Awkward Years Project Gives Hope to Nerdy Ducklings that Confident Swans are in their Future (PHOTOS)

If you had told me when I was 12 that my reflection in the mirror would ever do anything besides make me burst into tears, I would have thought you were just adding facetious insult to injury. Me in middle school was not my thing. I didn’t like my hair, my smile, my body or my prospects.

Thankfully I came out on the other side at some point and I look back on that time with a lukewarm smile, because, of course it gets better.

Merilee Allred is a Salt Lake City-based graphic designer who had her own share of misgivings as a kid. The self-proclaimed “queen of nerds” from grades 3-7, she was clueless about how to dress and style herself. She pulled out of it by eighth grade with the help of some loved ones, and while she was telling her tale to a friend recently, she found herself needing to show proof that the graceful swan she blossomed into was once a hapless duckling.

Cue the Awkward Years Project. Allred made her friend promise not to show the photo to anyone, but then she realized the picture was over 20 years old, and the past was still affecting her.

“You know that mentality of overweight people who have lost so much weight but they still see themselves as fat? That’s how I feel. I may look normal now, but I still see myself as an awkward nerd. I wanted to take a picture of myself then and now, as if I had to hold my fifth-grade self’s hand before giving it to my friend.”

The project — to have people in the present hold up awkward photos from their past — is an effort to let others know how far they’ve come, and how they’ve healed and reconciled those insecure moments in life.

“I want to show them that their lives are only just beginning,” Allred said, “to see their potential, and to not let bullies get them down. It’s the differences that set us apart from everyone else and we should celebrate that. Great and many things are in store for all of us.”

Take a look:

  • Awkward Years Project 1 of 11

    The Awkward Years Project: Proof that it gets better.

  • Merilee 2 of 11

    Then: 11 years old, 5th grade, in Billings, MT.

    Now: 35 years old, UX Designer residing in Salt Lake City, UT.


    "So to start things off, I'll begin with a hesitant subject, and don't laugh too hard, me! Here I am in 5th grade with the fancy & crooked 80's blinds behind me. And let's not forget to mention the boofy bangs, frizzy permed hair, and my giant glasses that faded from purple to clear. I thought they were soooooo cooooool when I picked them out. Thank goodness hair grows out and glasses can be replaced by contacts or laser eye surgery! I was so awkward that I had a hard time making friends or standing up to bullies. I even have a hard time showing what I used to look like because of always getting teased back then. But I figured if I can share that part of my past next to the person that I turned out to be, I can embrace my little nerdy self and be okay with it!"

  • Martie 3 of 11

    Then: 12 years old, 6th Grade, Taylorsville, UT

    Now: 28 years old, International Model, as well as a Policy & Procedure Analyst at Discover Financial Services, residing in South Jordan, UT


    "Growing up I have always been quite shy until I got to know someone. I remember in elementary school I had more than one boy call me ugly and told me I looked like a boy. Junior high was the worst. I had the nicknames 'No talk girl' and 'Wookie' (a nickname for the tall furry creatures from Star Wars). Wookie stuck for quite a while and I hated it. I would come home from school crying on more than one occasion. 


    There was a particular group of 'popular' guys that chose to be mean to me all throughout junior high and high school. They have thrown ice and tampons at me. I never knew why they didn't like me because I never did anything to deserve what they did to me. I got to the point where I decided not to care about what they thought of me anymore. I decided to embrace who I was and not try to impress everyone. That is when I truly enjoyed my last years in high school. From playing Lord of the Rings games with friends during lunch to pretending to be British and even dressing up for several Harry Potter movie and book premieres. I gained amazing friends I never would have known if I still cared about what the 'popular' people thought of me. I learned to love who I was and LOVE life."

  • Laura 4 of 11

    Then: 12 years old, 6th grade, Salt Lake City, UT

    Now: 41 years old, Paralegal residing in Salt Lake City, UT


    "I'm a paralegal, but have returned to school for my bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. I am a mom, a writer, a cancer-survivor, and I play roller derby."

