This isn’t a ‘look-how-I-got-hot type of blog.’ I know that people are thinking it’s all about idealized beauty, and that’s not it,” Allred said. “I just want to showcase a wide variety of people and hopefully they’re proud of who they are and happy to share any stories with me.”
I've learned that everybody has had an awkward past. ...It's also surprising to me how much people have been bullied.
“Who am I to say who didn’t go through an awkward phase? I don’t want to invalidate any feelings. They obviously went through what they did, and that’s why I hope they share their stories with me, so people understand that we all went through tough times.”
Allred’s sister Martie, now an international model, shared her story on the blog, saying kids in junior high would call her “Wookie” and make fun of her shyness.
"There was a particular group of ‘popular’ guys that chose to be mean to me all throughout junior high and high school. They have thrown ice and tampons at me,” Martie said. “I never knew why they didn’t like me because I never did anything to deserve what they did to me. I got to the point where I decided not to care about what they thought of me anymore. I decided to embrace who I was and not try to impress everyone. That is when I truly enjoyed my last years in high school.”
She said learning about people’s pasts has brought her closer to her subjects. Nobody is exempt from the stage of awkwardness and insecurities.
“I’ve learned that everybody has had an awkward past,” she said. “Everyone has been through that time in their life from which they’re afraid to show certain pictures. It’s also surprising to me how much people have been bullied. A lot of people have sent me their stories and submissions about what they’ve been through. As I take pictures of my subjects, we feel like we’ve survived. We accept who we are and we’re proud of it.”
She continues to accept submissions, local or otherwise. For more information, visit her blog, awkwardyearsproject.tumblr.com.