What is it about puberty that makes parents so uncomfortable?

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I got my period when I was 10 years old.   I didn’t even know what a period was.  I had sexuality education so I knew where babies came from, but no education about puberty. – Mandi, 28

It was a confusing, embarrassing and somewhat stressful time for me, but not horrifically so. I remember being given a book about puberty, but there wasn’t a huge amount of conversation within the family about it. More would have been good, probably. I must have felt uncomfortable with the changes in my body on some level, as I developed anorexia around age 14. Other factors were no doubt at play, including personality traits and personal circumstances, but I suspect that societal unease around female sexuality and body image was tied in there somehow. – Meg, 45

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Mandi and Megan’s comments are typical of the responses I received to my (admittedly non-scientific) Facebook survey of how people felt about puberty—both their own and their children’s. The word ‘awkward’ came up a lot, while ‘embarrassing’ also seemed to roll off the keyboard.

But most of all, people talked about it being something like unknown territory, of how little information they received or, as a friend of mine put it, that ‘there was a prevailing sense that certain topics were off-limits’.

Why should this be so? What it is about puberty that makes adults collectively so uncomfortable, so unwilling to talk to kids about it, and in some cases, so unwilling to have kids hear about it at all?

"We live in a society that prides itself on liberalism, yet the word 'fanny' still makes us feel uncomfortable." (Image: Getty)

Puberty flashback #263: I’m in Year 8 at my all-girl school, struggling to take off a particularly tight-fitting pink leotard from underneath my uniform so that I can go to the toilet. I was wearing the leotard because I was yet to come to terms with the small breasts that had recently made themselves known—when I wore the leotard under my uniform, I looked completely flat-chested.

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Many women, I know, would have the opposite memory of puberty and their breasts: of trying to make them bigger and more noticeable. But not me. Ballet, and its weird relationship with female bodies, had been messing with my head again: curves, breasts, body fat, underarm hair and general womanliness all contradicted its strict aesthetic.

I had absolutely no ambition to be a professional dancer—I didn’t have the passion for it, and I was also aware of my very real physical limitations—but I had managed to absorb these messages anyway. It would’ve helped me, I think, if someone had told me that puberty was healthy and normal, not something to be embarrassed about. But there I was, wrestling with my uniform in a toilet cubicle, trying to pretend it wasn’t happening.

It’s a puzzling cultural anomaly. On the one hand, we live in a diverse, largely secular society that prides itself on an overweening sense of small ‘l’ liberalism: the ‘live and let live’ philosophy has long had a strong foothold in Australia.

But when it comes to young people and sexuality—particularly them coming into their own—we seem trapped in a kind of archaic conservatism, a sense that you don’t talk about that kind of thing, that there is something innately embarrassing and even dirty about certain aspects of puberty. Menstruation, of course, is the stage that seems to attract the most squeamishness.

Are we more hung up about the female body than the male body? I think there’s little doubt that we are, and that female sexuality has long been viewed with a mix of suspicion, wariness and disgust. Or even historically—and I hope this idea has long since been put to bed, so to speak—believed not to exist at all.

Let’s just take one small example of our discomfort with the female body: how we talk about our genitalia. What is it that we females have, exactly? ‘Vagina’ is an anatomical term, the name for a small part of women’s genitalia that has come to represent the whole.

In some circles it is referred to as a ‘fanny’, the term most often used when I was growing up, but which has a certain coyness and dagginess about it that makes me uncomfortable. (And who among us, as children, didn’t find it hilarious that two of the author Enid Blyton’s most beloved characters were Dick and Fanny?) Far worse, though, is ‘front bottom’ (the what now?), ‘down there’, ‘nether regions’, ‘privates’, ‘your bits’, ‘lady parts’ or any other terrible euphemism. ‘

Cunt’, of course, is a difficult one to roll out to a two-year-old or a GP, so imbued is it with misogyny and abuse, despite a concerted effort by women to reclaim the word. It is instructive that one of the strongest terms of abuse we have in the English language—one of the words most likely to make even accomplished swearers, particularly females, cringe—likens someone to female genitalia.