  • Autumn 5 of 11

    Then: 13 years old, 9th grade, Herndon, VA

    Now: 32 years old, Professional Freelance Writer, PR Specialist/Owner of Pink Rain PR, residing in Salt Lake City, UT


    "I currently work as the communications manager for the Utah chapter of Make-a-Wish. I am also a former arts and entertainment writer. I have interviewed various celebrities from actors to musicians, continue to report on the red carpet at the Sundance Film Festival and have been involved in many different forms of media. I have had the opportunity to model on behalf of curvy women everywhere and have tried everything from skydiving to MMA. I am also a freelance writer for the Salt Lake Tribune.


    Throughout the course of my life, leading up to this photo, I had worn leg braces, had my fourth grade teacher lead the school line down the hall walking pigeon toed to make fun of me, had worn an eye patch in elementary school and braces and a headgear. As you can see in the picture, I was also chubby. My sense of fashion was pretty much nonexistent and it was hard for me to feel secure around my peers. Largely because I was relentlessly teased for all of my imperfections by not only my peers but by my teacher too. At the time this photo was taken, I was 13-years old. Shortly after this photo was taken, my school discovered during a routine screening that I had scoliosis. It was so severe that I had to wear a back brace all four years of high school. Luckily for me, the scoliosis was caught before I hit my growth spurt. In the years to follow this picture, I grew 7 inches taller, I lost weight, I got a job to pay for my own contacts, and overhearing the comments made about my clothing by my schoolmates inspired me to change the way I dressed. I had great friends in high school, but my awkwardness of my younger years was never forgotten by my more popular peers. Looking at this picture brings up many emotions. A lot of sadness over the way I was treated and what I went through. But also pride, because I bore it all and the outcome isn't so bad."

  • Per 6 of 11

    Then: 17 years old, senior in high school, New Glarus, WI

    Now: 28 years old, Processing Specialist IV (Team Lead), Madison, WI


    "It started simply enough. I hadn't gotten my haircut after about two months and it was getting longer than it had been in quite some time. A girl I thought was cute took note and commented that I should grow out my hair for our junior prom. Not having anything better to do with my life at the time, I figured I might as well do so to kill some time.


    This was my senior year photo, probably about a solid year after I had last had a haircut. I'd keep it growing for around another six months. I think when all was said and done my hair was about eight inches long.


    Growing an afro was kind of a turning point for me in my high school career. I had gotten teased a lot growing up (my name is Per, pronounced pear, and I have red hair, it made me an easy target) and by my sophomore year of high school I had become an outcast of sorts. My tendency towards introversion had taken over by that point in time and my desire to blend in and go unnoticed was high.


    Growing my hair out changed that. When you have an eight inch red afro it becomes extremely hard not to stick out wherever you go and I had to adjust. People paid more attention to me. People always wanted to touch my hair. Girls began to show some interest in me for the first time, in part because I think I reminded some of them of Hyde from That 70's Show. I began to get invited to parties. I got a large part in a play put on by my forensics team where I played a mad scientist. The best artist in our class asked if she could paint my portrait, a piece of work I still have hanging in my living room. My senior class voted me as having 'Strangest Hair' among other things.


    I stopped getting caught up in my head with things that had precluded me from being more of myself and in turn came out of my shell during that time. I actually began to develop some self-confidence which I had been severely lacking in prior years. In a twist, this self-confidence caused me to kind of resent the fact that I had become defined by my hair, rather than who I was as a person. After 18 months, I called up a friend secretly, went to his house and I shaved my hair down to a quarter of an inch. That same night I showed up at my school to audition for our musical for the very first time. I was wearing a knitted cap and when I took it off people were in disbelief. A girl I had become friends with nearly began to cry. I'd do well in the audition and get the role of Albert Peterson in Bye, Bye Birdie. In retrospect, getting that role was sort of the culmination of everything that had happened to me during the prior 18 months and a statement to how much I had grown into myself as a person by then. By the time I graduated I felt accepted by the rest of my class and was no longer an outcast. Growing an afro proved to be a good way to kill time.


