Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Learning about puberty is the epitome of the awkward, cis-centered sex education that most of us remember recieving 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 out-dated and flawed principles about bodies and biology as early as elementary school. 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into separate rooms to disclose what is perceived as highly secretive, private information about their bodies is wildly outdated and can even be damaging to young people.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. 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. Puberty pedagogy is built strictly on a false assumption about the binary nature of biological bodies. 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.
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.
This week I worked on creating a mini-puberty guide that covers these bases. I started with the basics:
What is puberty? How does it work?
Puberty begins in our brains which sends 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!
Everyone has varying levels of estrogen and testosterone in their bodies. These levels shift over time in response to stress, aging, and anatomical events like puberty. Hormones are just one aspect of our biology that doesn’t fit into binary categories. Other non-binary parts of our biology are: breast tissue (more than half of cis-men have breast tissue), chromosomes (not all people with XX chromosomes are female, and not all people with XY are male - AND there are other genes that can affect physical gender expression), and gentials (genitals fall on a spectrum of different shapes and sizes).
So what happens to bodies during puberty?
Expect changes in your 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 your chest, legs, face, and pubic area.
Expect your body to change in size and shape.Your height and weight may fluctuate a lot during puberty. Muscles grow and shift, and fat gets redistributed across your body.
What happens to minds during puberty?
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. Your 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.
Some tips for going through puberty:
This is a great time to develop new rituals. As your body and mind changes, it’s important to switch up your habits and routines to keep up. This is a great time to develop new rituals of personal hygiene, social interaction, and even spirituality. In other words - try some new things you’ve always wanted to try! Stuff like face masks and meditating can do a world of good during this turbulent time.
Start keeping a journal. Document how you felt throughout the day. It can be really useful to look back and reflect on how your moods and feelings have shifted throughout the week or month. Maybe some patterns will emerge!
Puberty and gender dysphoria:
What is gender dysphoria?
Gender dysphoria is the feeling 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 your 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.
Doctors can prescribe puberty blockers to pause or delay the onset of puberty in trans 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.
Do your own research!
It can be scary when things happen to our body that we don’t understand. Asking questions can be uncomfortable too. It’s a good idea to look in trusted, verified places for more information about puberty and your body. Here are some gender inclusive resources to get good advice:
The Pride Guide, Jo Langford
This Book is Gay by Juno Diaz
Check out this site: https://genderspectrum.org/articles/puberty-and-health-ed