Reconsidering Puberty

Roz Chast's take on puberty from The New Yorker.

Roz Chast’s take on puberty, from The New Yorker.

I was ten years old, when my brother was Bar Mitzvah’d. It was a big deal. The synagogue was packed and there was a big party at a fancy restaurant afterward. I have no memories of the event at all. I don’t even remember what my mother made me wear.

I do remember watching my brother prepare for the ceremony. Week after week, he struggled to read his Torah portion, in Hebrew, out loud. His voice kept cracking. He was becoming a man. I was still a girl.

The next year I got my period. I didn’t want to become a woman. I didn’t want my breasts to grow. I didn’t want to wear a bra. I didn’t want to get my period or sprout pimples all over my face. I didn’t want to shave under my arms. I alternated between being angry and wanting to cry. I hated that everyone was waiting for me to “blossom”. I withdrew. I didn’t want any parties or celebrations.

I think, if you asked me, at age 11, if I’d rather go through female puberty, male puberty, or no puberty at all, I would have answered no puberty at all. I mistrusted adults. I did not understand teenagers. I was scared of dating, sex, pregnancy, marriage, and parenthood. I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to keep things simple.

Denial makes you wish for things that are impossible. There is no escaping puberty the first time around. Even today, with puberty blockers available for transgender children (if their parents consent), the delay is only temporary. By the time they are 15 or 16 they have to choose whether to stop taking the blockers and go through a “natural” puberty or take cross gender hormones and transition.

What would it be like to go through a non-binary puberty?

I am going through a non-binary menopause. I haven’t had my period in ten years (the best side effect from a partial hysterectomy for fibroids). Aside from getting night sweats, I feel better with less estrogen in my system. Calmer. The nagging question is, do I feel better enough?

Every day I think about starting testosterone. One of the things that holds me back is the thought of going through a second puberty. Even if it is a puberty I technically choose to go through, or need to go through. I dread repeating the moodiness, the acne, the increased appetite, and the awkwardness of my body changing.

Going through a second puberty as a transitioning adult is different from going through a first puberty as a child or a teen. It is more controlled. There is medical supervision. There is more information and community support. But I can not shake off that feeling I had as an 11 year old, wishing to avoid the effects of puberty, and hoping against all odds for a reprieve.

Notes: I continue to be as suspicious of testosterone as I am of estrogen, even though there are no long-term studies that show any health risks from taking testosterone to transition. There is a lot more known about estrogen.

Prior to the 2002 Women’s Health Initiative Study, gynecologists routinely prescribed HRT (estrogen) to menopausal women. Women who wanted to go through a natural menopause were often bullied and belittled by their doctors for refusing to go on HRT, and told that they were putting themselves at risk for osteoporosis. Then the WHI test results came out. It showed that the long-term health risks associated with taking estrogen (breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke) outweighed the benefits (reduced risk of osteoporosis, fewer mood swings, improved sexual response).

This is the best article I found explaining treating transgender children with puberty blockers. It also provides a good overall background on the science of puberty.

19 thoughts on “Reconsidering Puberty

  1. Luka

    This! “I think, if you asked me, at age 11, if I’d rather go through female puberty, male puberty, or no puberty at all, I would have answered no puberty at all. I mistrusted adults. I did not understand teenagers. I was scared of dating, sex, pregnancy, marriage, and parenthood. I wanted to be a boy. I wanted to keep things simple.” Exactly my thoughts when I was about 12!

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      1. Emerson Van Note

        Oh good. There are at least three of us! I started at puberty at 10 and I was so not ready to be an adult of any kind. My daughter has started earlier and half of what is driving me is watching her ease into being a woman like … IDK. Like it isn’t a huge terrible deal that makes her despondent. She hates periods because they are messy and tricky to navigate (and she’s just started in the last six months, so.. very unpredictable so far) but other than being way ahead physically of most of her classmates, she’s cool with everything. She took to a purse like a fish to water. Maybe that’s it – she’s taken everything in stride, if not always with emotional aplomb every day.

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  2. Pingback: Reconsidering Puberty – Loner on the road

  3. Lesboi

    It seems to me that if your ideal would be to hang out in the pre-pubescent boy range (physically speaking) you are probably just about where you would want to be. Perhaps add in a tiny bit of T, depending on where your numbers are now and you’d be there. I still struggle with being seen as a man. It’s better than being seen as a woman and while being called sir is less grating than ma’am or miss it still feels not quite right to me.

    I don’t know about others, but I know that I idealize the first 10-12 years of my life before puberty came around and ruined everything. Life was a lot simpler then in so many ways. People I love were still alive and we still had our innocence. Yet, we were under our parent’s control and I know that neither of us would want to be in that position again. I know you’ll find your balance soon, if you haven’t already.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I idealize the time that I could be seen as a boy in the right clothes and I could play with the boys, even though my childhood was pretty miserable and adults were constantly trying to get me to dress and act like a girl. Mostly I wish for a time when one could be a boy by just being a boy. That is a difficult feat to pull off as an adult.

