Horror film aficionados know that there are many classes of horror movies. There is supernatural horror, psychological horror, sci-fi horror, religious horror, horror-comedy, etc. Some of the most disturbing horror films for many (including me) are body horror. Body horror is basically a subgenre in which terrifying things happen to bodies. They grow, change, mutate, and/or self-destruct in particularly terrifying ways.
Obviously, going through puberty is different from having an alien burst out of your chest. However, at Dr. Kastner’s lecture last week, she reminded us that puberty is not only a time of emotional upheaval, but of physical upheaval as well. The further we get from puberty, the more it simply seems like a normal time of life that was rather difficult. We know that it happens to everyone and is pleasant for few. Yet while many of us looked forward to puberty and becoming more grown up, the changes our bodies presented us with were often confusing, unpredictable, unwanted, and more trouble than we’d expected.
I love this clip from the movie “Persepolis”, which amusingly illustrates how violent and uneven the changes of puberty can seem. As a girl, I knew that getting my period was going to be a big milestone. It symbolized becoming a woman and adulthood, and by age 12 I felt like the only seventh-grader in the universe that wasn’t menstruating yet. But even while I desired it, the idea of bleeding regularly from an orifice was somewhat unsettling. I was also convinced that when my period came, it would be in the middle of school, and my seat would look like something just got slaughtered on it. These thoughts seem silly to me now, but they were very serious back then.
Teens are faced with comparing their new bodies not only to their peers, but to media norms. The normal weight gain that comes along with puberty can be alarming in our thin-obsessed society. Young men who have body hair when the latest fashion says there should be none- or vice versa- can be dismayed at how their body is betraying them. (Even worse, having to deal with random erections in public can feel like they need to hide in their room for 4 or 5 years.) I couldn’t wait to develop breasts, but I had no idea that a size difference between the two was normal, and at 14 found myself assuming I was a freak and would need plastic surgery. When I developed cellulite at age 16, I actually went to the doctor specifically to discuss treatment; due to TV ads, I thought it was an aberration that had to be destroyed at any cost.
The reactions of others to changing bodies can also be stressful. I can’t speak for young men, but the sorts of attention I received before and after I went through puberty were shockingly different. I remember being 14 years old and having adult men approach me in flirtatious ways; I was completely unprepared and had no idea what to do. Now that puberty is getting earlier and earlier, young women with even less cognitive maturity are receiving this kind of attention.
My point isn’t that puberty can be hard, because we know that. But when we’re wondering why tweens and teens are so moody, we need to remember that not only do they have little control over their lives, but they also have little control over their ever-changing bodies. While hopefully they are not transforming into gigantic flies or inserting VHS tapes into their abdomens, there are still some changes going on that can be stressful and confusing.
Luckily, there are resources to ease some of the stress. When I was 15, I got hold of a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves“, and it became my bible. It was not only reassuring, but educational and empowering as well. While it’s not from the same organization, “My Body, My Self for Boys” can be a helpful resource for younger boys. There are lots of good books out there written for teens about their bodies.
Your teen’s health care provider can also be an invaluable resource. I once had a parent tell me, when asked to leave the room, “I know, I know… you want to talk about sex and drugs.” Well, yes, but health care providers can also given open, honest, and educated answers to teen health questions that are just too embarrassing to ask parents or friends. A young man going through puberty will probably not approach his father to ask if his penis is the “right size”, but he may ask his health care provider for norms when they’re by themselves. Getting in a same-gender group of peers can help teens and tweens open up, which is why the Seattle Children’s classes “For Girls Only” and “For Boys Only” are so successful.
I’d love to know how you have helped your teens with their changing bodies, or what was helpful (or not!) when you went through puberty yourself.