Chapter 1: Changing Bodies
Excerpt from Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, by Ruth Bell and other co-authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” together with members of the Teen Book Project
IT HAPPENS TO EVERYONE
Sometime between the ages of nine and seventeen, your body will change dramatically. As Jenny, aged fourteen, said, “This year my body is going crazy! I look more like my older sister than myself!”
This time of change is called puberty (pu-ber-tee), and everyone goes through it, although each person grows and changes at his or her own pace. When it happens, your body may become fatter, skinnier, taller, more pimply, hairier, rounder, more big-breasted, more muscular and more awkward. You may feel full of energy or lie around and sleep a lot. Your moods may shift uncontrollably, surprising you and those around you.
These changes occur when your body reaches a certain stage of growth and a part of your brain called the pituitary (pih-too-it-ter-ee) gland signals your sex glands — your ovaries if you are a girl, your testicles if you are a boy — to start working. These glands in turn begin signaling other parts of your body, telling them to grow.
Hormones carry the signals. Hormones are chemical substances that travel in your bloodstream. Testosterone (tess-tahs-ter-own), the main hormone special to males, is made in the testicles. Estrogen (es-truh-jen) and progesterone (pro-jess-ter-own), the hormones special to females, are made in the ovaries. These hormones cause most of the body changes of puberty — growth, facial hair, pubic hair, breast development, voice deepening, menstruation and so on.
Almost all the physical changes of puberty have some connection with the ability to reproduce. While becoming a parent may be the last thing on your mind, once you go through puberty your body will be ready to create or bear children. That’s why it so important for you to get decent information now about the best ways to prevent unwanted pregnancy (see sections on Sexuality, page 89; Safer Sex, page 279).
“I FEEL LIKE I’M THE ONLY ONE WHO…”
You can fill in the blank for yourself. Maybe you feel like you’re the only one who hasn’t gotten her period yet. Or the only one who wakes up in the morning with “come” (sperm and seminal fluid) all over his sheets; the only one who has a bad case of pimples at age eleven or the only one who have one breast bigger than the other or one testicle hanging lower. Maybe you think of yourself as the only boy who hasn’t grown since fifth grade, or the only girl whose breasts haven’t even started to develop.
If you don’t know about how and why people’s bodies change during puberty, you’re likely to wonder if your changes are normal. In this chapter you’ll hear from a lot of teenagers who have wondered about the same thing, and you’ll see that wondering if you’re normal is actually a very normal thing to do!
Many changes that happen during puberty are sexual. Your sexual organs are growing and your sexual feelings may become more intense. At a girls’ discussion group in Denver, thirteen-year-old Roxanne said:
I used to be such a goody-goody and always pay attention in class and follow all the rules, and now all I can think about is my boyfriend. Actually I have a lot of boyfriends now. I’m not Miss Perfect anymore.
Eleven-year-old Darlene told us:
I get these weird sensations in my stomach all the time. My friend read to me from this book about sex and I got this weird feeling down here, like my stomach was flipping over.
When all this is going on, it can be hard to pay attention to your school work or carry on with life the way you used to. Luke, a fifteen-year-old from Boston put it this way:
I swear I woke up one day and everything changed. It was like somebody put up a big flashing neon-light sign in my head that said SEX. I am always turned on. I mean always, and all I have to do is sit across from an attractive woman in the subway and I get a hard-on.
Since so many teenage body changes are sexual and many adults are uncomfortable about sex, often teenagers aren’t given much information about what’s going on.
DOES SEX HAVE TO BE A MYSTERY?
When your parents were your age, sexuality might have been a mystery to them too, something that wasn’t discussed openly, perhaps something seen as “dirty” and shameful, so it’s no wonder they have a hard time talking to you about sex. Even parents who want to talk to their kids in an open way generally feel awkward about it, probably as awkward as you feel listening to them talk about it. As Tina said,
I’m lucky. My parents are very easy to talk to. But when it comes to sex, they fumble around and turn red. So I say, “It’s okay, I already know that.” So they say, “Well, just remember, you can ask us anything when the time comes. You can always come to us.” Sure. That’s great. But right now it’s easier to get my information from my friends, who don’t know a lot more than I do!
Society’s negative attitudes about sex cause many of us to be more embarrassed, shy, and ignorant about it than we want or need to be. We feel stupid if there’s a joke we don’t get or someone tells us something about sex that we don’t understand. This happens to everyone, even people who seem to know everything. We can help one another feel less awkward by sharing information, talking honestly, not making fun of one another’s differences. After all, if we don’t learn about our own bodies, how can we ever expect to feel comfortable with ourselves? If we don’t learn about the opposite sex, how can we be caring partners and friends?