    Nowadays I can only dream of having hair that long. Having a mix of genetics from three grandparents who all eventually went bald has started to catch up to me. It's probably all for the best though as having that much hair was a hassle. People still remember it though. A friend of mine and I were discussing how I used to run cross country at a golf course in what turned out to be her hometown about 20 minutes away from mine. I found out that she was a freshman at that same race when I was a senior. When I asked if she remembered a guy with a giant red afro, her mouth dropped open, her eyes got huge and she said, 'That was you?!'"


    It's kind of crazy to think about how 11 years later there are probably strangers out there who would have the same reaction."

  • Mick 7 of 11

    Then: 9 years old, 3rd grade, Coeur d' Alene, ID

    Now: 31 years old, Physician Assistant in Orthopedics, residing in St. George, UT


    "I can remember I had to dress myself for school in the morning since my mom had to leave early for work. This included bright green sweatpants and turtle necks under everything including my T-shirts. I just wanted to be comfortable at school. Girls would ask me if I owned a pair of jeans. I asked a friend once which colored turtle neck I should wear under my T-shirt. He told me I should just wear the T-shirt. My glasses seemed to never fit my face and they seemed to grow in size when I needed a new pair. My teeth were really crooked and I was never wanted to smile in front of girls. I can remember countless times I was bullied at school and around the neighborhood. I was pushed in a huge stack of cereal boxes in a grocery store one day, and I was kicked in the face while I was walking home from school by two kids on a bike. I can't count the number of four eyed joked I heard everyday at school.


    I remember I asked a girl for a piece of gum and she told me she couldn't since it would get stuck between my crooked teeth. I was always picked last for kickball during recess. I often would rather practice the piano than go out and play with other kids. I have my wonderful family to thank who loved and supported me during this time. I tried so hard to not let the kids at school get to me and bring me down.


    Looking back I feel I became a stronger person because of my childhood. I wouldn't change one thing about that nerdy kid I see in those pictures. As I grew I had braces, contacts, and a little better dressing selection. In high school I was a state champion hurdler in track and field which helped me pay my way through college on a track scholarship. I later received my Master's degree in Physician Assistant Studies. I love to play and write music. I have had the opportunity to professionally record some of my original songs. I currently have a beautiful wife, 3 children, and a wonderful career that I enjoy doing everyday."

  • Kristin 8 of 11

    Then: 11-12 years old, Houston, TX

    Now: 36 years old, Therapist providing crisis services, residing in Salt Lake City, UT


    "To put it mildly, growing up sucked. I think both my parents were, how shall I put this, um diagnosable. Which means they couldn't take care of themselves, let alone 5 children. I didn't have much guidance when it came to things like nutrition, hygiene, social skills, and certainly not fashion. My childhood was incredibly lonely and awkward. I was grossly obese with huge fluffy hair. I had one friend, and I think at times she was even embarrassed to be seen with me. At home my brothers called me poodle head, which almost felt like a term of endearment because when I got to school my classmates called me porker, which was often followed by oinking and pig faces then snickering. I don't recall adults being concerned or ever intervening. I often wished myself dead.


    One memory that really stands out for me was having to go to a gathering where there were a limited number of chairs. No one wanted to sit on either side of me. I was about 9 or 10 at the time. I was feeling really embarrassed, ashamed even and busy internalizing a message that something must be wrong with me when all of a sudden a kind boy named Mike smiled at me then stood up and came and sat down like it was no big deal, and I felt so much relief even love and joy. The moment was short lived though as the teacher began praising him and making a big deal about him sitting next to me as if it was some enormous sacrifice as she reluctantly took the seat to my other side. 


    Over my life I've had a love hate relationship with myself. At times I've not been satisfied with the way my body looks and I've felt ashamed of who I am. I'm embarrassed to say at times as an adult I have unconsciously sought out situations that have reinforced my belief system that I am less than others, not whole or not worthy of love. 


