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If you aren't on the best terms with the person in the mirror, take heart: You could be pals someday.

That's the message Salt Lake City resident Merilee Allred is trying to convey with her photo series, "Awkward Years Project," in which eight portrait subjects (including Allred) hold photos of themselves when — in their opinions — they were at their pimply, braces-wearing, fashion-disaster worst. Juxtaposed with their more confident adult selves, the result is rather striking and, Allred hopes, inspirational.

"As a child when you're going through something as hard as bullying, you don't see that popularity contests don't matter," Allred said, pointing to her own struggles from third to seventh grades. "I wanted to capture how proud people are of their former selves."

The idea came from a conversation Allred had with a friend from roller derby, Sarah Bohe, who wouldn't believe that Allred had once been "queen of the nerds." Bohe said she found it impossible to think Allred had ever been anything but comfortable in her own skin.

"I remember the first time I saw her at derby practice and I thought, 'Ugh, I hate that girl,'" Bohe joked. "She's not even sweaty. I told her, you're just the most radiatingly gorgeous person I've ever seen."

But it wasn't always that way, at least in Allred's eyes, and after much prodding from her friend, she proved it in a text message photo. She made Bohe swear not to show anybody. But then, she thought, maybe people SHOULD see it. Looking at her fifth-grade self, she realized that those years still had a profound effect on her self-esteem. "It was like lightning struck," Allred said. "A lot of us are still bruised by our past. I know that I'm not the only one, and it felt freeing."

After agreeing to a portrait of her own (coming soon), Bohe got her father to send some photos from her childhood in Philadelphia — during which she felt chubby and jealous of her skinnier older sister and the attention she would get from boys. That inner turmoil was evident in Bohe's expressions.

"It was sad to me to look back at those pictures and see how much time, energy and emotion we spend worrying about how we look," Bohe said. "I wish I could tell myself back then that 'It's all gonna work out OK.'"

Allred stresses that her message isn't to show "look how cute I got," but how people overcame years in which they felt bad about themselves. She hopes to expand the project and would love to receive story and photo submissions from people who have experienced similar psychological transformations. Email her at

Twitter: @matthew_piper