When we talk about male genitalia, we have ‘dick’, ‘cock’, ‘freddy’, ‘willy’, ‘knob’, ‘schlong’, ‘wang’, ‘member’ and countless other names that have made their way into the vernacular. (So many are boys’ names. Perhaps we women should start calling our vaginas Hermione or Beatrice or Beryl. Or rethink Fanny.)

Listen: Amanda Dunn talks to This Glorious Mess about The New Puberty.

They all have reasonably affectionate undertones—none of them carries anywhere near the cultural load of ‘cunt’. And while we’re still far from comfortable talking about it, rarely is male genitalia referred to as ‘down there’ or ‘man parts’. But with females, we struggle, and it is symptomatic of the problem as a whole.

One of the issues that arises when we talk about male–female sexuality is the dated assumption that can undergird it: that men are sexually voracious and can’t help themselves, as opposed to women, who don’t want sex nearly as much, and that it’s up to women to take responsibility not only for themselves but for men as well.

This is the viewpoint that informs a lot of the ‘slut shaming’ rhetoric that sadly gets a regular outing. It is also one of the reasons why the federal government’s recent ‘Stop it at the start’ advertising campaign, which blew apart the ‘Boys will be boys’ approach and pointed out that these attitudes are instilled from a very young age, was so effective.

Again, our language is instructive. Think about the term ‘mistress’ and how it is still widely used to describe the female lover of a married man. It is a word laden with fear and contempt: she’s got him by the balls, literally and figuratively. But there is no equivalent for men. We may have come a long way, baby, but—in almost every facet of our lives—there is still a long way to go.

These things are deeply entrenched in our minds and our anxieties, often unconsciously so. Part of the problem we collectively have with girls reaching puberty—and the younger they are, the more heavily it weighs on us—is the notion that gaining an adult physique makes them vulnerable. This is a perfectly legitimate concern to have regarding, for example, a 10-year-old. How could she possibly cope with teasing about her boobs when she’s still playing with My Little Pony? And it’s one thing dealing with other kids, but how vulnerable might it make her to unwanted sexual interest or even assault from someone much older?

We live in a time of high cultural anxiety about these matters—anyone who has tuned in to the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse and heard the survivors’ harrowing stories, for example, cannot help but be deeply troubled by them.  At the same time, we are increasingly hearing reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault on university campuses, so much so that the peak body Universities Australia has asked the Human Rights Commission to investigate.

When it’s not the concern about a girl being subjected to a sexual context for which she is not ready, there’s the issue of how she may be treated because she looks older than she is. That is, adults, or even other kids, may expect more of her simply because she no longer looks like a child—even though, of course, she is one.

Here’s another problem: as adults, we may not know that much about puberty ourselves. Just as a parent feels befuddled when their child presents maths homework and they are left frantically trying to blow the dust off some ancient information in a remote archive of their brain (while also cooking dinner), so too can our knowledge of the exact function of body parts—and our ability to convey that knowledge in an age-appropriate way—leave us floundering.

It’s easy to leave a reputable book on your children’s beds (and there’s no shortage of excellent books about puberty written for kids) and hope to god they don’t have too many follow-up questions. It’s far harder to do the research, brush up on your knowledge, and then initiate a conversation that is frank and open but not too excruciating.

"What it is about puberty that makes adults collectively so uncomfortable, so unwilling to talk to kids about it, and in some cases, so unwilling to have kids hear about it at all?" (Image: Getty)

And there’s one final, subtler, but no less persuasive factor in our collective silence: just how difficult it can be sometimes to acknowledge that your kids are growing up—and that they are sexual beings. The anxiety around this is a natural corollary to being a loving parent: If they grow up, what will happen to them? Will they be OK without their mum and dad hovering over them?

And, hey, if they’re getting older, doesn’t that mean we are too? All this can trigger a melancholy moment—if I had a dollar for every time a parent told me, when I had my baby, to enjoy every moment because they ‘grow up so fast’, I’d probably be sunning myself on a Tahitian beach right now—and a reminder of life’s quick progress, the way it seems to gather pace with each passing year.

