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From Early Puberty Body Shame to Progressive Parenting

Guest Post By Amanda Rose Adams

You Need a Bra! 

When Erin Frank spilled the beans about my surprise slumber party for my 9th birthday, all I could think about was how awesome it would be to have all those girls at my house. They rode home on the school bus with me. We danced to music, watched a movie on ye olde VCR, played games, ate popcorn and drank soda. A couple of the girls gave me stuffed animals. I was turning nine, and stuffed animals were entirely appropriate gifts. It was a great night. The next morning in my bedroom all the fun ended when one of the girls caught sight of my bare chest and squealed, “You need a BRA!” I was officially in puberty, something that actually started without my knowledge well before my ninth birthday.

I didn’t notice my developing breasts. Maybe it’s because my Buddha-shaped dad had man-breasts and my chubby little sister and chubby older brother each had fleshy little lumps on their chests too. Even though I was rail thin, I just didn’t notice my budding breasts. Maybe it was because I was freaking nine-years-old. I did notice the sprouting hairs that followed the proclamation of my third grade peers that I needed a bra. Eleven months later, the month before I turned ten, I went to the school toilet, and there was blood. Not a lot of blood, but blood. I was still nine years old. I was terrified.

Are You There God? I’d Like to Be Like Margaret.

Some of my classmates were in the bathroom when it happened, and of course I freaked out. They ran and told our teacher, Miss Omen. Miss Omen (that was her real name) had this terrible habit of turning from beet red to turnip purple when she was embarrassed or uncomfortable, and she was positively violet as she tried to rationalize the blood. Maybe it was poop on the toilet paper? Um . . . no.

Miss Omen had to tell my mother because God knew I wasn’t going to do it. My mother had never said a word to me about periods, ever. Honestly, had our class not gone to the Denver Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Life just a few months earlier and had a male classmate not asked the tour guide about girls’ periods (his parents were artist types) I wouldn’t have even known what menses was. After Jamie asked that very public question, I read “Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.” Being all of nine years old, I thought that if Margaret was worth writing a book about, then I should want to be like her. So, being a very good little Lutheran girl who went to a very tiny Lutheran school, I prayed and prayed for God to give me my period. God obliged.

I Do Need a Bra!

I had already spent the second half of fourth grade being tormented by eighth grade boys who wanted to know if I stuffed my bra. Despite my friends all declaring my need for the garment, my mom dismissed their grade-school wisdom and refused to buy me one. I got some hand-me-down training bras from a sympathetic neighbor girl, but I quickly outgrew them. My grandmother wanted to buy me a bra when I stayed with her over the summer between third and fourth grade, but I wanted pom-poms. I was nine; I wanted pom-poms.

My mother fought any notion that I needed bras as long as she could and only broke down and bought me one after her adult friends popped her delusional bubble. The subject of monthly blood was not something I could even imagine discussing with her.

Are You There God? I Take It Back! 

The day after my first period, which lasted less than an hour, my mother drove us all home from school and made me wait in the van while my brother and sisters went inside. With her back to me, from the driver’s seat she handed me back a grocery sack containing a box of maxi-pads. She told me I had to use those, and she also told me she was angry that she had to hear it from a teacher and how embarrassed she was. . . This didn’t exactly leave the door open for further conversation.

My period did not return the following month, April, when I turned ten. So, I thought that I had prayed it away just like I prayed it there in the first place. I possessed a great faith in the power of prayer given my success so far. I gave my mom back the pads and told her I didn’t need them. I feared everyone would think I was lying. Then, just in time for Track and Field day the first weekend in May, my period came back . . . for three whole days. I told no one; not my classmates, not my teacher, not my mom. I’d given away the pads and was too scared to ask for them back. I used toilet paper and lost my favorite polka dot panties as a casualty to unpreparedness. I prayed it away again, and low and behold the summer Olympics came and went and no period all summer.

I really thought I had a direct line with God. Then, I was sitting on the couch when I started feeling a sharp pain in my lower belly. I smelled this sickly unmistakeable Field Day smell, and bolted to the bathroom . . . it was back, and it didn’t come late, didn’t miss a date for the next eighteen years. From August 1984 to August 2002, I was as regular as an atomic clock.

A Period Worse than Labor

I told my babysitter to tell my mom. I couldn’t do it. I got the pads back, and quickly went through them. Once regular, my cycles were heavy, cramped and lasted an average of eight to twelve days at a time. I never talked to my mom about this. I didn’t know until I was an adult that twelve day periods were not normal. I would complain of cramps only to be told that my mother had had four children without medication and to stop my “belly-aching,” an expression she learned from her own mother. I never got so much as a Tylenol or a kind word even as I cramped so badly that I cried and once even vomited yellow bile. I spent hours in the bathtub refilling it with hot water and missed school. I missed trips to the mountains with my friend and a trip to Bear Country when staying with my Grandparents, but my mom always treated me like I was a big faker. She accused me of trying to get attention, when all I wanted was to hide.

