Puberty is the time when your body begins making rapid changes from childhood into womanhood. The years of these changes are called adolescence. Adolescence literally means growing up. The exact time that puberty begins varies widely from one person to the next. On average, puberty starts around age 10 for girls, though it is not unusual for some girls to begin changing as early as age 8 or as late as age 14.
The changes to your body do not occur overnight. It takes many years for your body to fully change from a girl to a woman. On average, these changes take place over a five-year period. As with the start of the changes, the duration of the changes varies from person to person. Most of your height will be gained during your early teenage years. The majority of women reach their full adult height by age 15, though some finish as early as 12 or as late as 19. When you finish growing depends greatly on when you enter puberty.
As girls approach their teenage years a series of chemicals called estrogens are released into the bloodstream. Estrogens are female hormones (male hormones are called androgens). Estrogen is manufactured in the ovaries and is released into the bloodstream in large quantities about a year before you see physical changes in yourself.
The order of changes varies greatly among individual girls. Some girls first realize that they have entered puberty when they notice that their breasts have begun to grow larger. Other girls first notice puberty when they begin to grow hair under their arms and around their genitals. Still other girls first realize they have entered puberty when they suddenly gain height. For some girls the first sign of growing up is menstruation.
You will notice many changes over the next five years or so. They will not occur all at once and they will not last for all of your teenage years. Some changes will affect you deeply and some changes you will hardly notice. This, too, varies from person to person.
Increased appetite: Estrogen causes your body to grow and that growth needs additional energy. You will find yourself consuming larger quantities of food during your growth period. Just hours after your last meal, you will be looking for a snack. This is normal for a teenage girl in her growing years. Just don’t let it become a permanent habit. Once your growth stops, all that extra food will be stored as fat. This is why many women gain weight as they grow older.
Mood swings: A woman’s body is constantly shifting the quantity of hormones flowing in her bloodstream. Before you reached puberty, your hormone levels were fairly constant, but now and through much of your adult life, these hormones will fluctuate roughly on a monthly basis. During your adolescent years, the changes in your hormone levels will not be steady – in fact, one of the signs that you have completed your adolescent years is when your hormone levels take on a steady rhythm.
The changing hormones in your body regulate various functions; in particular, the organs that allow you to have children one day. When your body first develops the capability to have children, there is a period of time when the body has to learn to control the hormone levels in your blood to produce the desired effect. Early on, these hormone levels are unsteady and at times you produce too much or too little or at the wrong times. As you get older, these mechanisms calm down into a steady rhythm (though they can “hiccup” at times).
These hormones not only regulate your reproductive system, but they also affect your moods. There are going to be times during your monthly cycle when you are going to feel moody and depressed. At other times you will feel like you can take on the world. There will be times when you are irritable at the least remark, and there will be times when you feel especially attractive. This constant change will now be a part of your life for the next 40 years or so.
The worst time is usually seven to ten days before your next period. About 20 to 40 percent of all women experience cravings for sweets or salty foods, headaches, tiredness, depression, general aches, and bloating. These symptoms are referred to as PMS (premenstrual syndrome). These symptoms last up until the woman’s period begins.
At the same time, your brain is developing. Different sections of the brain are responsible for different things. During your adolescent years, the section of your brain that reacts emotionally is well developed. But the part of your brain that is responsible for tempering your emotions with reason is still under development. This will settle down as you become older. The section that tempers your emotions is one of the last centers to be completed. Meanwhile, learn to expect that you will overreact to situations and try to keep them under control.
As Christians, we must be sober and self-controlled (I Peter 4:7; I Corinthians 9:25). A Christian woman cannot use her changing moods as an excuse to do things that are not right. Kind words are to be said at all times, not just when you feel like saying them. Bitter words are always wrong and are not excused because you are at “that time of the month.”
Sleepiness: The extra energy you expend on growing will cause you to sleep a bit longer than you have in the past. It doesn’t help when you find your days packed with more things to do so that when the weekend finally comes you crash for most of the morning. It may be hard, but try to keep a regular schedule and allow yourself adequate time to rest.
Growth: Your body will rapidly change in size. For most girls, the bulk of the growth will occur about a year after you enter puberty. On average most girls experience their growth spurt between the ages of 11 and 12, though it may start as early as 9 or as late as 14. Clothes that fit you last week will suddenly be too short this week. The growth starts with your feet and hands, moves to the legs and arms, and finally extends to your trunk as you fill out and lengthen. The growth will come in spurts over the next 4 years. By the time you are 15 or 16, you will have reached your full adult height.
A difficult part about growing is adjusting to the new length. You will find yourself stumbling because your foot is now a few inches longer than it was in childhood. The length of your stride changes as well. Suddenly, you find yourself having to learn how to walk all over. As your arm lengthens, you will frequently knock things over. The glass that you see on the table is no longer as far as you remembered it being because your arm is longer. There will be several spilled drinks in your life over the next few years.
All of this clumsiness is temporary, so give yourself time to adjust to your new size. Be a little more conscious about your movements – where you put your hands or where you place your feet. It is when you do things by habit that you will get yourself into trouble because you are making child-sized movements with an adult-sized body.
Even after you have reached your full adult height, your body continues to grow as it changes from a child-shaped body to a woman-shaped body. For about two years after you stop growing taller, your hips will continue to widen and your breasts will continue to develop.
