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
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?
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.
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.