    Getting to a place of self acceptance is a long and continuous journey. Part of healing has been reaching the realization that my true self is not my body, and that I have treated myself unkindly rather than being nurturing. Also, I try to replace my negative thoughts with more positive ones and embrace my imperfections rather than hate them. I am grateful to be surrounded by loving and nurturing people. I do my best to invite love and joy and positive people into my life. I try to find the blessings or lessons in even the most messed up situations. 


    "I think in some ways there were even some blessings in being bullied, which is not to say I would ever go back to Elementary or Jr. High School. However, today I see myself as a compassionate person. I care  about other people's feelings. I never want to hurt anyone or cause pain. In any given situation I will usually root for the underdog, and I feel strongly about social justice."

  • Stacey 9 of 11

    Then: 11 years old, 6th grade, Taylorsville, UT

    Now: 28 years old, Stay-at-Home Mom and Hairdresser residing in Murray, UT


    "I was a very sad, awkward, transitioning Tom Boy. Trying to get boys to like me instead of friend zoning me to get closer to my friends. At 11 I obviously didn't know what I was doing I would always sneak shirts from my sister's closet who was 4 1/2 years older then me, because she was the coolest person I knew so obviously wearing her clothes would make the boys like me. This picture really reminds me of that time. The button-up shirt that was slightly too big shirt coupled with the amazing overall shorts that were slightly too small, have you SEEN overall shirts that are too small..? Yikes. The crazy bushy eyebrows and the over hairsprayed, uncharacteristic, trying too hard hair style. Wanting to fit in so bad and not understanding why I didn't. I remember being in such a sad and lonely place, putting so much pressure on myself why I wasn't good enough. It's really sad to think about how depressed I was, for nothing! Everything turned out better then I could've ever imagined back then. I wish someone would've taken the time to really explain that it does get better."

  • Lindsey 10 of 11

    Then: 11 years old, 6th Grade, in Maumelle, Arkansas

    Now: 32 years old, Nanny/personal assistant residing in Holladay, Utah


    "I started jr high a few weeks after we moved back from Arkansas. So not only did I get to start 7th grade in a brand new school and brand new state, I also had no idea how to style my hair or how to put an outfit together! I was teased about my southern accent, which I would kill to have  back, and teased about my hair that wasn't used to the Salt Lake climate. To top it all off, I have Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder, ADHD. This made the awkward jr years so much more  awful! It was hard to make friends and hard to sit still and behave in class. During that first difficult year, I met some wonderful friends who helped boost my self esteem and  confidence and taught me how to grow in to myself. 


    Now, at 32, I continue to have ADHD and still find it hard to sit still but I have learned to channel that energy into creativity. I have met some wonderful friends by playing Roller Derby and they constantly boost my self esteem and confidence.  Those I am still growing in to myself and those awkward years are not totally gone, but they certainly feel more comfortable. What I learned is that everything happens for a reason and you will make it through the most awkward parts of life! Frizzy hair and all!"

  • Courtney 11 of 11

    Then: 6 years old, first grade, in Bountiful, UT

    Now: 23 years old, Facilities Coordinator at City Creek Center, residing in Salt Lake City, UT


    "The picture I am holding is my first grade photo, taken when I was six. At an early age I used my independence when it came to fashion and beauty. I stopped letting my mom dress me around age 3 and I started dying my hair at age 8. I remember loving to experiment with new hair-dos and fashion trends; however my creativity was not well received during my elementary and junior high years. I began to feel as though beauty was only found in those girls with perfect hair, flawless skin, perfectly shaped eyebrows, and amazing clothes. I now know that perfection isn't normal, nor is it interesting. I've learned to embrace my quirks and just be me!"


All images used with permission from Merilee Allred

More from Meredith on Babble:

Follow Meredith on Twitter and check out her regular column on the Op-Ed page of The Denver Post at

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