In growing up, our kids start to move away from us, develop independence and figure out who they are separate from their family environment. Add in the social changes that can happen around puberty, when young people instinctively become more private (certainly less communicative with parents) and far less predictable than they once were, and it’s a bewildering time for Mum and Dad.

But the approach of not talking about something and instead hoping it will go away has proven, on so many issues, to be a profoundly unsuccessful one. Puberty is no exception. A girl is more likely to cope well with puberty if her parents, teachers and society more generally have encouraged her to be confident, assertive, resilient and well informed, and to become friends with confident, assertive, resilient and well-informed boys.

So what happens to a girl when she reaches puberty, which as we know might be any time from the age of eight to 14? Pubertal change tends to follow a standard chronology, starting with breast buds and ending in menstruation, but once again there can be a lot of variation in this—girls, for example, may also experience an increase in sweat and body odour during puberty—that is completely normal.

Breasts

Usually the first cab off the pubertal rank, breast buds start with just a slight swelling of the nipple area. They can be hard and painful, and it’s very unpleasant to be hit in the breast once puberty starts, as alert readers of Chapter 1 will recall. However, any tenderness is likely to dissipate as the breasts develop. (Although hormones can affect breast tenderness throughout adult life, and particularly so in the lead-up to a period or in pregnancy.)

In the earliest developments, the nipples will stand out, and the areolae (the pink, circular areas around each nipple) will darken and become bigger. As the ovaries produce large amounts of oestrogen, fat in the connective tissue accumulates and the breasts ‘bud’. Once a girl’s periods begin, the breasts continue their maturation (in fact, breasts change all through women’s lives), and the duct system develops in preparation for childbirth and breastfeeding.

It is quite common for one breast to grow more quickly than the other, something that will likely even itself out as puberty runs its course (though it is very common for adult women to have some slight breast asymmetry). As with most aspects of puberty, a look at the gene pool will give some indication of how a girl’s breasts will develop and to what size: big and small boobs (and average ones, for that matter) tend to run in a family.

Pubic Hair

While breast development is usually the first sign of puberty proper, pubic hair can make an appearance beforehand or at the same time. It most often appears shortly after the breast buds, beginning as fine, fair, downy hair and becoming darker and coarser as puberty continues. There is no consensus about the evolutionary purpose of pubic hair, but the most widely held view seems to be around protecting the delicate skin underneath from friction or abrasion, and helping to keep bacteria and other microbes at bay.

Hair removal is another politically contested area, with one view having it that hair removal is part of the cultural pressure on women (in many Western societies, at least) to conform to a certain aesthetic ideal—yet another way in which women are coerced into feeling bad about their bodies.

In terms of health, it has been suggested that ripping hair out increases the risk of infection via bacteria entering the follicle. Ultimately, hair removal is a matter of culture or personal preference (or, if you are an elite athlete, of shaving milliseconds off your times). The grooming of pubes has been around for centuries and has followed tides of cultural fashion, with the most recent trend towards female pubic hair removal starting after World War II and continuing unabated since, at least in Australia (some European countries, on the other hand, have a more relaxed attitude to pubic hair, and to their bodies more generally).

LISTEN: Mamamia's parenting podcast, This Glorious Mess discuss The New Puberty (post continues after audio...)

Most people remove or keep hair for such cultural reasons, or aesthetic reasons, or because they think it enhances their sexual pleasure and/or attractiveness (or, if they are like me, because they can’t be bothered shaving in the cooler months).

The dark side of all this is pubic hair’s association with disgust—that it is not feminine to be hairy, that it’s unattractive. Or more fundamentally, that women’s bodies in their natural state are not acceptable, which is the reason we dye our hair and wear make-up, or undergo cosmetic surgery. An Australian study published in 2004 and involving 107 female undergraduate students found that 98 per cent of them removed their leg and/or underarm hair, mostly by shaving. It is the norm these days, and beauticians do a roaring trade in Brazilian waxes.

Pimples and Acne

The androgens or male hormones that swing into action during puberty change the skin. They make it oilier, stimulating the sebaceous glands to produce more sebum, which along with excess skin cells can clog the pores and trigger the growth of acne bacteria. This happens alongside inflammation of the skin and produces pimples—a kind of minor infection or inflammation.