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    1. p0ppyann

      when I went through puberty I prayed every day that I would wake up as a girl but praying for things like this never come true, I hated being male but if I showed I prefer to be female back then it would have been like asking to be beat up more often than I was, at the time back in the 60’s if anyone found out you were different than they were it was just like going out with a sign saying please beat me up or kill me also if anyone was beating you up no one would step in to help you they just saw it as a normal acceptable thing which was your fault not the fault of who was beating you up, I remember when I was only 3-4 (before I started school) some boys who were around 12 to 15 beat me up hitting me with their fists and kicking me then they picked me up by my arms and legs and swinging me back and too then let go when I was at the top and threw me into a field full of nettles when I managed to get out I had to go to hospital as they thought the amount of stings I had was going to kill me that was due to me dressing like a girl at the time I decided to not let anyone see me dressed like a girl again and it has taken me until I was 50 before I restarted to go out wearing female clothing and until I was 58 before I accepted I am transgender and do not care what other people think.
      people today say it is so hard to come out and be different than most people you have no idea how bad it use to be, my biggest wish is that I was born in the last 10 years as I would have accepted who I am and transitioned as soon as was possible as then I would have a decent chance of passing as female which with my not starting hormones until I was 58 have just about no chance of.

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  4. Trans Buddhist Health Blog

    I have the same reservations towards Testosterone. I hated every second of puberty without really understanding why, though. I didn’t know it was possible to be trans. Or anything but female or male.
    also – I don’t know if I really want – or need – all the effects testosterone gives you. Some of them? hell yeah. But all of them? not so sure

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  5. Riley

    I don’t remember there being a disconnect between myself and my body when I was little. Before I started puberty, I didn’t mind being a girl. I was on a mission to prove that being a girl didn’t have any impact on who I was or who I could be – that I could do anything boys could do too. I hated being called a tomboy on principle. I wasn’t a boy. Climbing trees or playing sports didn’t make me a boy. I was a girl who did those things. (But I also didn’t mind if strangers thought I was a boy, and I did sometimes wish I was one, and in general preferred leaving my gender out of the situation altogether so I guess that time period wasn’t wholly uncomplicated.) I didn’t mind puberty when it first started. Sure, I was uncomfortable about the hair in my armpits, but that was part of growing up and I could handle that. It was getting breasts that I hated. Couldn’t stand. Made me feel like my body was turning against me. I still haven’t gotten over that. When we learned how to do breast self exams in health class in high school, I spent the class wishing I *would* get breast cancer so I would have an excuse to get rid of my breasts. In a college class, a professor mentioned some tribe where they had an unusually high occurrence of some kind of disorder where people would be born as girls but then go through male puberty. I don’t remember who that group was now but I was jealous when I heard about them. I was jealous when I learned about puberty blockers when I started reading about trans issues. I probably would have been too scared to try them anyway.

    I enjoy your posts, Jamie.

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  6. janitorqueer

    You were in my dream last night! You lived in an old working-class suburb of NYC called Phoenix. It was a place not at all caught up with the times. You took my spouse and me to a roller rink where you used to be an announcer. You did the announcing right then and there, for old time’s sake, for like a roller derby race type event. Then you brought us to an old sporting goods store, where the workers seemed strung out, and there were tiny robot cameras scurrying along on the edges. I took lots of photos. … Hope you’re having a great vacation!!!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Had a mostly great vacation, and am slow getting back into regular life! That is quite a dream – never roller derbied – and I’m sure Freud would have a field day with the references but I’m not going to read too much into them.
      Hope that you are doing well and ready for your surgery, and that you will be able to bounce back quickly.

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  7. RonaFraser

    I don’t know whether I was just an oblivious kid, or maybe it was that my parents didn’t make a big deal out of anything (no milestones celebrated), or if it is just a part of being cis-gender — I never felt a transition into woman-hood or anything. My first bra, my period… they were all just things that happened… that I had no choice in… that I kinda just dealt with and didn’t think about. Hmm… maybe it also relates to never having a boyfriend (being sexual would have perhaps made me feel more of a “woman”? I dunno). When I think about it, I really only felt like a woman in my late 30s, when I was taking a bellydance class. After maybe a year, when I finally felt like my British hips (as I called them) had gotten used to moving — be it shimmying to bellydance music or sticking my butt out for some African tribal rhythms — I finally felt womanly. Sexy, I guess. Started wearing skirts all the time. Anyways, I was wondering whether going through puberty was only a big deal if you did not like what you were turning in to… but even as I write I am realizing that no, I think it is a big deal to most people… and that this is simply another case of me being different. Oh well, at least I was able to enjoy it when it finally happened 🙂

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