Hair: Soon after puberty begins, you will notice small bumps on the skin around your groin. If you look closely you may see fine hair growing in the center of each bump. This is the beginning of pubic hair, curly hair that grows around your genitals. As you continue to grow, hair will grow on your legs and arms. Some women even experience some fine hair growth on their upper lips. Your genes determine the amount and thickness of your hair. Except for your pubic hair, most of the hair that grows on a woman’s body is fine, light hair, though some of the hair on your arms and legs may be heavier. The amount of hair a woman’s body grows is totally dependent on the genes she inherited from her parents. Some women will have almost no body hair and others may have quite a bit.
Today’s fashions are often designed for women with little or no body hair. As a result, many women will regularly shave the hairs on their legs and under their arms to meet these expectations.
Acne: With increased growth, your skin produces an abundance of oil – more than you had during your childhood. For many people, the glands that produce the oil become clogged with dirt or dried oil. This causes the oil to back up underneath the skin and become inflamed. The inflammation is called acne. Some teenagers develop a bad case of acne; a few lucky ones will rarely experience it. For most of you, simply make sure to thoroughly wash your face and other acne-prone areas with soap and a washcloth. This will help to free the clogs and keep down the excess oil. For some people, even this will be inadequate and you may need to see your doctor for additional treatment. A few people who are prone to scarring will develop small scars on their faces. These people will definitely want to keep tight control of their acne since the scarring is usually permanent.
Grown women still occasionally have a pimple show up now and then. However, you will be happy to know that acne occurs less frequently after your growth stops.
Sweat: Like your oil glands, you will soon find out that your sweat glands will also be working overtime. Growing causes your body to produce excess heat. When others are pulling on extra sweaters, you may find the temperature a bit warm. As with acne, once your growth spurt stops, your body will no longer produce as much sweat.
Breasts: For most girls, the first indication that you have entered puberty is the development of your breasts. The growth usually begins between the ages of 11 and 12, though it is known for some girls to start as soon as 8 or as late as 14. Do not worry if one breast develops faster than the other. They may remain different sizes for several months, but eventually, they will even out.
The development of your breasts will continue slowly for several years, often continuing through the age of 18.
Since the breasts are the most noticeable part of the female anatomy, many girls become concerned about the size of their breasts. Your final breast size is determined by the genes you inherit from your parents. Every society has an idea of what constitutes the ideal breast size, but size from individual to individual will vary greatly, just as height varies greatly. As with most things, we need to learn to be content with what God has given us. The size of your breasts has nothing to do with your sexuality or your ability to raise children.
Menstruation: All the changes that we have talked about happen gradually over a period of several years, and the genitals are no exception. Most of the changes in a woman’s body are internal. The ovaries develop and begin producing hormones and eggs. The uterus begins monthly preparations for receiving the eggs and discarding the unfertilized eggs. For the most part, you will not notice these internal changes. A more noticeable physical change to the genital area is the growth of pubic hair.
Sometime during your adolescent years, you will begin to experience a monthly flow of blood from your genitals. The blood comes from a lining formed in your uterus. We will explain this in more detail in the next chapter. The exact time that menstruation starts varies greatly among girls – anywhere between the ages of 9 and 16. Usually, it occurs two years after you enter puberty. On average, most girls begin menstruating around the age of 13. If you don’t experience a period by the time you are 16, you should visit the doctor to make sure everything is all right. Once you notice you have entered adolescence, you should keep a disposable pad handy. You never know when your first period (also called menarche) will begin. It usually seems to start at the most inconvenient time.
It is best during your adolescent years to use an external pad. A tampon, which is inserted in the vagina, can be used, but some girls have difficulty because of their hymen (discussed in chapter 2). Tampons must also be replaced regularly to avoid infections, such as toxic shock syndrome. As a result, most doctors recommend removing tampons at night and using an external pad instead.
Some girls notice a clear or whitish discharge from their vagina. This is a part of the normal cleansing process of the vagina and should not be of any concern unless the discharge has a strong odor (indicating the possibility of an infection). This discharge often increases in the months just before your first menarche.
If you get caught off guard and you get a blood stain on your clothing, keep in mind that rinsing the area with cold water will remove most of the blood.
At first, your periods may be irregular in timing; it will take at least a year for a regular rhythm to take place. Once the pattern is established, you will experience a blood flow for 2 to 7 days every 24 to 34 days.
Some women will experience cramps just before or during their period. This is the uterus contracting to speed up the shedding of the lining. Usually, an over-the-counter pain reliever can reduce the discomfort. Some women feel the discomfort in their backs. It comes from the same source. These cramps may come even during months when your lining is not shed. Your body still goes through the motions even though all parts of your system are not working regularly.
- When did you first notice that you had reached puberty?
- List seven things that will change as you go through adolescence.
- What is estrogen?
- What causes mood swings?
- When do many girls begin to have periods?
- Why is it that two 12-year-olds will be at different points in their maturation even though they are the same age?
- What causes clumsiness in teenagers?
- Is there a perfect breast size?
- When did you first notice that you had reached puberty?
- Did your first period cause you problems?
- Has clumsiness been a problem?
- Has being bigger than the boys in your class been a problem?