Monday 22 July 2019

Sarah Caden: 'All about me: 10-year challenge is a triumph of vanity over sense'

The #10yearchallenge may not be a tech conspiracy, but it's proof that we're ruled by our vanity, writes Sarah Caden

Reese Witherspoon 10 years ago and now
Reese Witherspoon 10 years ago and now

Sarah Caden

When Cheryl posted her #10yearchallenge photographs last Thursday, the response was exactly what one expected at that point in the week. By then, the so-called challenge was four days in, and posts and reactions had found a certain groove.

Cheryl's photos from 2009 and 2019 (actually 2018) were, respectively, a publicity shot from The X Factor and a picture she posted on her Instagram last November, as she prepared to perform at the celebrations for Prince Charles's 70th birthday.

To get in to the possibility that the former was a professional shot that may have had some touching up, and that the latter potentially used filters may be unfair, or maybe not.

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Cheryl "literally hasn't aged a day" was one reaction to the photographs, demonstrating how it's now acceptable to ignore the meaning of "literally" and the basics of time in order to tell someone they are, like, so amazing.

To suggest that Cheryl hasn't aged in 10 years was the blanket response to the singer and TV presenter's photos, which is obviously untrue. Time has passed. She's 10 years older. But to say such a thing is to insult the woman. Literally.

To say such a thing is not only contrary to how the #10yearchallenge works, but it's also no way to conduct oneself in the modern world. And if the #10yearchallenge demonstrates anything, it's how fragile our self-image obsession really is.

On the chance that you took a break from internet noise for a week, you've missed the rush to boast that is the #10yearchallenge. Also known as #howharddidaginghityou, it requires that you post on Facebook, Instagram, wherever you get your validation, two photographs, side by side. Both are of yourself - though some jokesters feature their pets, obviously - and one is from 2009, the other from 2019.

Ah, the passing of time. Or not.

What became key pretty quickly was that time was to have done as little to alter one's appearance as possible, particularly if you happened to be a celebrity.

Reese Witherspoon's pictures were captioned, "Time flies when you're having fun", as if fun accounted for the fact that, as the responses to her image testified, she looks pretty much exactly the same in the selected shots.

Jessica Biel, some people commented, appears younger now than she did 10 years ago. The actress commented on her 2009 fashion choices - blonde hair, hoop earrings, tan lines - infusing a humility into the posting and an appearance of being unconcerned with the ageing element.

Singer LeAnn Rimes, who looks fairly identical in both shots, notes that she looks forward to creating more laugh lines on her face in years to come. That's your cue to comment that she hasn't a line to her name and looks amazing, by the way, in case you haven't got the drill yet.

Obviously, this isn't exclusively a celebrity phenomenon. Social media was awash with side-by-side shots of people in 2009, which was when Facebook first took off, and 2019.

A lot of the ordinary folk and big social-media users were children 10 years ago, so that gave a cuteness quotient, but for those who were adults, it all followed a similar track to the celebs.

Photos were mostly chosen carefully to show minimal alteration in the intervening decade and people made big shows of slagging off their 2009 fashion choices, as if they were the point. It helps, of course, in the comparison department, that there were no photo filters in 2009, so that makes everyone look a little rougher round the edges way back then.

There were many, many instances of comments that marvelled at how the poster seemed to be ageing in reverse.

To be fair, some have used the challenge to make an extra point or poke fun at themselves. Caitlyn Jenner uses her photos to carry the message "Be authentic to yourself". Katie Piper's photos show her healthy and happy in 2019, compared with wearing a mask of bandages and drinking through a straw in 2009, not long after the acid attack that burned off her face.

Amy Schumer's 2019 shot shows her pregnant, which is her current status, while she used a picture of Charlize Theron playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos as her 2009 shot. She's also wearing what look like maternity Spanx in her 2019 picture, just to add to the "I'm the furthest thing from vain" vibe.

Not vain, but still always posting pictures of oneself and seeking comment and some variety of approval. That, in the pre-2009 world, was actually considered fairly vain behaviour. You know, constantly drawing attention to oneself, endlessly seeking affirmation and appreciation.

Pre-2009, people would have questioned the extent to which we put ourselves on display today, and they may well have been right. It's not as if there are any statistics to suggest that all of these likes or outpourings of "OMG age cannot wither you" are doing any of us any good.

In fact, quite the opposite. We're more anxious, more dissatisfied with our appearance, more racked by insecurity, and yet we manage to package all of that up into our concerns for the children, whom we talk about protecting from the internet while blithely doling out our own personal information and, with the #10yearchallenge, facial and ageing information, without a second thought.

Or without a second thought other than, "Oh please let someone say I look younger now than before I had the kids. I'll say it's the Pilates and tag the studio; maybe they'll give me some free classes in return."

Which leads us on to the sinister suggestions made about the #10yearchallenge as last week moved along.

Perhaps, it was suggested, this meme was all about collecting our data even more efficiently, and with our help. Perhaps, it was posited, this was a clever way of collating facial algorithm information on how individuals are changing appearance over time, thus allowing more sophisticated facial recognition and improved, age-related ad-targeting.

Of course, most of us have 10 years' worth of photos stored on social media anyway, but this week's challenge struck some as a very neat way of getting it all into one place.

Facebook has denied having anything to do with the #10yearchallenge but such paranoia is warranted, as is our vulnerability to allowing our vanity lead us by the nose into such a plot.

Time may have taken no toll on anyone's looks, but there's an argument to be made that it's played havoc with our judgment.

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