If you scrolled through any social media platform over the weekend, you probably saw a bunch of friends posting decade-old photos of themselves and commenting on whether or how they’d changed. Maybe you took the challenge yourself: One version asked users to post one picture from 2009 and one from 2019; another suggested comparing your first profile photo to your current one.
These endearing diptychs have been popping up under several different hashtags, among them #2009vs2019. The most popular, #HowHardDidAgeHitYou, suggests that the meme offers an opportunity to bemoan the cruel march of time, with its attendant erosion of collagen, skin elasticity, metabolism, and hairlines. But the actual images tell a different story. The 2009 photos are washed out, poorly angled, and generally unflattering, all dull skin and cheap-looking clothing. The 2019 ones, by contrast, are stunning. Hair is professionally cut. Clothes fit. Faces gleam in all the right places (cheekbones, temples) and none of the wrong ones (the T-zone). Age hasn’t so much hit these people as lovingly caressed them, nuzzling their glass-smooth throats while whispering sweet nothings into their unsagging ears.
The first reason for this near-universal glow-up is a narcissistic one: Hardly anyone would choose to post an unbecoming photo of themselves, even if the supposed point of the exercise is to track the degradation of age. Like #FirstSevenJobs, which let users trot out their self-made bona fides without regard for their structural advantages, and #ShareYourRejection, which encouraged people who’ve achieved conventional markers of success to show how far they’ve come, #HowHardDidAgeHitYou has become a vehicle for social media humblebragging—self-congratulation disguised as self-effacement.
Today’s people also look better than their 10-years-younger selves because they’ve learned how to present themselves. They’ve had a decade of experience dressing their bodies, styling their hair, and discerning how their skin reacts to the weather. They might have found a reliable hairdresser and a friend who gives them honest opinions about wardrobe options. In 10 years, they’ve hopefully gotten a few wage increases, too. They can afford to get their eyebrows threaded, replace tattered clothing, invest in the right makeup for their skin tone and type, or do whatever else makes them look and feel their best.
Third, while no one can stop the progression of time, with each passing year we get better at masking its effects. In 2009, we used digital and disposable cameras, or sometimes (I hope you’re sitting down for this) the cameras on our flip phones. Photo-editing software was expensive and unwieldy for nonprofessionals, and the simpler programs that came with most computer operating systems offered only a few blunt instruments. If you wanted to take a photo in low light, a flash was your best bet, making features either dusky and flat or garish and overexposed. If you wanted to learn how to apply makeup, you visited a makeup counter, learned from a friend who worked at a cosmetics store, or maybe read a blog post.
Today, humanity’s best makeup artists are teaching classes on YouTube. Contouring has migrated from drag shows to the drugstore. Thanks to the iPhone’s portrait mode and similar features for Android, we carry DSLR knockoffs in our pockets. If a smartphone’s fast-improving low light capacity can’t properly illuminate your selfies, cheap phone attachments that simulate studio-quality lighting should do the trick. Many social media users spend hours each day scrolling through photos of their friends, enemies, and celebrity idols, and have spent just as many hours looking at and editing images of their own visages, trying out angles and expressions. Easy-to-use white balance adjusters have done wonders for the photographed smile. Differin, a popular prescription acne and anti-wrinkle cream, is now sold over the counter. Skincare is somehow a trend; people who’ve never met a single dermatologist can name three exfoliating acids off the top of their heads. Fast fashion has gotten faster and more fashionable.
These social, cultural, and technological shifts are self-reinforcing. Instagram users are incentivized to post photos of themselves, so naturally they’re going to spend more time finding their best angles and perfecting their gel blush technique. Plastic surgeons say the rise of selfie culture has triggered an influx of patients who think their noses are too big, because close-up cameras can distort the size of facial features. High-definition camera phones make pores, wrinkles, and flyaway hairs far more noticeable, begging to be smoothed and blurred out of existence.
I wish I could look at the #HowHardDidAgeHitYou photos and feel happy that everyone’s embracing the aging process, especially since older people (and older women in particular) are almost always made to feel they’re far less beautiful than their younger selves. But in most of the 2019 photos, so many of which have been painstakingly Facetuned and filtered, I see hours of effort—on the self, on the photo app—and hundreds of dollars the 2009 person likely devoted to other purposes. The 2009 person might not know that her nice clothes look frumpy in poor lighting, that her haircut overwhelms her bone structure, that the camera angle makes her chin look weak, that a swipe of primer could have filled in those pores around her nose. And if she did, she had fewer incentives, and felt less immediate, social media–induced pressure, to become an expert in self-presentation so she could fix what now seem like obvious flaws.
I saw at least two #2009vs2019 diptychs that featured unspoken but obvious plastic surgery: one, a model who’d gotten a breast augmentation; the other, a magazine editor and a nose job. There’s nothing wrong with plastic surgery—I’m glad for those people who have the means to alter their appearances for more confidence and fulfillment. It’s also possible to interpret selfie lights and YouTube makeup tutorials as the democratization of an echelon of beauty that was once only available to an elite few. But at the heart of much of the self-dissatisfaction and lack of confidence that powers these transformations is a gendered and racialized public scrutiny that’s gotten a lot more exacting. I still remember when young, award-winning actresses could properly emote to the full extent their faces would allow. Can any now? I recently read that Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer, 25, has hired a skincare specialist to shoot lasers into her mouth, among other things, lest any nasolabial folds appear. The more widely available beautifying technologies and knowledge becomes, the more women will be expected to use them.
The fun of the #HowHardDidAgeHitYou meme lies in the intersection of nostalgia, narcissism, and the mythology of self-improvement. A better alternative that still scratches all of these itches, in my opinion, is those compilations of photos of celebrities before and after elaborate contouring entered the mainstream makeup industry. Looking at photos of incredibly hot famous people in the 1990s and early 2000s—when they looked slightly less incredibly hot due to inferior photographic, cosmetic, and lighting technology—is a good reminder that beauty is laborious. Comparing your friends’ 2009 looks to their 2019 ones does the opposite: It erases the money, hard work, and harsh judgment that make seemingly effortless beauty-in-aging possible.