My first thought when the 2009 vs. 2019 photo challenge began to go viral over the weekend was: Oh god. To participate in sharing pictures of myself now and from a decade ago required descending into the mental catacombs where I'd laid to rest memories of my 16th and 17th years, and I couldn't imagine willingly resuscitating them, much less airing them for the world to see. Why, I sulked as more and more friends piled on, would I want to revisit all that?

The meme, which is also called the #HowHardDidAgeHitYou challenge, or alternatively compares photos from 2008 to 2018, initially began to emerge at the turn of the year, but has significantly picked up steam over the last three days. It has now reached that level of "viral" where it seems inescapable on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — everyone I know, from my Alabama-based cousins to my friends from high school in Washington state to my colleagues in New York City, is participating. And while I initially cringed at the thought of posting a picture of my awkward high school self, the more time I spent looking at other people's posts, the more I realized I'd gotten the whole exercise wrong. The 2009 vs. 2019 challenge, rather than being an embarrassing visit to the past, is instead a beautiful and empowering practice of self-appreciation.

The rules of the "challenge" are simple: Participants post a photo of themselves from 2009 alongside a photo of themselves now, creating a visual "before" and "after" that spans a decade. The language associated around the challenge — both the hashtag #HowHardDidAgeHitYou, as well as the combative "versus" between 2009 and 2019 suggests that there should be a painful, cringe-worthy aspect to this comparison, that it forces you to reflect on your long-lost youth, for example, and to despair at your wrinkles, frumpiness, and extra pounds. Or, for my age group, the opposite reaction is presupposed: That the challenge would take us back to a time of ill-advised fashions, braces, and bad hair fringe. Only strangely, none of these reactions seem to be true in practice. Widely, the opposite was happening: The posts have encouraged us to embrace the people we once were and be at peace with the processes that made us who we are today.

It is a natural time for us to be participating in mass self-reflection: 2019 marks the close of the second decade of the new millennium. But normally these processes are more private; sharing photos of yourself is still likely to prompt accusations of self-absorption or narcissism. That's part of what makes the 2009 vs. 2019 challenge so alluring; it lends a joke's cover to participate, with the posts often self-deprecating and sarcastic in tone, and studded with laughing-crying emojis. But the willingness to post not one, but two pictures of oneself tells a different story of self-acceptance and empowerment. Even some of my friends who never post pictures, or rarely use social media at all, are joining in to share their transformations.

Looking through my own camera roll, I found I wasn't frustrated with my older pictures so much as I was tenderly amused by them. Ten years is enough time that you feel distant from the person in the photos, and your would-be self-criticisms are correspondingly dulled. As a result, most of the comments on the "before" photos are endearing and made with love. "I was more cute in 2009 tbh," one person quipped on Twitter. "Still adorable," asserted another. Another frequent comedic refrain: "Literally nothing's changed."

But the challenge is, of course, so much deeper than the single images. Each "before" photograph is also a snapshot of a different era, transporting you to previously-held insecurities and challenges and woes. Looking at photos from 2009, I was pulled back to my early high school years, the stress of friendship dynamics and my first boyfriend. I remembered how enormous everything felt then and I ached to reach across time to tell the girl in the pictures that everything would work out.

Almost as powerful are the "after" pictures and the embrace of ourselves as we exist now. Many people use the pictures to celebrate their "glow up" and the way time has shaped us into new people with new skin, new hair, new bodies. Frequently these "after" pictures also function as an acknowledgement of one's accomplishments and triumphs: dozens of the photos on my Facebook feed include new spouses, new babies, new homes, or new pets.

Yet more powerful than the "before" or "after" pictures is that space between the two images. The 2009 vs. 2019 challenge highlights what we have universally endured: The heartbreak, the grief, the disappointments of 10 years of life. It also illuminates what we've found along the way: Self-confidence, joy, maybe even love. That space between photos is a reminder of the passage of time and our own temporality.

The 2009 vs. 2019 challenge is a reminder, above all, that we have survived. It is proof that we have made it through a decade of life, with all the euphoria and discouragement that journey entails. It's the visual representation of your growth, as only you can ever know it, yet shared for everyone to see.

More important than what those photos say about the past, though, is what they say about the future. They are a reassurance. And they are a promise — that no matter what happens in the next 10 years, you can get through it all over again.