Growing up as a teenager in India, not many of us can claim to have received a proper explanatory talk on puberty, be it in school or at home. The “birds and bees” talk was totally foreign to us! Going through puberty was more like a trial-and-error task for me where I was trying to figure out the reason why all of a sudden neither my body nor the way I perceived my body was the same anymore. As far as I can remember, one day I was a child running in the wild and the next day I could notice visible changes in my body which I couldn’t really explain.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, puberty is the stage where a child’s body starts achieving sexual maturity, during which their bodies go though a developing stage of physical and psychological changes, i.e. becoming capable of reproducing sexually which is instigated by the production of sex hormones in our bodies and maturing of reproductive organs. The most common hints that indicate puberty in people with an uterus are re-distribution of body fat; hair growth and high skin pigmentation in armpits and pubic areas; development of breast tissues and menstruation. On the other hand, changes like growth of testicles and penis; growth of facial, pubic and armpit hair; deepening of the voice and growth of muscle strength indicate puberty in people with penises.
While most of these changes are visibly physical, human bodies also go through psychological changes, both of which influence each other, that are often neglected. The most important psychological and psychosocial changes in an adolescent going through puberty are absent-mindedness, abstract thinking, heightened introspective capabilities, change of perspectives, development of a personal or sexual identity, keen interest in gender expression, frequent loss of temper and so on.
The concept of puberty is so hyper focused as a physical process and we tend to overlook the psychological hardships. On a personal note, I felt so isolated from my surroundings during my puberty that I started believing that I didn’t belong in them. Sometimes my emotions were so overwhelming that I could not pinpoint what exactly I was feeling and often ended up lashing out at the very first person who reached out to me. Not being able to express or understand what one is feeling, has to be one of the most vulnerable human states of mind. I believe we as individuals who have gone through the same experiences can make things easier for our younger generations just by talking about it.
The toughest part of going through puberty is the fear of being alone in the journey. Growing up, adolescents are rarely informed about the upcoming changes that they will have to go through and by the time they receive half-hearted information that creates more doubts than resolving them; most of them resort to hear-say from their peers or trust unverified sources on the internet to answer their curiosities. It is the lack of a safe space which makes going through puberty harder than it already is. Can you imagine how easier it would have been for yourself if you had a space or community which not only encouraged your curiosities regarding your body but also provided you with the resources to understand it better?
Our parents and teachers play the primary role of caregivers during our adolescent years and as the adults in the scenario, I believe they play a major role in creating those required safe spaces for us. An article on growth and development of teens mentions that it only takes a little time, patience and empathy can make the entire experience a lot easier.
Instead of avoiding and skipping the subject of sex education that discusses human’s sexual anatomy, functions of different organs, pleasure, consent and other relevant topics; if they addressed it and answered the curious questions, the teenagers can avoid confrontation on so many wrong myths and misinformation that comes from the lack of awareness.
As the Primary caregivers, it is also their responsibility to provide them with adequate resources for them to research on their own, along with privacy and a non-judgmental space, in case they have any follow up questions. Regular classroom conversations with the teenagers about menstrual health and disorders, hygiene, masturbation, physical appearance, etc. without separating them into groups based on their biological sex, can help counter the stigma attached to such taboo topics.
Patience is another important attribute that caregivers need to instill into their perspectives as the teenagers often experience overwhelming emotions. Instead of forcing them to go out of their comfort zones, caregivers could ensure a safe and accessible environment for everyone without leaving anyone behind. Schools could also encourage group activities or peer sharing amongst the teenagers to create an empathetic bond between them. Open lines of communication and trust could be practiced at homes and schools so the teenagers know for sure, who to reach out to in case they need the help of an adult with their queries.
Most importantly, a non-dismissive attitude should be adopted by the caregivers to ensure and understand the experience of the teenagers. Overlooking physical or mental signs of distress could not only lead to health emergencies but also create lifelong trauma if not helped when required.
When we talk about the importance of making conversations about puberty more inclusive and accessible, we need to acknowledge that as a predominantly sexist society that hardly talks about sexual maturity or sexual identity, it overly sexualizes teenagers, specifically people with an uterus. Our patriarchal mindset deeply influences us into believing that they are supposed to hide behind layers and layers of clothing to avoid the male gaze and never retaliate or claim agency over their own bodies. Even now when I look back at the time when I was going through puberty, I realize that most often I was gaslighted into believing that the physical changes that my body was going through was somehow my fault and it was my responsibility to protect it from male indecency, which I had no control over.
In today’s 21st century, we are yet to destigmatize a lot of things related to one’s anatomy, including myths like ‘girls mature faster than boys'. Puberty for individuals may work in different ways as physical or psychological changes are not universal and it differs from one to another. It is the patriarchy that assigns people with an uterus to accept gender roles limiting their character as mere caregivers when they are so much more than that. It’s important for people who have past experience with puberty to initiate more conversations around puberty and human bodies in our homes, educational institutes and work spaces, that way we can break down such narrow ideas that not only restrict teenage mindset but also ingrain pre-existing harmful, sexist and queerphobic ideologies into their mind.
So, the next time you see a curious teenager seeking answers, how about you wear your responsible elder sibling cap and guide them through the forbidden treasures of medically correct resources and give them a consensual head pat so they know that they never were or never will be alone in their journey?