How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.

I haven’t taken part in the #10YearChallenge, a before and after meme that instructs participants to post side-by-side photos of themselves in 2009 and then again in 2019, usually with a caption that demonstrates their glow up.

This is partly because, in 2009, I was recently out of a relationship with an abusive partner (nothing I want to reminisce about). It’s partly because I was just two months into eating disorder recovery (not a time from which I want to look at pictures). It’s even partly because I heard that the data can be mined to improve facial recognition technology (creepy).

But mostly, it’s because I’m skeptical of anything that asks us to comment negatively on the natural process of aging — even implicitly.

Of course, taking part in a viral trend may not feel like social commentary, but even our small, individual choices don’t exist in a vacuum. Participation often adds to an already existing social narrative. And in the United States, beauty culture socializes us to believe and share that aging is a no-no.

It creates a dangerous environment for people who are past midlife, which is especially disturbing, because it’s a group many of us will eventually join.

At first glance, it appears the #10YearChallenge — along with its nearly interchangeable hashtag, #HowHardDidAgingHitYou — is turning anti-aging sentiments on their heads: the idea that we’re doing (and looking) better in 2019 than we were in 2009, and we’re damn proud of that improvement.

But the issue here is that in order for memes like this to be funny or creative, they also have to be based on a cultural norm: that aging is inherently a bad thing.

And that’s ageist.

How ageism and beauty often go hand in hand

Ageism — prejudice and discrimination aimed at older people on the basis of their age, not to be confused with adultism — is one form of marginalization that’s often ignored, even by activists deep in the social justice space. Ageism is a form of oppression, or an attitude built into structures that harms specific demographics.

And it can be seen in two different ways.

It can be microaggressive (demonstrated on an interpersonal level), like how we might roll our eyes at our parents’ or grandparents’ ideas or values. It can be macroaggressive (demonstrated on an institutional level), such as in a lack of social security for people in retirement.

And every time we comment on how such and such celebrity “looks so good for her age,” without thinking about the time, money, and procedures that have gone into that facade, we also contribute.

And it creates a dangerous environment for people who are past midlife, which is especially disturbing, because it’s a group many of us will eventually join.

In a culture that obsessively values youth, we inherently devalue aging — and even seemingly small actions contribute to that attitude. Every time we pluck out a gray hair or worry about a new wrinkle, we play into this narrative.

Our obsession with youth isn’t just about actual age. It’s also about youthfulness, or our bodies’ adherence to beauty norms that value youth.

And every time we comment on how such and such celebrity “looks so good for her age,” without thinking about the time, money, and procedures that have gone into that facade, we also contribute.

Take skin care for example.

Of course, our skin, like the rest of our body, needs to be taken care of. I’m not suggesting you throw your cleansers and serums in the trash. And people with skin that causes them trouble — oily, dry, sensitive, or acne prone, for example — may want to spend more time treating those problems.

But the language around skin care is heavily focused on youthfulness: Avoid wrinkles, retain bounce, achieve the look of Botox without the needles!

And that’s what the #10YearChallenge makes me think about

My Instagram is filled with this meme. The bulk of participants are still mostly young, in their 20s through 40s, with their captions comparing themselves to a fine wine or laughing at their younger (often MySpace-angled) selves.

I haven’t seen many older people — aside from celebrities, whose proximity to youth through access to treatments gives them a pass — posting about what’s changed between their 60s and 70s or celebrating the depth of their wrinkles or multitude of age spots.

Except for several joking on the relationship between breasts and gravity, I haven’t seen many captions waxing philosophical about the changes our bodies go through, like menopause or immobility.

And as proud as I am of my friends rejoicing their growth — a trans friend of mine wrote about learning to live his truth, a fat friend of mine commemorated her choice to stop dieting — I can’t help but think about those whose stories we aren’t hearing, those for whom, perhaps, aging actually has hit hard.

That Instagram is more interested in how my face, hair, body, and experience has changed between 24 and 34 than, say, my mother’s has between 54 and 64, says a lot. And while something as simple as the #10YearChallenge might not seem like a serious attack on aging, it does speak to whose stories we value.

The silence — the invisibility — to which those who are marginalized in our society are relegated is proof of their disposability. And that’s reason enough to pause and unpack our desire to participate.


Melissa A. Fabello, PhD, is a feminist educator whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.