As someone who developed adult acne and still struggles with it, I know how strongly it can affect self-esteem. Plus, it hurts! Cystic acne in particular—the deep, large and painful pimples that last a long time—can be very distressing. Mostly, acne will clear up as the hormonal surge settles down, but if not (again, this is likely if it runs in the family),  a GP or dermatologist might suggest an antibiotic or stronger medication to clear it up. Acne (as opposed to occasional pimples) can leave scarring on the face and body, so if this is prominent in your child, or if it’s causing her or him distress, it is worth seeing a doctor.

The relationship between diet and acne is a complex one that remains hotly debated, even among scientists. It was long thought (and dutifully passed down from parent to teenager) that a high-fat, high-sugar diet caused acne. That thinking changed. It’s now believed to be mostly about hormones, specifically testosterone, to which the skin of some people responds badly.

Nonetheless, having a healthy diet and exercise regime, and drinking plenty of water—things that are important for a person’s overall health—can help keep skin clear. Oh, and that warning not to squeeze pimples because it can spread infection? That still stands.

"the approach of not talking about something and instead hoping it will go away has proven, on so many issues, to be a profoundly unsuccessful one. Puberty is no exception." (Image: Getty)

Vaginal Discharge

Of all the mysteries of puberty, this is the one we hear about the least, probably because it’s the one most likely to elicit a response along the lines of ‘Ewww’. Of course, it’s just a perfectly natural and healthy part of the body’s transition from child to adult. About a year before a girl reaches menarche, there will be an increase in a white or yellow discharge from her vagina.

This is due to a change in hormone levels: the discharge keeps the vagina clean, and it will continue after menstruation begins. Usually a girl will notice it in her underwear and it won’t be a big deal. But it is important that girls know about it, expect it, and understand that it is normal and healthy. The only exception is if the odour is particularly strong, or the discharge is accompanied by itching or burning, in which case there may be an infection and this will need to be checked by a doctor.

Body Shape

As the female body moves from childhood to adulthood, our good friend oestrogen prepares the body for eventual childbearing by widening the hips and depositing fat there. A girl going through puberty will, in time, start to look curvier than she once did—she will start to look, logically enough, like a young woman.

The gorgeous curves of womanhood are something to be celebrated and not thought of as ‘my bum getting big’. The more we can drive that message home to young girls—not just during puberty, but always—the better will be the relationship they have with their bodies for the rest of their lives.

Growth Spurt

As with all facets of physical development during puberty,  girls will typically experience a growth spurt before boys, leading to that sight of Year 6 girls towering over their male peers. Eventually, boys have the growth spurt too,  and on average grow for longer and end up taller than their female classmates. Girls usually reach their full height by age 17, while for boys it is 19, or a little later. At their time of peak growth (around 11–12 years of age), girls shoot up by six – 10 centimetres a year.

Young people often find that they become a little clumsy and physically awkward at this time, as though their bodies have grown so rapidly that they can’t control them. A girl’s body parts won’t grow uniformly—the head, hands and feet tend to grow first—so for a while, certain parts may seem a little out of proportion, and it may take some time to adjust to that. In the meantime, lock up the good china.

But wait, there’s more …

All of this leads up to the main event of female pubertal change. It is usually puberty’s last stop, and there is probably no other aspect of human sexual development that is spoken of as frequently, or with such a potent mixture of fascination and repugnance. It has long been considered a private matter, but that ‘privacy’ has too often slid into shame.

It has been linked to the cycles of the moon, and a sense of female ‘otherworldliness’ and mystique, and it has been roundly complained about when advertisements talk about it too frankly. It has been handled in a variety of ways in pop culture—often through uncomfortable humour imbued with fear—and linked with female moodiness, irrationality and even madness. Women have been just as guilty of all this as men, yet without this monthly phenomenon, human beings would cease to exist.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you menstruation.

This is an extract from The New Puberty by Amanda Dunn, out now from MUP. RRP $24.99, Ebook $12.99

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