In kindergarten when I had asked my mother what sex was, she sat me down at a picnic table and drew -- in graphic biological detail -- fallopian tubes, urethras, vaginal canals, vulvas, a sloping penis, eggs, and ovaries. I was so bored it hurt, it felt too much like school, and I asked to be excused to go play with bugs. Such a very smart lady.
The first time I learned that girls bled from their vaginas once a month was in the back of a station wagon, with two 12-year-olds, waiting for my dad to pump gas. I promptly laughed hysterically when they told me, between gasping breaths explaining that I was only four years younger than them and not an idiot and they couldn’t pull a fast one like that on me, and then went back to reading an Archie comic.
Fast forward a few years, I was a voracious reader who poured over Judy Blume, snuck V.C. Andrews between library stacks, and hid biology textbooks in copies of American Girl magazine. At school, we had a very bare-bones sex ed class that over-explained HIV and AIDS and under-explained just about everything else. Plus, at that age you don’t really believe things unless your parents confirm them, so when I started asking perhaps too many questions, I found a bright yellow workbook on my bed one day wrapped in a bow.
It was called My Body, My Self for Girls, by Lynda and Area Madaras, featuring two smiling preteens in bathing suits peeking through an inner tube, confident and unconcerned. They had read the book and knew all about tampons, thus they had promptly gone to a waterpark.
“I bought you a book about some of the things you’ve been asking me about,” my mom said. “Read it, write in it, and you can always, always ask me questions about anything you read.”
It was her way of letting me learn on my own, while still having her there if I needed her. She might also have been tired of my neverending curiosity. “Mom, am I a lesbian?? Why can’t I shave my legs because Amber gets to and that’s not fair? Why can’t I get my period yet, I reallllllllly want to.” Sorry, Mom. I should have just eaten my peas.
Well, I read that thing to death that year, until I discovered Cosmo or some other reading material I probably shouldn’t have been reading. During my mother’s most recent purge of my old bedroom (amidst Jenna Jameson’s autobiography Make Love Like a Porn Star, which I had read, hid, and forgotten about), she found my old dog-eared copy of My Body, My Self For Girls. Sandwiched between pages of line drawings of pubic hair and breasts were questions, exercises, and space to write down your thoughts.
Some gems I am only kind of humiliated to share with you:
“I wish I had my period, but besides that, I’m pretty happy with myself. My breasts have begun to develop, and sometimes my mood swings. Sometimes I’m mad or scared for no good reason. Either the world is changing, or maybe it’s just me.”
“I’m pretty good at writing and ice skating. I think I’m pretty. I don’t think I’m very bright, but I would like to be.”
One page asked you to describe and draw your perfect planet. Mine looked like a girl’s head with a huge nose and stringy hair, a self-proclaimed “planet of all girls who can choose if and when they go through puberty. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to ever.”
It struck me as well how progressive the information and messages within the workbook were. Nonjudgmental, warm, and informative; such a far step from anything we were taught in school. Some of my favorites:
Your changing face and figure
In this section, the book encouraged you to take photos of yourself every few months, so you could see the subtle differences in your face you might not notice otherwise. Maybe for girls who felt left behind, this was a good way to say, “See? It’s slow, but it’s there.” There were also drawings of different kinds and sizes of breasts, and pubic hair, and you were encouraged to circle what you were seeing on your own body. I, of course, also colored all the nipples pink.
Body types were addressed as well, the first moment where I realized that no matter how much someone diets, looking like Kate Moss wasn’t always a possibility. As my body would develop, I would always have an ass with thick thighs. “It’s science,” I’ve been told. “You would fall over otherwise.” Having visual images of different shapes helped show me that there was a lot more beyond just fat and thin.
I do wish the book had explored a variety of vaginas as well, as that would have saved me a lot of panicking and quite a few locked bathroom hand mirror situations and stuttering questions to my pediatrician.
Some diets are just plain dumb. Diets where you only eat certain foods deprive your body of the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients it needs. Besides being dumb, they can cause dizziness, fatigue, make you feel tired and weak, drying out your skin and scalp, maybe even making your hair fall out.
Nothing like appealing to a preteen’s vanity to scare her off of a diet of Kleenex and lettuce leaves, and I love that the word “dumb” is repeated about ten times. Lynda Maderas, I love you. Despite the fact that I would eventually struggle with some food/eating issues eventually, this may have delayed it a couple of years. I continued to eat my daily Pop Tarts.
Both males and females masturbate. There is just no way that masturbation can harm you. Some people do not masturbate due to religious beliefs but most people – young, old, single, married – masturbate. It’s normal if you do, and normal if you don’t.
Not quite the kind of thing covered in Health class, this was a few paragraphs long at the bottom of a page, almost hidden but just bold enough to catch my eye. So that thing I had discovered had like a name and stuff? Okay! My current mode of self-pleasing might come in the form of thoughts and an almost exclusive search of “James Deen.” Real original, I know. However, my first fantasy-related memory involved myself as Wendy in Peter Pan escaping those mermaids. No one ever told me it was wrong per se, but it was generally seen as something boys did, not girls. To have it in writing that I wasn’t a tiny perv was comforting.
Invent your own puberty rite
For the most part, puberty rites have disappeared from modern society, but throughout much of human culture, a girl’s first period was accompanies by rituals, ceremonies, feasting, and celebrations. In India, it involved a girl sitting on a throne while her family and neighbors lay gifts at her feet!
Although I definitely don’t celebrate the monthly arrival of my period now (except pre-IUD to be like “yay, I’m not preggo!”), it was nice to take something weird and kind of terrifying and turn it into a special occasion. I remember feeling closer to my mom at puberty-related moments. A full page in my diary was devoted to the year we went Christmas shopping together and she asked me if I wanted to pick out a few training bras. One was pink, one white, both with tiny tennis rackets embroidered on them.
When my period finally came at the age of 12, in a Jiffy Lube bathroom while our car was being detailed, my mom bought me a cake that I picked out and then took me to see The Man in the Iron Mask, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The common theme throughout the My Body, My Self workbook was that every girl is different. The same things happen to us, but differently, and no matter what, it’s normal. Normalcy was the common thread, and a mantra that I feel like I need as a reminder to me even as an adult. This is normal, you’re normal, and different is beautiful and fun.
Going back through the pages, with my shaky handwriting in pink ink, I felt a lot of love for that little girl who tried her hardest to care for and be nice to her body and continues to strive to. Sure we had some shaky patches, but it’s good to be reminded that the friendship you have with your body is a lifetime, and it acts as both your armor and your ally.
And the book? Sitting on my bottom bookshelf in my adult-ish apartment, collecting dust, waiting for the day I can maybe turn the pages for my future daughter and say “See? Everyone, even you, is weird and changing and awkward and wonderful.” Just like my mom did.