Illustration by Cynthia

Here’s a story for you: Not so very long ago, I was a teenager, and read magazines. I know! I know! It was exciting for me, too! But the thing is, these magazines were often not so great for my self-esteem. Because here is what I remember about those magazines: 9,000 articles by girls about why their bodies were disgusting. Sometimes, there was a whole section: readers would contribute “stories” along the lines of “One time I dropped a tampon in front of a boy and I was soooo embarrassed,” or “One time a boy found out that my bra was padded and I was soooo embarrassed,” or “This one time, I found out that I have a body, and I’m not just a cloud of pure consciousness, and that means that I have to eat and sleep and stuff. I was soooooooooo embarrassed!”

My theory at the time was that if these apparently normal girls were embarrassed by their bodies, I clearly needed to be super embarrassed. Because I was convinced that my human body was the worst human body. Theirs were in magazines, after all; mine was just the ever-evolving deal I had to confront in the shower. And, in this attitude, I was just like every other girl I knew. The fact that (a) I thought my body was the worst, and (b) I spent a lot of time reading magazines about how to make my body less hideous and which terrible things might happen if I didn’t… Well. I never really connected the dots.

But here’s the good news: I grew up. And I found out that my theory was bs. It’s true: bodies are goofy, and never do exactly what you’d like. But the idea that you have to be embarrassed about your own bodily functions? That idea exists solely to make you less confident, so that no one has to encounter you at your full, natural level of awesomeness. Also, it exists because for some reason people think certain facts about the human body are unspeakable. Even though you are going to find out most of those things sooner or later. Preferably sooner! Because I will now share with you several TERRIFYING SECRETS of the HUMAN BODY, such as:

Your period is going to come whenever it wants.

When I was young, I could not wait to get my first period. My older cousins were always talking about theirs, and trading war stories—One time I puked! One time I fainted! One time I puked and fainted, while pooping!—and it sounded so grown-up that I envied them intensely. Why I wanted to experience something that made someone defecate whilst vomiting and passing out, I’ll never understand. But I did. So, when my period hadn’t shown up by my 13th birthday, I did what anyone would do: I lied. For several months, I faked my own period.

I faked it so well, in fact, that I forgot I might actually get one. Imagine my surprise, then, when it showed up. One fine summer evening, after I’d been jumping around on a trampoline and flirting with a boy, someone pointed out to me that I had, indeed, finally gotten my period. I had Become a Woman after all, without even knowing.

Unfortunately, everyone else did know. Because I Became a Woman in skin-tight white cotton leggings. That I had borrowed. From my cousin. In front of whom, a week earlier, I had faked my period.

If you have a uterus, eat well, and are reasonably healthy, you are going to get your first period eventually. But that doesn’t make you a woman. It doesn’t make you anything but a risky candidate for borrowing tight white pants. So you don’t need to obsess. Also, the first few times it does show up, it’s going to be messy. You have to learn to expect it, and deal with it in the way that works best for you. But as long as you have a period, there will be spills, overflows, and stains; none of this is a reason to be humiliated, or even especially surprised. Some jerks might laugh, but guess what? Jerks laugh about things. That is what makes them jerks. They do this so that they can convince the world that the things that happen to everyone have never happened to them, which is blatantly untrue, and also keeps them from ever getting any sympathy when bad stuff happens. So just imagine them writhing in their lonely insecurity every time something unfortunate happens to them, planning how they are going to make so much fun of everyone else it’s ever happened to. What powerful, fulfilling lives these people lead! Oh, and by the way:

Dudes already know what tampons are.

It’s true! Even the most clueless dudes have sources of uterus-related knowledge, such as their sisters, their moms, or health class. Or television, where there are always pretty ladies between the daytime programs talking about how they just love to wear sexy outfits to the club, except “sometimes,” when they feel “not so confident,” but now, thanks to WINGS and RESERVOIRS, they can basically go to the club naked. No matter how oblivious this guy is, he’s probably figured out that they’re not talking about the Hoover Dam.

So, if a guy has female relatives, a health class, or sick days, he knows that uteruses shed their linings, and that various devices such as pads and tampons are used to catch the wave. Unfortunately, he—like you—has also received the message that these things are icky and forbidden, and that he must freak out every time he sees or hears about them. Because if he didn’t, he’d be giving the message that he’s comfortable with his own body, and the bodies of various others. And that’s not going to help him, right? Too many dudes think they’re supposed to go through life horrified by their own and other people’s crotches.

Don’t help to maintain this silliness. If you get embarrassed every time you drop a pad or tampon—and it will happen—or every time a dude looks through your bag for a pen and finds one of these items instead, he gets to pretend that he is ignorant and that you are yucky for one more day. And that’s a day none of us can afford. Sooner or later, he’s going to be 53, and in Congress, and saying that he just doesn’t understand why people NEED birth control, all because no one had the decency to sit him down and tell him to stop pretending he doesn’t know about vaginas.

So: If a dude freaks out about your tampons, do him a favor. Ask him if he would prefer that you didn’t use them. Describe for him what the consequences of that decision might be.

