Learning about puberty is the epitome of the awkward, cis-centered sex education that most of us remember receiving back in middle school or high school. Most sexual health curriculums in the U.S. focus almost exclusively on puberty, pregnancy, and scary STDs, with puberty being the first topic, usually taught earliest. Puberty can begin in kids sometimes as young as 8 years old, so schools might start teaching some outdated and flawed principles about bodies and biology as early as elementary school.
Puberty pedagogy is built strictly on a false assumption about the binary nature of biological bodies. The practice of splitting up young children into groups of boys and girls, taking them into separate rooms to disclose what is perceived as highly secretive, private information about their bodies is wildly outdated and can even be damaging to young people. Not only does this framework teach children that their bodies are something to be silent and shameful about, but it leaves absolutely zero options for kids who are trans, gender non-conforming, or questioning their gender. This practice is sexist, transphobic, and is not concerned with the quality of education students get- only keeping students separate and denying the existence of trans and nonbinary folks.
It’s time for puberty education to get a gender-inclusive upgrade. It’s well-established in medical science that bodies rarely fall into neat categories of male or female, but this information is slow to trickle down into public health. When we reject the misinformative idea that “girls should only learn about girl-bodies” and “boys should only learn about boy bodies,” puberty sex ed starts to look very different. Gender expansive puberty is a dynamic curriculum that not only recognizes cisheteronormativity in sexual health education but actively works to dismantle it. This can look like: centering trans and nonbinary experiences, teaching about gender, gender identity, and sexuality, and recognizing and validating the variation of bodies, identities, and lived experiences.
Puberty education is some of the earliest health education children receive, as early as elementary school. This means that kids sometimes as young as 8 years old might be learning some outdated and flawed principles about bodies and biology as early. Further, the practices and pedagogies of current puberty education, such as the act of splitting up young children into groups of boys and girls and taking them into separate rooms to disclose what is perceived as highly secretive or private information about their bodies, is wildly outdated and can even be damaging to young people. Children should be taught about the biological functions of all bodies, regardless of gender, and there should be space in puberty education for discussions of why bodies are not inherently male or female.
Puberty education is also extremely gendered. This pedagogy is often built on a false assumption about the binary nature of biological bodies. This framework teaches children that 1) their bodies are something to be silent and shameful about, and 2) it leaves absolutely zero options for kids who are trans, gender non-conforming, or questioning their gender.” Children should be taught about the biological functions of all bodies, about natural variations in gender (such as transgender, nonbinary, and intersex), and about the vast and fluid realm of sexuality - because it is important information to know! There should be space in puberty education for discussions of why bodies are not inherently male or female. There is no reason why different sexes or genders should learn different information about sex, gender, health, or puberty. This practice creates a gap in knowledge about other bodies, something that all students have a right to know about. It also leaves absolutely zero options for kids who are trans, gender non-conforming, or questioning their gender.” You can’t tell someone’s sex or gender from their name, how they look, or even their assigned category at school. This means students can often end up in the “wrong” section, which can be traumatic and disaffirming to their experience.
So how do you teach gender-expansive puberty? First of all, you have to answer the basics: What is puberty and how does it work?
Puberty begins in our brains which send signals to our bodies that it’s time to begin a transformation. These signals are delivered through hormones, which are chemical signals that travel through our blood to communicate between organ systems.There are lots of hormones involved in puberty, but we tend to hear about estrogen and testosterone most frequently. And we learn about these hormones as if they belong solely to either “female” and “male” bodies exclusively. But this isn’t true! Most bodies have both testosterone and estrogen, and the levels of both change or fluctuate over time.
It’s also important to discuss the many brain and body changes that characterize puberty. These changes can be articulated and taught in gender-neutral ways. For example:
Youth can expect changes in skin and body hair. Acne can appear and disappear with puberty. Body hair can also appear in new places, or get thicker as puberty progresses. Expect hair in new places, like the chest, legs, face, and pubic area. Expect the body to change in size and shape. Height and weight may fluctuate a lot during puberty. Muscles grow and shift, and fat gets redistributed across the body.
Mental states can become more varied or intense. Puberty is infamous for causing extreme mood swings. This is sometimes just called “teenage angst” but that’s belittling. The brain is suddenly exposed to and swimming in a bunch of new hormones! Just like pregnant people or people going through withdrawals can experience mood swings and intense emotions because of changes in brain chemistry, people going through puberty are subject to shifts in mood, emotions, etc.
In a gender-expansive lens, it’s essential to center trans experiences. Make sure to explore and prepare youth to understand and navigate the relationship between puberty and gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is the experience that one’s physical characteristics or socialization does not match or validate their gender identity. This is a common feeling for most trans or gender non-conforming people. Puberty can cause changes to the body that may trigger gender dysphoria, such as widespread body hair, enlargement of breast tissue, or the beginnings of menstruation. This means that puberty might be a time when many kids first question their gender, or when underlying feelings of gender dysphoria become stronger.
Youth need tangible tools and practices that they can use to navigate puberty. Offer them some helpful ideas for self support, such as:
Puberty blockers: Doctors can prescribe puberty blockers to pause or delay the onset of puberty in trans and/or gender-nonconforming children.
Oftentimes, medical care is inaccessible for various reasons. In this case, it’s always a good option to find community-based mental health solutions. This can look like joining a group for trans-identifying people, or seeking out gender-affirming therapy.
New rituals: This is a great time for youth to develop new rituals and healthy habits. Try keeping a journal or beginning a meditation practice.
Mental & Physical wellness: As bodies and minds change, it’s important to update habits and routines to keep up.
This is a great time to develop new rituals of personal hygiene, social interaction, mental and physical wellness, and even spirituality.
Finally, remember that everyone is on their own journey with their body, mind, and sexuality. Puberty is an essential part of that journey. No two people’s puberty looks the same. We need to support youth on their terms! If you love, support, or work with youth going through this transition, ask them what they want to know, what they need, and how you can support them through this exciting and often challenging transition.