I’ve since had two children, labored for fourteen hours with one before having an emergency c-section. I can honestly say that the menstrual cycles I had from age ten, intensifying around age eleven through sixteen, were more painful than the early hours of labor or the recovery from my second scheduled c-section. Yes, my pre-teen periods hurt more than my second c-section, that is until I put my adult self on the pill. Oh, glorious pill, how I love you and will honor you all the days of my life.

To be fair, that day in March of 1984, my mother (who had me, her second child, exactly one week after her nineteenth birthday) was only twenty-eight years old. I’m sure she didn’t imagine she’d have a nine year old who could get pregnant. I don’t even know what must have been going through her head, and while I suffered for her lack of skill, I cannot judge her for it. When I was twenty-eight, I was pregnant for the first time, not raising a child entering womanhood.

A Vulnerable Target

Yet, it felt like my parents punished me for my body, like it was something I could control. Certain items of clothing were taken away from me. Once my dad thought the shorts that my own mother had sewn for me were too short so he made me go change and bring them too him. Then he cut them to pieces with a knife. When I was ten, a thirteen year old boy asked me to go to the arcade at the Boys and Girls Club. My parents ran him off and then berated me for talking to him at all. I was forbidden to play outside until he moved away. He was really a nice little boy who was smaller than other boys his age. Knowing what I know now, I really think he just wanted to go play Pac Man with someone who was nice to him. Ironically, though my parents were suspicious of all little boys, they left me alone with a convicted felon whose wife was a friend of theirs. He took full advantage of my then sized C eleven-year-old breasts and rubbed himself against the small of my back until I locked myself away in a bathroom. I got in trouble for not helping clean up the cookie-baking rouse he’d used to get a very literal hold on me.

Of course I couldn’t tell my parents about that. I couldn’t even tell my mom I’d had my period, how could I explain the unexplainable. I spent the net few years being seen by strangers as much older than I was. I’d shot up to 5′ 2″ in fifth grade and immediately stopped growing. People always thought I was fourteen or sixteen when I wasn’t even out of elementary school. When these incidents happened my parents got angry and their anger seemed directed at me. They lacked the skills to deal with me changing shape so soon.

When the boy I liked most in the whole world ganged up on me with his older friend at the pool and put their fingers inside my swimsuit, inside my body, I did complain to my mother that they wouldn’t leave me alone. I didn’t tell her what they were doing, exactly when they dragged me under the water and pulled down the top of my swimsuit and reached up the bottom. But I wanted her to make them stop. Instead, she claimed I liked the attention and if I didn’t want them grabbing me to stay out of the pool. I stopped going in the water.

Still in the fifth grade, bleeding, budding, breaking down, an eighth grade girl terrorized me. One day she insisted that I prove I wasn’t stuffing my bra. I’d already been molested by a grown man, I wasn’t interested in pulling up my shirt in the library for the older girls to gawk. I refused, and I cried. Everyone in the school said I stuffed my bra, and the irony of ironies was that I wasn’t even wearing a bra that day. I only owned two at that time, and they were both dirty. If I wasn’t being accused of stuffing my bra, I was being called Dolly Parton. I was terrified of grown men, and I thought no boy would ever like me. It seemed everyone wanted to punish me for changing and all I wanted to do was disappear. I felt like a freak.

Body Shame

In my teen years I did disappear. I started harming myself with tweezers, gouging at my skin leaving deep scars and creeping scabs that I pulled off and watched bleed. The bleeding was how I dealt with my suicidal thoughts; it was how I stayed alive. It was a blood I could control. I gained a several pounds by tenth grade. I hid in bulky clothes so no one would see my hips or breasts. I hated my breasts. which were a D-cup by high school. My sister and I always had the cheapest $2.99 Wal-Mart bras with straps that came undone and my mom refused to believe me when I said they were too small because then I would need larger bras than her. I had many miserable walks to and from high school with the world’s worst bras and my melons for breasts, straps flying free beneath my bulky sweaters.

I learned early on to be ashamed of my body and what it did. I never talked about it. I learned early not to trust men or boys and I hid my body and covered my face with hair, hiding in the stairwell at lunch, hiding from living. I believed I was too ugly to be loved. I wanted a boyfriend who liked me, but I was terrified of boys. I was so embarrassed about my very being. Sometimes, I instinctively revert to those feelings of shame, so deeply ingrained was my loneliness and self hatred. It’s like a song you haven’t heard for years but still know by heart.

