This spring there was a puberty meeting at my son’s school. They gave him a booklet, made him watch a video, and then told him all about how puberty would change life as he knew it. I sat in the darkened auditorium, trapped amidst other moms, dads, and unfortunate prepubescent youth, and was assaulted with flashbacks of my own puberty.
What better way to spend a Tuesday night, am I right?
Remember middle school when we had to attend sexual education class? Remember how the boys snickered, threw spitballs, and drew inappropriate and anatomically incorrect versions of body parts in order to camouflage their embarrassment? And we girls giggled and drew hearts pairing our initials with our crush of the moment. What could more romantic than studying cartoon anatomy blown up to absurd proportions via overhead projector?
But, alas, the film was not at all what we expected. There was no nudity, or at least none that even remotely resembled actual human body parts — just a lot of cheerful cartoon blobs. We received no confirmation of the rumors we’d heard from our older brothers and sisters about what parts go where and when and how. There was just a lot of footage of girls running through meadows and boys playing basketball (definitely no implicit gender expectations here), all while the narrator spoke in a droning monotone about “your magnificent, changing body.”
Not awkward at all.
The films and books we were given in the ’80s either romanticized, sugarcoated, or outright lied about puberty and sex. They used medical terms, drawings, and a monotonous voice to lull us into believing puberty and all the things that went along with it would be simple, pleasant, and not in the least bit humiliating. A half-dressed, animated sperm and egg, dancing in wedding attire (wedding attire, seriously), smashed together violently and instantly created a giant baby. Suddenly, having a frank discussion with our parents about sex sounded pretty appealing.
Following the film, there would be a question-and-answer session during which we would giggle awkwardly and ask exactly zero questions. But never fear: The teacher would take questions ahead of time on tiny slips of white paper that we would fold a million times and throw into a hat or bucket. The teacher would then pick the questions randomly and spend several seconds unfolding and read the question aloud. The awkwardness in the room was so thick we could wade through it.
“Can I bleed to death when I get my period?” We laughed at this question as if it were the most ridiculous thing we’d ever heard, even though we didn’t really know for sure that this wasn’t actually possible. Our older sisters swore they’d heard about that very thing happening two towns over, 10 years prior, to one of a friend-of-a-friend’s second cousins.
After covering puberty, the teacher would turn, ever so bravely and resolutely, to the topic of sex. We waited in quiet anticipation for our teacher to explain these new urges we’d all been feeling but did not yet understand. We strained to pick up as many juicy tidbits of information while maintaining the appearance of utter boredom. Sometimes there would be a video, a cartoon drawing of people who vaguely resembled our parents flopping on top of one another in what appeared to be an awkward and painful endeavor. “Can you say penis? Can you say vagina?” the teacher would ask, because obviously it was critical to become comfortable with the correct anatomical jargon.
When it came to discussing menstruation, we girls were compared to caterpillars, as in, we would one day transform into a butterfly, i.e., get our period. We already knew though, from tampon commercials with girls dancing and leaping and confiding in their mothers about “not so fresh moments,” that the transition from middle-schooler to woman would be both instantaneous and remarkable.
As one friend after another metamorphosed into beautiful bleeding butterflies, they would each perpetuate the lie that they felt “different,” more grown up, more womanly, and that, don’t worry, someday we too would understand. All of us sad little caterpillars prayed that we would be next.
If we only knew.
Along with monthly visits from Aunt Flo, our bodies would change, and hair would begin to sprout in odd places. This was usually demonstrated in one of the films, not on a real girl but an animated one — she’d check herself out in the mirror only to discover that her sexless organs had suddenly acquired three randomly placed pubic hairs. And wait, hair under our armpits? What? Didn’t that only happen to boys?
But all that superfluous hair would be worth it, because breasts. Yet, sadly, when they first appeared, somewhat painfully, they were nothing more than tiny, swollen mounds of flesh. To say we felt disappointed would be an understatement. We bought bras anyway, the kind with the little bow in the middle; we would not be deterred.
Ah, puberty. What a beautiful, momentous, confusing-as-hell time. And now, as a grown woman, sitting here having flashbacks in the dark next to my mortified child as the school educates us about the exciting changes he is about to endure, I mean, undergo, I have to smile at how things have a way of coming full circle.
Things aren’t so awkward anymore. I can totally say penis and vagina with nary a flinch. Yeah, we made it through — and our kids will too.
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