“At times I have sensations which I cannot explain, impulses I cannot control, impressions I cannot shake off, dreams and thoughts contrary to the usual dreams and thoughts of others. […] I begin to think such deep thoughts that I get lost, weary, I no longer understand myself…” –The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1
Welcome to puberty—a word I still cannot say without shifting in my seat, as if my butt were uncomfortably stuck one of those plastic chairs I sat in throughout middle school. I know some people wait impatiently for their first bras, or to get their periods, but when I was 12, both of these things scared and confused me.
I have never forgotten the day where at lunch a friend, staring at my jeans, blurted out, “Wow, you have hips.” She looked at me as if I had some special power that she had yet to possess. In the bathroom before the bell rang, I saw she was right. My hips stuck out—they had become two sore points that I accidentally banged against tables and doorframes all year, forgetting I now had them. It was as if someone had added on to me when I wasn’t looking.
As a kid, I hardly felt myself slipping into clothes and out the door to go play in our large, wild backyard. My body was mostly in sync with whatever it was I wanted to do—climb, swim, swing high and jump off—and the things I wanted to change about it were negligible. Mostly, I wanted curly hair like my best friend’s and feet so calloused I could walk barefoot down the hot driveway in summertime. I felt a kind of peace and unawareness I still look back on with envy—with my body, with nature, with being alone.
That all changed when I hit puberty. My body developing seemed to signal to me that adulthood—something I’d never had much interest in—was looming. I tried, without much luck, to ignore the parts of me that felt new and ill-attached. I wore baggy sweatshirts, kept my period a secret, and avoided lunchroom conversations about bra shopping. All I wanted was for the the foreign forces of nature and time to stop working on me. This line of thinking was not only unproductive, considering these forces weren’t foreign—they were coming from inside me, after all—it was also isolating. I wish I had just said out loud, “I hate having boobs,” or, “I’m not really into this whole period thing.” That probably would have taken some of the weight of this secret unhappiness off my back, and shown me that I was less alone than I imagined. I talked to some Rookie contributors about this stuff to get it all out in the open, Everybody Poops–style. (After all, a few of us thought that that’s what our first periods were. GAH.)
“I hate taking up space and having parts of my body stick out or feel out of my control, so I always wore form-fitting camisoles instead of bras because I wanted to constrain my body into a little compact thing ,” Lucy says, adding that these feelings came from becoming aware that her body could be sexualized and fearing that inevitability. Suzy perfectly articulates how bizarre it is that your body somehow becomes public domain: “My body was a topic of conversation shared by everyone—both my family and/or total strangers. They’d just casually talk about it at the dinner table, or at a restaurant, or on car rides home.” This made her feel like she had to accommodate others’ discomfort with her changing body, becoming hyper self-conscious about their expectations of how to deal with things like body hair: “I was made fun of for being really hairy, so I started obsessively shaving and applying Nair and bleaching wherever I could.”
I feel for both Lucy and Suzy, and I would have wanted to be reassured that though your body is changing, you are still its one and only agent. That means, while you can listen to/or seek out advice and input on your choices from family and friends, you can also ask them from refraining from commenting. A simple, “Could we please change the subject?” should do in most cases. (And, as always: If someone’s comments are making you feel uncomfortable, or if they are persistent, please tell an adult you trust.) Just because adults feel the need to comment on you GROWING UP and CHANGING (aka the passage of time), doesn’t mean you have to put up with it!
Along with the pressure of dealing with other people’s expectations of your body comes the impulse to compare yourself to others during this very individual process of change. For Meagan, dealing with cystic acne made her feel not only physical pain and discomfort, but also upset her: “I’d see other girls in school and would be overcome with jealousy at their perfect skin. It seemed so unfair to me that they did not have to contend with the acne that engulfed my cheeks. When I was in gym class and marching band, I avoided taking a shower or washing my face after physical activity, because it would have been too humiliating to let anyone see me without makeup on. I just wanted to be pretty.” Remembering to take care of yourself (even the parts you don’t feel A+ about) can be a powerful way to take back some control, whether you use beauty products to distract yourself, empower yourself, or just to feel better about the way you look. As Anne says about her teen self: “I may not have been in charge of my boobs or period or my bangs when it was humid (and I am still not, which is why I don’t have bangs anymore), but at least I had Dr. Pepper Lip Smackers and cucumber face peel.”