Evolved Parenting

Yet, I’m trying to take that basket of tangled memories and knit a new truth for my children. When my eight-year-old daughter or my nine-year-old son asks me questions, I tell the truth and invite more questions. I always use the words penis and vagina with both of my kids since potty training. I’ve told them that they can touch themselves but only in the privacy of their own room, but that no one else can touch them. I’ve preached that secrets are bad. I half fear and half long for my daughter’s coming of age. I fear it will come too soon and so soon like my own, so I have never bought or served hormone-treated meats or milk and seriously limit the kind of crap food that causes the obesity I fight myself. She takes gymnastics to stay active and healthy. I’ve done all I can in our environment to delay the inevitable, but I don’t control genetics. My little girl will be nine six months from today. Could she be the girl with the too-soon lumps? Will she bleed before she’s ten? I pray and pray and pray that she won’t be like me, but I’ve long given up faith that I hold sway over the higher powers.

Yet, my child runs around naked and shameless, something I could never do, and I would have it no other way. She knows more about health and the human body at eight than I did at twelve. I would never, ever leave her alone with a strange man. If a boy grabbed her body I would tear his head off. I would never blame her for what her body does. I leave plenty of room for conversation and no space for secrets. I hope and pray that when her time comes to bloom, that I will do everything for her that I wish had been done for me. I will do whatever I can so that she blooms beautiful and not broken, and maybe then I will bloom beautiful and become unbroken too.

Amanda Rose Adams is the author of Heart Warriors, A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease, and has written for Scrubs, a nursing magazine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics. Her publication history varies between poetry and science and she is eager to complete her next two books, one about adults who were born with heart defects and one about growing up in a trailer park while attending a parochial school. You can follow her on twitter @amandaroseadams or at her blog www.amandaroseadams.com/blog.

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Puberty and Menstrual Health

Who knew there were loads of organizations with a focus on menstrual health? Not me. I’m not even sure that I knew “menstrual health” was a thing.

Since the New York Times story I’ve been contacted by several organizations which focus on menses.

I had a chance to speak to Dr. Greg Smith, director of education for You ARE Loved, a non-profit which is dedicated to educating people about Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). The organization was started by a family who’s 20-year-old daughter, Amy, died after exhibiting flu-like symptoms. They didn’t connect her time-of-the-month to her symptoms soon enough.

TSS is the dreaded tampon disease. Actually, it’s the ingredient viscose rayon, which has all sorts of great uses but is evidently not meant to be put in your hooha, which is believed to cause toxic shock. The major tampon manufacturers — Playtex, Tampax, OB and Kotex – all use this ingredient, says Smith.

Alternatives to traditional tampons that You ARE Loved recommends include organic tampons from companies like Seventh Generation or Natracare and reusable products like Instead Soft Cups or Diva Cups and disposable and cloth pads.

The reusable cup is the part that I am interested in. I, personally, have not purchased a pad or tampon in about three years. I switched to the reusable silicone Diva Cup. It sounds gross because it’s new, but it’s actually far less icky than wearing a diaper, I mean pad, or pulling a bloody stick of cotton . . . you get the grody picture. It’s an option that I would love for my daughter to embrace for the simplicity, the affordability, the convenience and yes, the environment. But, how young is too young?

Smith, a dude who is spending his time educating women about their periods because “every significant female in my life has had menstrual issues from a very young age and I’ve learned more about it than anyone would ever want to,” says he is aware of children as young as seven using period cups exclusively, and girls as young as six using them periodically. SIX and SEVEN. Good Lord. I had assumed it would be too hard, but then I remembered that when no one told me how a tampon worked I wore the applicator too. Then jumped on a trampoline and . . . TMI. (I’m starting to feel like Edgar Allen Poe.)

Only Diva Cup (silicone), Keeper Cup (latex), Moon Cup (silicone) and Lunette Cup (silicone) have passed the voluntary testing the United States gov. recommends, notes Smith. Smith also pointed out that there are many cheaper knock-off cups now that reusable cups have gained popularity due to price, but their safety has not been tested.

Price? Let’s look at the math: you could buy tampons every month for the rest of your pre-menstrual life (some sexuality geeks actually did this math, I found it on Google) OR you could shell out $25 for a reusable cup.

Tampons – $3,072.30
Maxi Pads – $3,557.40
Cloth Pads – $200.05

So, like, who is so cheap that they would buy the $15 sub-par, untested-for-safety cup? We’re talking about your vag. people. It’s kinda important and has to last a lifetime. This is not a hard choice, at least not for me. Of course, I’ll give my daughter choices, but there’s no one stopping me from passing on “mother’s wisdom,” when explaining that tampon use carries the added risk of the “tampon disease” that could actually kill you.

