Richard Swerdlow: Looking Back

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

Looking through old photos, Richard Swerdlow has his ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone’ moment.

In this era of camera phones, I don't love seeing photos of myself. It's so easy to focus on flaws.

So I was surprised the other day, when I came across a box of old photos. Opening it, I was transported to the 1970s. A number featured 20-year-old me in disco regalia, but there I was grinning with friends, my college days, with my long-gone parents.

And, unexpected as it was to encounter my younger self in polyester pants 40 years ago, my first thought was "Wow!" I looked great.

In the 70s, along with Jimmy Carter, Abba, and Farrah-Fawcett hair, I remember the feeling everyone else was better-looking, smarter, more you-name-it. Coming across those photos, I realize I had no idea how good I looked in those days. Essayist Fran Lebowitz put it well – at a certain point, the worst photo of you in your 20s is better than the best photo of you in your 50s.


Photos look worse, but life is better at this age, and I'm glad to have outgrown those anxiety-ridden early adult years. And I know people can look amazing at every age. But I wish someone had told me then how great I looked and to enjoy it while it lasts because I would never look like that again. In my 20s, I was so fixated on what I didn't have that I didn't appreciate what I did have. Looking at those pictures, I'm realizing I shouldn't have been so hard on myself.

And if I was hard on myself, I feel for this social media generation, comparing themselves to curated selfies. Back in the day, snapshots displayed what you looked like, not your Photoshop skills. No wonder social media has been the subject of recent congressional hearings, mental health experts testifying about the toxic effects on young people, viewing impossibly perfect people online.

I hope these hearings motivate young people to stop comparing and to appreciate their appearance now because it won't last forever. Those photos showed me something besides my disco wardrobe - they showed me I wasted a lot of time worrying. George Bernard Shaw was right, youth is wasted on the young. One day, you'll look back, and realize how beautiful you were.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow is a teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District.