Aging Anxiety and Facebook's 10-Year Challenge
Facebook's latest fad reveals our worries about growing old. But books can help.
Posted Jan 18, 2019
Making the rounds on Facebook this week is a challenge: post your profile photo from ten years ago next to your most recent profile picture. Many of my friends on the social media site have taken on the challenge tastefully or hilariously. Some admit that they’ve aged but say that they’ve embraced aging and express hope that they’ve grown in wisdom. Others have juxtaposed a painting that served as their first profile picture with an actual picture and have claimed that they’ve turned from a painting into a person. I like that.
But I’ve also noticed a concerning trend, one that reveals just how uncomfortable many of my friends are about aging and just how difficult they find it to love themselves as they age. Here's what I've observed.
For some people, the charge of the challenge seems to be for them to imply, or even prove, that they haven’t aged. They have aged, of course, so it’s an impossible task. Some of us have aged a little. Others of us have aged quite a bit. I certainly have. In one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare, Jaques of As You Like It describes the “Seven Ages of Man,” the stages through which we pass on our way to the grave, and it stands to reason that any given person will have passed from one age to the next over the course of a decade. Jaques’s speech is bleak—it ends with “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”—but As You Like It on the whole urges accepting, and even embracing, the inevitability of age. The challenge seems not to do this.
As a result, some of my Facebook friends have actually suggested that they haven’t aged. “These photos show that I still have that baby face,” I’ve seen more than one person remark, half-jokingly but with a half-concealed hope that people won’t notice how that remark could be interpreted as narcissistic. Craig Malkin points out that narcissism is driven by a pathological need to feel special, and claiming not to have aged in a decade would certainly seem to express the narcissist’s need. We’re all subject to natural processes. The challenge encourages us to pretend that we aren’t, to try to work magic with our appearance worthy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, whose eponymous hero wishes—successfully—that his portrait would age instead of him. Readers of Wilde’s novel know how that works out.
The challenge also prompts people to prevaricate about how much their friends have aged. “You haven’t aged a day,” I’ve seen people say in the comments. “Father Time has been so kind to you,” others have said. I don’t know whether they say this because they believe it, or because they want to encourage the person who has accepted the challenge. Either way, people rush to reassure friends that they aren’t aging, as though it would be a bad thing if they were (which they are) and never considering whether aging could be good. We might instead appreciate that none of us are as Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, with the Ring of Power to keep us from wrinkling. Anyone who knows those novels will know that not aging wasn’t a blessing for Bilbo. It was a curse.
In its own, strange way, the Ten-Year Challenge affords us an opportunity to reflect on aging and on whether we have healthy attitudes toward it. But plays like As You Like It and novels like The Lord of the Rings help us refine those attitudes in ways that Facebook never could.
 Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists (New York: Harper, 2015).