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Comparing Your Present Self to Your Past Self

Old photos on social media often elicit negative judgments about yourself.

Source: silviarita/CC0/Pixabay

Throwback Thursdays on Facebook delight many people. Someone posts a photo from the long past. Depending on your age, the long past could be five years, but for others, it's 25 years or more. These photos may provide opportunities to relive important moments; they may dislodge memories kept in the remote corners of the mind. These photos remind us of where we used to be, with whom we used to be, and who we used to be. But they also remind us of what we used to look like, and this may prompt some harsh self-evaluations, at least at first.

As women in the U.S., we are immersed in a culture that tells us a significant part of our value or worth is contingent upon our looks. This is an early lesson in Sexism 101. Social media provides nearly endless opportunities for us to compare ourselves to others. A recent report, “Children, Teens, Media and Body Image,” authored by Common Sense Media, examined the effects of traditional media (TV, movies, magazines, and ads) and social media on body image and self-esteem. The news is not good: Teenage girls and young women (millennials) manifest more depression and anxiety as they spend more time on social media platforms. It is more than the constant comparisons driving the depression and anxiety; it is consistently coming up short in the comparisons. Comparing yourself and consistently judging yourself as less beautiful/popular/accomplished, etc. can become second nature. This corrodes self-esteem. Each of us is not just the judge, but the hanging judge, handing down the most severe punishments to ourselves.

Much of the research on the relationship between social media and self-esteem and body image focuses on younger women and their comparisons to each other. Less explored are the comparisons older women make to their own younger selves. How do older women tend to view their younger selves? Answering this question requires acknowledging ageism and its sexist dimensions. We also must acknowledge that while there are perhaps more opportunities for younger people on social media to negatively compare themselves to others, older women have been doing so for a lot longer; our habits of negative self-assessment are deeply ingrained.

Our looks are connected to our age; we cannot fight the fact that we do grow older. Still, we are expected to defy the effects of aging. That seems to be a familiar refrain in many beauty products geared to “older” women (whatever we mean by that). The charge that a woman has “let herself go” is a not-so-subtle way to say that she is failing on her upkeep. She has “let herself go” into the realm of unattractive and undesirable. From the outward appearance, many might assume that there is some needed maintenance on her interior: Does she not care anymore about how she looks?

When we who are older see photos of our younger selves, the old habits might kick right into gear. The initial assessment will be negative; we will notice what we have lost. Some people may avert their gaze at this point. Other older women might look more closely at the photo and see not just looks or surface appearance, but rather a different person. This is where it gets really interesting. When you are 50, seeing a photo of your 20-year-old self can be like looking at a total stranger; you may not even recognize yourself at first.

Looking at that photo longer, you may not concentrate on your looks, but what you were doing, hoping, feeling, etc., at the time. Photos are tricky; they capture and preserve a moment in a stream of moments. We take that one moment to be the truth of us at that time. What happened five minutes before or after the photo is lost. Yes, the 20-year-old may be smiling and laughing in that photo and looking tan and in shape, but the 50-year old self knows that she was really unhappy and struggling at the time. Her looks didn’t make her happy. Or, the 50-year-old knows she was really happy then, but what made her happy at 20 is really different from what makes her happy at 50. Her looks didn’t make her happy, but her optimism and willingness to take some risks made her happy.

How might we at least interrupt the cascade of negative comparisons many of us make to our past self? A crucial first step is acknowledging the extent of the habitual comparisons. Philosopher William James describes habits as folds in a piece of paper. What’s the equivalent of flattening the paper and weighing it down to remove the folds? Doing something repeatedly. Every time a person makes a negative comment about her present self in comparison to a younger self, she needs also to note something positive. She might say to herself, “Yes, I was in great shape then, but now I have work I love.” Or she may say, "I hid my pain and suffering well, but now I don't feel the need to hide." Yes, this is a mechanical exercise, but that’s what it takes to make new habits.

It is also important to find or create more opportunities and spaces for different generations of women to be together in meaningful ways. Older women know more than younger women about growing older, picking and choosing battles, letting some things go, while doubling down in commitment to others, recalibrating expectations, forging friendships with unlikely people, and, perhaps, forgiving our younger selves for mistakes made long ago. In older women, we may see models of living well and flourishing.

Facebook image: By Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

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