We’re talking about “sex education.” And although most teens get some form of sex education at home or in school, it is often too technical to be interesting. Most of the time you don’t get to ask the questions you really want to ask. Instead, much of our introduction to sex comes informally, from jokes we here in locker rooms or on street corners or from gossip about who’s doing what; it comes from what we read in books or see in movies and on TV and from what’s available in pornographic magazines and pictures. Sex is portrayed as either superromantic or supersmutty, which usually ends up confusing us even more.
You may be fortunate in find some really helpful sources of information — an open-minded parent or teacher, an older brother or sister, a well-informed boyfriend or girlfriend who’s comfortable talking about sex. But however we get our sex education, we usually take in only what we’re ready to learn or need to know about, and sometimes we’re just not ready or interested. That’s okay. As long a you know how to find the information when you need it, you don’t need to rush. That’s the main reason we wanted to write this book. So you could have a resource to turn to when the time is right for you.
You may read these quotes and think, But I’m not feeling sexy all the time and I’m a teenager! Many times in this book people will talk about feelings you don’t have right now. Or they will talk about doing things that you don’t do, even though you may be their same age or older. Bodies change at different speeds. Sexual feelings are stronger or weaker at different times in our lives. Think of this book as having a conversation with lots of teenagers who are being honest about things people don’t often talk about. Some will sound like you and some won’t. The main point is for you to understand better what’s happening with your body and your feelings.
The golden is rising
Can this be
and buds into
a spotted flower.
and the dried skin peels
the shining flesh
that will take over.
The step into
a wonderful vegetable
and come out new
I step back,
but a million steps
in the wooden world…
My old world…
My wooden world
And all who live there,
into the light
into the glow
are still speaking
the wooden language
that I have left behind
— Lyn Bigelow
DO I LIKE MY BODY?
This is a heavy question for most of us. Thirteen-year-old Charlene said:
Sometimes when I’m all alone, I stand in front of the mirror and stare at myself. I stare at all the things I can’t stand about myself, like my legs. They’re so short and my thighs are so huge. There’s this white bump on my neck that really bothers me. It’s not a pimple. It doesn’t hurt. It’s just there and I don’t know what it is, but I can’t stand it. And the worst part is my chest. I’m so flat-chested I look like a boy.
Fifteen-year-old Pablo said:
I can’t stand what I look like right now! Sometimes I just want to put a bag over my head to hide my face. It’s all broken out with z its and oily places. I can wash it ten times a day and it’s still the same.
What one person wants may be just what another person hates:
Sally: I wouldn’t mind having bigger breasts.
Tai: Believe me, you don’t want to be big. Once you got there you’d want to get back down. I wish I could give you some of mine.
Some adolescent conditions are genuinely distressing and embarrassing. Teens who have a bad case of acne, for example, or those who sweat glands come on strong at first are likely to want some real relief from these problems. There are special dietary measures and vitamin supplements that can be prescribed by a physician or a nutritionist. There are also acne preparations you can use and special deodorants to buy for body odor. These conditions will go way with time, but while you are suffering with them that’s not much consolation.
For the most part, we spend a lot of time and effort during these years trying to look different from the way we are. We diet to lose weight or gain weight. We work out, lift weights, dye our hair, wear makeup, shave, don’t shave, get our hair permed or straightened, buy trendy clothes. We buy mouthwash, hair spray, hair coloring, bleaches and hair-removal products for body hair. Just think how much energy and money, at any one moment all over this country, are going into changing people’s looks.
Who says we’re not great just the way we are? Those companies that put unbelievable amounts of money each year into advertising their “body-beautifying” products do a terrific job of making us dislike our bodies and ourselves, because if we liked ourselves we might not rush out to buy their products. And we believe them when they tell us we need this lipstick or that hair dye, especially during adolescence, when we’re feeling the most unsure of ourselves anyway.
That’s not to stay that looking good isn’t important us. Most people want to look good. But unfortunately, we’re being fed a line that says there’s only one way to look good. During adolescence in particular we look for role models, and what do we see? We see supermodels! We see movie stars and celebrities. People who earn their living by being thin and beautiful and perfectly toned. They work at it, sweat over it for hours every day, diet relentlessly, have cosmetic surgery, but we grow up believing that they look beautiful naturally and that unless we do to, we’re less than we should be. So girls starve themselves to be thin. Boys work out furiously to build muscles and look buff.
