Few of us escaped our teenage years without at least a few moments of insecurity. Some of us wore thick-framed glasses, were saddled with braces, or had frizzy curls that couldn’t be tamed. Others grew taller than their classmates or had to wear hand-me-down clothes that didn’t fit quite right. Many of us were teased because we looked different.
It can feel daunting—like you’ll never grow out of it or fit in with your peers—especially in an age when bullying runs rampant. But Merilee Allred, a Salt Lake City-based web designer, wants young people to know it doesn’t have to be that way. In April, she launched the “Awkward Years Project,” a website that features self-assured adults holding gawky pictures of themselves from middle and high school. Her message? You won’t be awkward forever.
The Daily Beast spoke with Allred about her site, the pressures facing schoolchildren today, and her own awkward years.
The Daily Beast: What is the Awkward Years Project?
Merilee Allred: It’s a website where people can share their stories of being awkward when they were younger and how they overcame it.
What prompted you to create the site?
My friend and I were talking about our awkward years, and she couldn't believe that I was teased and bullied because of the way that I looked. I wanted to send her a picture from my childhood, but I did not want to send the picture out alone. I was afraid I'd get teased again even though I know my friend isn't that way. I felt like I needed to support my 11-year-old self. It was almost like I needed to do a before and after picture. That sparked this idea.
What do you hope to accomplish with the site?
I want to give young people hope. I feel like when they are going through their really rough times, especially in school, they can't see past what is in front of them. They can't see how they will move on after school, how they can get a great education, and get any job they want. Really, the opportunities are endless. So when I'm featuring people, I want them to say what they've been through and all of the great things they’ve accomplished. I really want somebody to see the site and say, "Hey, they went through the same thing I did, and if they can survive, so can I."
That sounds a little bit like Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign. Was that an inspiration to you?
Absolutely. I had heard of It Gets Better, and it really hit me because it's true. I’m also a huge fan of Ellen DeGeneres, and she says it all the time.
What does awkward mean to you?
It means not feeling comfortable in your own skin.
How did you get people to submit?
I wanted to start by capturing as many friends and family as I could. A lot of people were hesitant at first. I was brand new at this. I didn't exactly know how I wanted to go about this just yet. So they were guinea pigs. But, it was all about displaying the before and after and how great everyone turned out. I thought why not open it up to the public and see if anyone would like to participate? I only have so many friends and family that are willing to show their most awkward self. Plus, I want as wide a variety of people as I can get.
Who has submitted more, men or women?
We’ve definitely had more women so far. Maybe this is a huge generalization, but girls growing up seem to have a lot more pressure to fit in than boys. We are constantly being judged on our appearance. I was teased about being too skinny, and another girl in my class was teased about being too big. Boys didn't get that as much, but I know that they had their awkward years, too.
What challenges specifically face young women?
With girls especially, I feel like there's this terrible pressure put upon us. I know I felt it growing up, and almost every other girl does, too. I cannot think of one friend of mine who did not struggle with their weight, skinny or fat. It just seemed like it was a constant thing. Girls would pick on each other. Boys would pick on girls. Fashion magazines feed into it because young girls are looking at these magazines thinking that they have to look a certain way.
Tell me a little about your awkward years.
Growing up, I matured faster than most of the kids in my school. I was one of the tallest in my class, and I was so skinny. The clothes I wore were pretty baggy, and I got teased a lot for it. I was called skin and bones or Gumby because I just looked like I stretched so much. I had glasses and got teased for that. I got pinpointed for a lot of things, and being shy and quiet did not help either.
Many of your contributors send in stories about how they were bullied as children. Is there a particular anecdote that has stayed with you?
One of the more memorable stories was from my friend Autumn. She had to wear leg braces when she was a child, and she walked kind of funny. What stuck out to me was that her teacher made fun of her by walking funny to imitate her. I thought, what kind of an example is this teacher setting for all of the other kids? It's really sad that my friend’s teacher decided to make fun of her instead of help her. It was very hard for her to share her story because she didn't want people to make fun of her. It's a very sensitive part of her, but I really appreciated her sharing her story.
What has the reaction to the website been?
It's been mixed. I've heard mostly good things. I've had a couple of kids reach out and say that I'm giving them hope. I've had a few people give negative reviews, saying that I’m conforming to a certain idea of beauty, but that’s not the case. I really want everybody to submit. I want people with tattoos or facial piercings or dyed hair to submit. I want people that are comfortable in their skin now.
What is your response to critics who say the site places too much emphasis on physical appearance?
It's not about outward beauty. It's about inner beauty. It's about self discovery and finding pride in who you are now and even who you were back then. One of my subjects said it best: even though she would never go back and relive her awkward times, it taught her to be the person she is today. That's really what the project is about.
What advice do you have for people who feel awkward for whatever reason?
The best thing I can say is don’t let people get to you. I know it's really hard. What we need to realize is that popularity contests don't matter in the real world. We should focus on getting a good education and becoming the best person we can be. The other thing I’d say is beware of social media. Unlike when we were growing up, online bullying is more of an issue. Take back your power by turning off your computer. Be around people who love and accept you for who you are.