Now that we’ve covered the downstairs furniture, it might be time to mention that:

Your breasts are normal.

I was a skinny kid. I took a lot of dance classes, rode my bike everywhere, and did a lot of swimming; I also went from being the shortest girl in my class to one of the most medium-size, almost overnight. So, I was bony. I was fine with this; “skinny,” after all, was what the world taught me girls should be. But one aspect of my body made me deeply insecure. I complained; I cried; I was sure that no one would ever love me. All because I could not figure out why I, a person with no visible body fat, did not have big breasts. The skinny girls in magazines did! The girls on TV did! The girls in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition definitely did—that was the whole point of that issue. Why not me? WHY WAS I SO UGLY?

To be honest, if you have breasts, the odds are high that your breasts are normal. But the odds are also high that you haven’t seen a normal, unretouched human breast since you were nursing from one. So, when you grow some, they’ll look unfamiliar. Here, therefore, is a short questionnaire to help you determine whether you have normal breasts.

Are you a skinny person with small breasts? Congratulations, they’re proportional to your body; they are normal breasts. Do you have bigger breasts than most of your classmates? Maybe they’re behind you hormonewise, maybe you have more body fat to work with, maybe it’s genetics: in any case, you have normal breasts! Large nipples, small nipples, light nipples, dark nipples, bumpy nipples, smooth nipples, inverted nipples, hair around nipples, bald nipples: all of these are regular features on normal breasts. Is one of your breasts larger than the other? Also very common, for breasts. Also normal. In fact, all of these states are perfectly normal and attractive; none are shameful or ugly. If someone tells you otherwise, tell this person that (a) they don’t know jack, and (b) their opportunity to learn has ended, because they are clearly not worthy of your breasts.

Take care of your breasts. Be nice to them. Buy them pleasing little bra outfits, in the correct size. Do not berate them for their ways. Check in with them! Check them for lumps, to make sure they are staying healthy! Your breasts will thank you, for your appreciation and support. They are some of the most politicized, criticized, fixated-upon, and misunderstood parts of the human body; breasts are really the Hilary Clintons of anatomy. Would you yell at the Secretary of State if you had to carry her around everywhere? Will you ever forgive me for this mental image? Odds are, in both cases, no! So be good to your breasts, before I have to make awkward metaphors about them again. They are just trying to be themselves, after all.

Being transgender is also normal.

When you’re born, people usually take a quick look at the shape of your genitalia, slap an “F” for vagina or “M” for penis on your birth certificate, and expect that one letter to define you for the rest of your life. Astonishingly, despite this super-advanced scientific process, lots of people grow up to realize that their M or F designations don’t fit how they feel inside.

If you get an F label, and actually grow up to feel like a girl, you’re cisgender. Cis means “on the same side”—your body and your gender match. If you’re labeled F, but grow up to realize that you’re in every other way a guy, you are transgender. Trans means “on the opposite side”—your body is “on the opposite side” of your gender. There are trans boys and trans girls, and there are trans people who don’t identify as either boys or girls. All of that is common, normal, and awesome.

But when you grow up with a body that doesn’t match your gender, body insecurity can suck on a whole new level. You might be a guy born with a uterus, who gets periods and breasts despite the fact that he doesn’t want or need them. You might be a girl born with a penis, who has to deal with all the embarrassing or just plain unnatural-feeling effects of that. Either way, getting your body to match your gender will take time, and often medical assistance. Since I’m cis and haven’t experienced this, I asked my friend Queen Emily of the blog Questioning Transphobia about it.

“I think that the main thing is that ‘your body is fine’ doesn’t mean that you should never mindfully change it, as a trans teen,” she said. “Cis society often holds out the idea that if you just had more self-esteem and felt better about your body, then you wouldn’t be trans. That being trans is the worst thing in the world, that hormones will ruin your body—you’ll be ruined, disgusting, mutilated. But being trans isn’t about low self-esteem, it’s about a persistent sense of wrongness about your sexed body and social role, it’s about knowing that you should be something other than what everybody sees … that you are something else. So ‘your body is fine’ to me means, fundamentally, it is fine to be trans. It is fine to go on blockers or hormones. You are fine, and you will be fine.”

See? You’re fine. The smart lady said so. Which is good, because whether you are cis or trans, you are still going to have to learn our next horrifying fact, which is:

Vaginas make noises and so do butts and that’s how things are.

Sorry. Take a big breath, hold it in your mouth by puffing out your cheeks, then try to expel it without opening your mouth. You hear that noise? Yep. Other parts of your body make that noise, too, under similar circumstances. Sex, for the record, can cause similar circumstances. (Also it can cause terrible diseases, so use condoms! And/or other protection appropriate to your personal shenanigans. But back to the main topic.) Yes, it’s true: sex has fart noises in it sometimes. So do gymnastics routines, yoga classes, and Taco Tuesdays in the cafeteria. It’s gross, it’s weird, and it’s how things are. So take a breath, maybe laugh if it seems awkward, then go on with your day. Because sometimes, your body really is embarrassing. Just like the bodies of everybody else, everywhere, forever until the end of time. ♦