The P Word – We Shouldn’t Shy Away From Talking Puberty

The P Word – We Shouldn’t Shy Away From Talking Puberty

Let’s face it, puberty isn’t the easiest time in most people’s lives.

Things start to grow, or misbehave or get covered in hair. Emotions go up and down unpredictably. And don’t get me started on acne.

Growing up, I found the whole puberty stage both fascinating and embarrassing. Boobs came early; not ideal when your school expects girls to wear a leotard in front of the boys during gymnastics.  My period held back until I was nearly 14 – meaning I was left out of conversations and made to feel ‘behind’ by some of my peers.

The worst thing for me, though, was that as an already secretive child, I found talking about ANY of it excruciatingly embarrassing.  I had my sex education at school, and never asked my mum any questions. Nor did she volunteer any information, assuming I had it covered.

In fact, I found it so difficult to talk about ‘growing up’ that when I finally got my period one Sunday afternoon in my 14th year, I didn’t tell my mum for another couple of months.

Sanitary Product Subterfuge

My subterfuge saw me sneaking to the shop to buy sanitary towels – with no advice on which ones to get, meaning I went for the cheapest, leakiest, fake-nappy style protection and leaked all over the bed. It saw me changing said bedclothes in the middle of the night and scrubbing the blood off the sheets in the sink. All to avoid having an awkward conversation.

I was no better when it came to bras. I wanted one desperately, and needed one a teeny bit. But instead of just asking my mum to buy me one, I dropped what I felt were subtle hints into conversation about tops not fitting and finding the little vest tops I had ‘babyish.’

One day, I came home to a four pack on the bed.

I guess my mum was a embarrassed too.

I wrote to a problem page for advice

In later years, my inability to talk about all things physical meant struggling with an eating disorder and coping with such crippling doubts about my appearance that I remember praying every night that I’d wake up beautiful. I became convinced at one point that my vagina wasn’t the same as everyone else’s, and wrote to a problem page in a magazine for reassurance. My mum found the letter under my bed and thought it was a prank.

I also wish that someone had thought to educate me on the emotional side of puberty. At school, it was all sanitary protection and procreation. Nobody told me I’d feel up, down, annoyed, tearful and downright crazy as hormones adjusted themselves. I’m not sure, back in the 1990s, people talked about that side of puberty much.

I educated myself through magazines, through making mistakes. Through simply living and being a woman.

No holds barred

Looking back, had I asked more questions or been given more answers, I can’t help but think certain things might have been easier. So one of my targets when I became a mum myself was to make sure that my children can literally talk to me about anything. No holds barred.

By the ripe old age of 42, I’ve had five children, four pregnancies, a miscarriage, three rounds of IVF, a biopsy of my cervix, a cervical suture, forceps birth, episiotomy and an MRI of my arsehole.  It’s safe to say that any inhibitions I once had have been shed over the past decade.

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Having the puberty ‘talk’

When it came to have the ‘puberty talk’ with my eldest daughter (9), my aim was to talk frankly about everything, to answer any questions. To tell her the exciting bits, the embarrassing bits. The bits that smell or wobble or are funny shapes. Boys’ bits and girls’ bits and what happens when those bits meet.

I would call a vagina a vagina. Not a front bottom, noo-noo or twinkle. I would talk about penises and nipples and pubic hair without resorting to nicknames or euphemisms.

Reader, I think I may have overachieved.

I had the chat one afternoon in my eldest daughter’s bedroom. I answered her questions about vaginas and willies and boobs and periods as honestly as I could.  I talked about period pain, but not enough to scare her. I talked about periods as an exciting landmark, but also something that might not always be easy.

I made her believe that I wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest to have the talk. And that nothing she said would faze me. Because that’s how it should be. And even though I may have struggled a little internally, I want her to feel that her body isn’t something that shouldn’t be discussed, and that she can ask me anything she needs to.

A year on, I’m still blindsided by the questions she sometimes asks me.  About whether things are growing and how rapidly. About how long it will be until her period comes. About what my first period was like. About bras and nipples and whether or not an indistinguishable spot is her first ever  pimple. All things I’d have been far too embarrassed to talk about when I was a kid.

I am so proud of my daughter

And I’m so proud. Proud that she openly talks about her body without being embarrassed. Proud that she asks me questions that I wouldn’t dream of asking my mum even now.  Proud that I’ve taught her the word vagina and she’s not afraid to use it.

I want her to come to me in the future if she feels fat, or unattractive, or has a physical problem or needs advice. I want to know that she can trust me and that I won’t be embarrassed or overreact.

Puberty can be tough. But you don’t have to figure it out on your own.

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Gillian Harvey

Gillian Harvey is a freelance writer, author and mum of five living in France. Her most recent novel 'Perfect on Paper' was published by Orion in May 2021. For more info, visit

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