It may be fun at times to play around with what we look like, but it’s important to ask who gets the money we spend. The answer is: those companies which put unbelievable amounts of money each year into advertising their “body-beautifying” products and which do a terrific job of making us dislike our bodies as they are.
Pay attention to the effect constant advertising and media pressure have on you and your friends. For a laugh and an eye-opener, the next time you watch TV look critically at the ads. Try to figure out what they’re trying to sell you before they say it. Read magazine advertisements for the hidden message; see if they try to convince you that you need their product to be more beautiful or sexy or manly. Probably no one can talk us out of disliking some parts of our bodies, but it may help to look at some of the reasons why we worry:
Feeling Judged by the Other Sex. Boys and girls do a lot of looking at each other, and they often judge each other harshly. Ellen complained:
There’s this kid who has a crush on me and drives me crazy wanting to sit with me at lunch and stuff. He’s built like a Raggedy Ann doll — real weak and floppy.
Dan, a high school junior, said this about hairy legs on girls:
What grosses me out is the bristly part. When you think of a girl, somehow her sensuality is involved in softness, so that hard bristliness is a turnoff.
With judgments like that, is it any wonder boys spend hours lifting weights or girls feel they have to shave their legs every day?
Feeling Judged by Your Friends. Chances are that the friends you hang out have a certain idea of what looks good — and you’ll feel pressured to look that way. Fourteen-year-old Sandy recalls:
If you want to be popular the expectation is that you should where eye makeup and get tit implants and wear tight, skimpy clothes. I know so many girls who are starving themselves because they think they’re too fat. It makes me feel fat just looking at them.
Comparing Yourself with Others. Our society emphasizes competition between people, companies, countries, so it’s not surprising that we feel competitive. Annie, who turned out to be a fashion model, suffered from her height:
All through junior high school, I was taller than everybody. It was embarrassing for me. I had a really tiny friend, and I used to envy her.
Ben, fourteen, has the opposite problem:
I hate the way I look. I’m shorter than everybody in my class. I look like I’m ten years old. Even the girls are taller than me.
The competition may be most painful in your family, as Anita remembers:
When I was twelve or thirteen my mother told me about periods, but she said, “I don’t think you’ll be getting yours for a while yet.” Then when my sister was only eleven, she told her about it. She said, “You girls should be expecting periods any time now.” So it became really important that my sister didn’t get hers before me.
Feeling Judged by Your Parents. Parents may get hung up on wanting you to look a certain way. Often they say, “It’s for your own good.” Sometimes they’re right, and sometime they have other motives they’re not aware of — they may feel that how you look is a reflection on them, or they may be haunted by memories from their own adolescence. This is what Jeff told us:
My dad is always bugging me to go on a diet. I think it’s because he was fat and unpopular as a kid. I’m heavy, but not that heavy. But when he looks at me with that look in his eyes, I feel like I weigh three hundred pounds.
Wendy’s mother has a picture in her head of how Wendy should look:
Every morning my mom says, “Don’t you think you ought to put your hair up? It look so nice up.” Can’t she get it that if I liked the way my hair looks up I would put it up? I mean, I brush my hair. It’s clean. What does she want? She makes me feel like she doesn’t like the way look, and that makes me feel bad.
YOUR BODY IS OK
The next time you catch yourself saying, “I hate my legs [or breasts, chest, face, hair, body, height, weight],” stop for a minute and ask yourself: Who says they’re not good enough? Do you really agree? Look at yourself in the mirror and pick out the things you do like. Compliment yourself. Compliment your friends, help them like themselves better. Marge Piercy, a poet, writes: “Live as though you liked yourself, and it may happen.”
Your body is OK. In fact, as one boy reading this section remarked, “Your body isn’t just OK! It’s great! And it does some amazing things!”
“I feel like I’m in the Wrong Body”
For some teens the dissatisfaction with their body is not about whether or not they like away their body looks; it is deeper than that. These teens feel they are in the wrong body altogether. You’ve probably heard about big people saying they feel like a small person inside, or small people saying they feel big. Well, some girls feel like a boy inside and some boys feel like a girl inside. It’s usually during adolescence, when people’s bodies begin changing and maturing, that these teens experience their differences most acutely.
This condition is called cross-gender identification. If you would like to read more about it, see page 134. Also look in the Resource section on page 154 for a good book on the subject.
Read more excerpts from “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives”
Excerpt from “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives” by Ruth Bell and other co-authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” together with members of the Teen Book Project. Three Rivers Press: 1998. © Ruth Bell.