Sometimes accepting what is happening to your body is less than straightforward, especially if it feels like the changes happening to you physically don’t reflect what you know about your gender identity. That was the case for Tyler, who went through puberty twice, once around 12 years old, and then again when they started taking testosterone at 20 years old: “The first time around, my body didn’t drastically change, which frustrated me at times. As a young teenager, I thought that maybe if my body changed, my gender identity would shift along with it, and somehow ‘womanhood’ would resonate with me. It never did. The drastic physical changes came at 20, when I started taking testosterone. These changes were initially exciting, but soon my body felt less like my own than it did at 13. I felt completely unlike myself; like I was searching for who I used to be every time I looked in the mirror. I stopped taking hormones at 22, and I’ve never been happier with my body or myself.” Here, Annie speaks to the importance of finding IRL people to talk to about what you’re feeling, especially if you’re trans: “My biggest advice is to find someone you can trust to talk to about this stuff, and preferably not only on the internet. Internet connections can be great too, but they can feel isolating if that’s all you have—though sometimes there’s not much of a choice, depending on where you’re at in your life.” Tyler wrote a piece on some ideas about how to share these feelings here, too.
If there are people in your life who you want to talk about your bod and feelings with: Do it. People who have already been through this weirdness can also help you keep things in perspective. For me, dealing with the emotions that went alongside these changes was obviously difficult, but I had friends for whom all this was no big deal! If I had talked to them about it, maybe it would have helped me to feel OK, or to realize I didn’t have to change my self-image just because my body was changing. Like Dylan, who says that she refused to see her period as either a “rite of passage” (ew) or something of which to be ashamed: “I loathe phony, arbitrary ceremony. ESPECIALLY if it’s around shit that I would so much rather keep to myself. I’m not, or never was, like, ASHAMED for bleeding—half of our entire species bleeds. I was like, This is normal—why is everyone wanting to make a big deal about this entirely normal thing my body is doing?”
Sometimes it came feel like celebrating and/or feeling shame about your body are the only two narratives available. Rejecting the idea that there is one way to grow into what adults sometimes call “a lovely young woman” (barf) can help. Tavi knows the feeling: “It was mad confusing to me that the idea of a barely legal teen girl was considered SEXii when all ‘blossoming’ meant for me was acne and body odor. I think realizing that every actress who plays a teenager is actually about 26 made me feel less like an outlier in a world of buxom babes touched by the gentle hand of Mother Nature.”
Another thing you can do to make these sometimes unwelcome changes feel a little better is to learn all you can about what’s going on with you, emotionally and biologically, even if you feel you have to do it on the sly, like Suzy:
“I never got proper sex education, so I thought I could, like, die of blood loss from a period. Or get pregnant at random (I don’t know how I reasoned that one). I finally snuck a copy of that gURL book at the library to figure out what was going on because the adults in my life were super repressed about all that.”
You might feel dissociated from your body, but finding out as much as you can about what is going on—and how to deal with that—can be a big help. Also, you might even grow to like parts of your body that bug you now! “Even though your hair is a MESS and your brows are ridiculous you will learn to love them/deal with it and literally everyone that told you curly hair was gross/boys hate it was wrong, so wrong,” Hazel says. You can embrace parts of yourself that don’t conform to the beauty standards of our day, and even draw on them as a source of strength and individuality. I don’t think accepting puberty necessarily means coming to some epiphany where, all of a sudden, you love and are cool with every last part of your body, forever. I think it is daily, continuing work, but that work is made easier by sharing what you are going through. Also even once “puberty” is over, your body and mind continues to change, so it’s helpful to remember that these developments don’t define you.
If I could, I would tell my 12-year-old self to stop hiding my feelings from everyone else in the world—and from myself, even in my journal, whose pages tell nothing of this hard time and read like after-school TV dreams. I would explain that there is no inherent contradiction in reading books and in wearing blue glitter eyeshadow, in running barefoot at home and in spraying tropical fruit mist on your neck at school—in being the person you’ve always been, and in growing up. ♦