These Lunettes are so cute I may spend another whopping $25 to get that orange one for myself when I go to buy one for my daughter.

 

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The Girl Revolution in New York Times Magazine

Very Public Exposure

Ainsley and I were in the New York Times Magazine on Friday. It was risky and scary, though important, because the topic was early puberty. TGR Body, our craptastic-ingredient-free skincare line (many skincare products are thought to have toxins that interfere with hormones), and The Girl Revolution were both highlighted.

You know I’ve researched the issue and shared the information here, but I’ve not discussed our personal experience. We considered the decision carefully — Ainsley, myself and her dad — and we felt that discussing it in public would be useful for other parents and girls. And it has been. The writer, Elizabeth Weil, has two girls of similar age to Ainsley and vowed to present us in a positive light, unembarassing, not humiliating. I thank her for keeping her word. I’ve received several emails of support, other parents and girls sharing their own experiences; thank you notes for being brave and helping them understand what’s happening with their daughters; making them feel less alone.

We chose not to have Ainsley’s face appear in the photographs because we couldn’t really determine the consequences of that.

Shame & Causes

I also felt that choosing not to talk about it added some sort of shame to early puberty, as if we had done something wrong to, as you hear constantly “allow girls to grow up too fast.” Well, we’re not ashamed and we shouldn’t be. We didn’t do anything to cause it. We didn’t neglect to do anything that caused it. We didn’t do a damn thing to “make our girls grow up too fast.”

It might be the hormones in meat and milk, it might be pesticides, it might be flame retardants, it might be the plastic Playtex insert baby bottles we microwaved when she was a baby, it might be eating more protein than our ancestors, it could be anything. Or it’s possible that it is none of these things.

It might even be evolution in action right before our very eyes. The world is on fast forward with our explosion of technology, maybe evolutionarily there is a very important reason for developing faster as a species that we simply don’t understand yet. Everything is happening faster for them, we expect more of them. Ainsley is already doing math that we weren’t expected to know until the 7th grade. They blog and learn PowerPoint in elementary school. These girls have not become adults and while we may be afraid of the consequences of early puberty, we don’t know the outcome yet. It’s not only happening to girls, it’s happening to boys as well. It’s not happening only in the United States where many of the suspected causes are more prevalent, it’s happening all over the world (Hindustan Times article). It’s at least possible that it is not harmful, but helpful in some way.

Either way, it is what it is, we’re not likely to stop it, at least not before this crop of girls develop into teenagers. The only thing to do is accept it, and dare I say, even embrace it.

New Developments

Since last year Ainsley has continued to mature. But, it hasn’t been as emotionally or developmentally disastrous as I had feared. In fact, the girls in her class discuss their “stages of development” very openly. They trust The Care and Keeping of You by American Girl as the Bible of Puberty. As it turns out Ainsley is #7 out of 10, not # 1, in getting a bra in her 4th grade class. It was one of the best days of her life. Getting a bra is a badge of honor with the girls debating the best colors to get (tan) and the best places to buy them (Target). Girls appear to be discussing their developmental stages openly with their parents (someone had to buy them a bra). They shave their armpits, and sometimes legs, as a matter of course and are even excited about it.

Juxtapose this to the many stories you hear from women about their first menses: no one told me it was coming and I thought I was dying; I didn’t tell my mom for three days; she saw the laundry and finally explained it to me; it felt shameful to me and no one ever talked about it; my mother called it a curse and told me it would be horrible; etc. You’ve heard the stories and maybe it’s your story. Things feel different now. Parents who went through those experiences and didn’t enjoy them are communicating with their daughters about the experience of development and puberty. Girls, in general, know about and don’t fear their periods or getting breasts. Rather than weird clinical books with bizarre diagrams, they are given fun books like The Care and Keeping of You, replacing Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (we must, we must, we must increase our bust!).

Sacred & Powerful Gift

If you’ve ever read The Red Tent, (and if you haven’t you should) you know that once upon a time, for thousands of years, a woman’s first menses was a celebratory and sacred, holy, exciting event. Women held rituals to initiate a woman in her various stages of development — from menses to birth to menopause — Girl, Maiden, Mother, Crone. I’d like to see that tradition resurrected. As I mentioned in New York Times Magazine I do intend to throw a party. Even if it’s just a party of her and I — a nice dinner and the Chocolate Cafe and maybe a piece of commemorative jewelry. Or a women’s circle ritual with our girlfriends at my friend Anna’s Women’s Sacred Way studio. I’m all prepared for her first period with a Red Goddess Celebration Box, filled with essential oils, eye pillows, letters from her grandmothers, etc. I have panty liners stashed away, just in case. I’d like to share an experience different from a tampon or douche commercial. I’d love to share an experience of menstruation as a sacred gift able to produce life, a source of power. (For more on the power of our cycles read Red Moon and The Optimized Woman: If You Want to Get Ahead Get a Cycle.) When I go to the bathroom to cry, it will likely be bitter-sweet, a mixture of joy and of saying good-bye to the baby stages of my little girl —  knowing that precious, tender time will vanish from our lives forever. I imagine that’s what mothers have done for eons.

Puberty, whenever it comes, is not tragic. It’s a life-giving, sacred and exciting gift. Women have been having periods and growing breasts since the dawn of time, and we’ll keep on doing it until the end of time. We’ve lived, flourished and nurtured ourselves at varying degrees during different phases of history. Now is the time for a rebirth of our own sacred traditions. It’s time to heal the Sacred Feminine.

 

 

 

 

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4th Grade Puberty Whirlwind

“Half the 4th Grade girls have boobs and wear bras,” Ainsley reported.

“Really? Like, for real?” I asked, stunned because no one had boobs until like the 7th Grade when I was in school. “Like they really need bras?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, give me five!” I said, holding my hand out.

“Why would I give you five?” she asked

“It’s better not to be the first one to get boobs in the 4th Grade, believe me,” I informed her.

“Well, I don’t want to be the only girl without boobs,” she said.

“You’re not. You said half the class. That means half the class doesn’t have boobs.” I said.

“They are having a Bra Club. You have to have boobs to be in the club,” she reported.

“Well. Go get ready for soccer,” I said.

A few days later, as I was getting ready for bed she came into the bathroom.

“Mom? When can I shave my legs?” she asked.

“When you’re 12,” I said, because this was when I had been allowed to shave my legs and so obviously, this is the right and appropriate answer.

“All the kids make fun of my hairy legs!” she exclaimed.

“Who does?” I asked, wondering if she just uses this line because I tend to fall for it a lot.

“Sarah and the kids at soccer and when I wear shorts at school,” she claimed.

“Ainsley, shaving your legs is a real pain in the butt. Once you start your hair grows back in all stubbly and scratchy and black, it doesn’t grow back in all soft and downy like your hair is now. I’m not kidding, it’s a massive pain in the butt and you have to shave like everyday. That’s why I don’t think you should do it yet,” I explained reasonably.

“I don’t care. I don’t want all the kids making fun of me. Look at this hair! It’s embarrassing!” she yelled, showing me her admittedly hairy legs.

I looked down and rubbed her hairy legs and wondered how the hair would grow back in if we just used Nair rather than shaving them for a few years. Would they grow back in stubbly and black then?

“Go to bed Ainsley. It’s late,” I told her.

“Fine! I’ll just have everyone make fun of me and go to school embarrassed and play soccer in shorts embarrassed! You don’t care!” she yelled and slammed the door to her room.

I sighed and went to her room. I really am a sucker for the teasing and embarrassed thing,I thought as I opened her door and said into the dark, “Maybe we’ll try Nair this weekend and see what happens.”

“What’s Nair?” she asked.

“It’s this cream that dissolves hair. I don’t know how it will grow back in. But, we can try it and see,” I said.

“Okay. Thank you,” she said.

“Good night. I love you,” I said.

I shut the door. Is there really any reason that 10-year-olds were required to have hairy legs if it embarrasses them, I wondered. Is there some rule that says it has to be 12? I wonder when other parents let their kids shave their legs? 4th Grade sure isn’t what it used to be, it got a hell of a lot more complicated. 

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Ophelia and Unconscious Puberty

Books such as Reviving Ophelia, Saving Beauty From the Beast, Queen Bees & Wannabes, Odd Girl Out and Girlfighting have elucidated the cultural context that puts so many adolescent girls at risk. But that’s only one part of the story. Daughters don’t become “unconscious” in the areas in which their mothers are fully conscious. Ophelia won’t need reviving if her mother has already been resuscitated—or never needed resuscitation in the first place. Beauty is less likely to fall for the Beast if her self-esteem is high and if her mother has taught her to be in touch with her instincts.

Each of us must take responsibility for the ways in which we keep “the culture” going up close and personal in our own homes and in our own lives. This is infinitely harder than blaming the culture. It is also a far more rewarding and powerful way to change the conditions of our lives—one mother and daughter at a time.

Christian Northrup, Mother-Daughter Wisdom.

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