A Look At Puberty Through The Eyes, Words, Bodies of Two College-Aged Girls Named Al(l)ison
By Alison Peebles
In the early stages of planning The Body Edition, I (Susannah Emerson) tapped 19-year-old Alison Peebles to host a discussion about her body topic of choice, puberty. I'm only seven years older than Alison is, but I am both reminded of how eternally connected to and how very far away I am from my 19-year-old self on a daily basis. It's been a pleasure to chart my own body's journey while listening to Alison & Allison do the same for theirs. I hope you can find your version of the same while reading the reflections of these two cool girls.
I, Alison, sent my best friend, Allison, an email a few days ago in the hopes of having a conversation to reflect upon our experiences of going through puberty. Below is a transcription our conversation between two body-positive, young women who are still trying to figure it out.
Re: The Body Edition
I feel as if writing about learning about bodies - a process usually coined by the term 'puberty' - implies that I am learned about my own body, which is far from the truth. So Al, I am not here to make any grand claims about bodies, and I don't expect that from you either. As your friend who has so much love and respect for you, I want to hash things out about how the ways from which we learned about our bodies have shaped the way we continue to learn about our bodies, as well as how we currently view our bodies. I guess I'd like to think about the term puberty because, for me, it's tinged with a weird, almost yucky, awkward vulnerability, which is something I'd like to unpack.
Allison: There’s like a lot in this, and I feel like I kind of have a response to every single sentence you have here. Especially this first part where you say learning about bodies, and you don’t even feel like you know your own body completely yet, and in order to talk about our bodies and write about them do we have to be completely knowledgeable about our own? Well that kind of makes think about how my body literally changes every single day, so for me, yesterday I was looking in the mirror and I have new freckles on my face and I was like “Oh my God!” Anyway, so yea, I feel like our bodies change every single day, and that in itself is a continuous learning process like learning how to deal with the changes in our body.
Me: I think that’s totally true. Like I’ve been running a lot lately, for five weeks or so I’ve been training for a half marathon, and the muscles in my legs and the way my body feels has changed, and also I’ve been in the sun more running outside so I have new freckles too and the way I learn about how my own body has changed a lot from when I was younger too. So like I’m 19 right now, so like at 19 when my body changes now I’m like oh its just changing its not like I’m so worried about preserving something or staying to whatever I though was ideal. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Allison: Yea it totally does. It’s like when people talk about their bodies. Nothing is ever really concrete because everybody’s body changes.
Me: Do you remember how you learned about periods and bras?
Allison: laughs… Well I feel like my experience was really rare and I’m lucky that growing up, both of my parents were doctors, so I always knew about periods. For example, the day I got my period, my dad was like oh Allison did your menses arrive? Laughs…And yea, so just little things like that. I always approached it from like a super biological perspective because both of my parents were doctors so I was never ashamed of what was happening with my body because I grew up thinking this is what happens and this is why it happens. My mom was like so this lining is going to shed, and then this, and then this, and I knew all of the technical terms when I was like eight years old. So that has also informed a lot of how I approach my life right now anyway, as a Well Woman.
Me: Wait, can you explain what Well Woman is?
Me: Oh yea, basically as a Well Woman, I hold workshops for students on campus and office hours for students to come and ask questions just about the experience at Barnard or Columbia or how they’re dealing with stress or relationships or whether they have a questions about birth control or health insurance or if they want to get better sleep at night or handle their stress. Like so many things. And I think that because I grew up with two doctors as parents, my approach to that has always been to trust the processes that are going on in my body because I grew up knowing that everything had a function and my body is going to take care of itself and do what it needs to do and that has informed the ways I’ve gone about teaching. So yea!
Me: That’s beautiful.
Allison: I’ve never really felt ashamed or embarrassed of my period or whenever it was time for me to get a bra my mom was like, “Okay homegirl. You got some boobs lets go pick out a bra. Let’s go to the store. Today’s the day!” And I was like “Okay.”
Me: I feel like I sort of had an opposite experience not in a bad way, but basically I learned about periods in fifth grade and we were at a sleepover and this girl was like “Do you know about periods?” to all the girls, and some girls were like “yea!” And so then I learned about what a period was but I didn’t learn about like what an endometrium or uterus I just learned about some blood coming out of down below. So then a couple days later – you know how weird things happen like you learn a new word and then you hear it four times the next day – so I’m in my parents bathroom, and my mom comes in with this American Girl Doll period book. And she has this period page open and she goes “Hi! I just wanted to tell you that this happens and here’s this book and if you have any questions you can ask me but also here’s this book. And the book was about periods and puberty, and that was good for me because I was and am a reader and I like to research these things and not talk to anyone about them, and so, my mom was basically like just in case anything weird happens in your body, this is why.
And that was normal, but what wasn’t normal, well normal is a relative term, but I felt fine about that. But what wasn’t normal was the people at my school. Like in fifth grade there was a girl who had left blood in the toilet, so people were like “Oh my god! Somebody has their period! Who is this? Is it this girl or is it this girl?” I wasn’t that girl, and I wasn’t the kind of person to do that, but it was kind of a stressful thing.
And I also remember that I got boobs really early like in fifth grade I needed a bra, and that was traumatic because I didn’t have the same experience as you. Like my mom was like, “Okay we should just go get a bra, and I was like I don’t want to. Like my older sister didn’t look like me, and that was just stressful because what if someone sees it under my shirt? Like it wasn’t exciting. And I was always reading books and the girls in the books were like “Oh my God I can wear a bra!” And I didn’t feel like that! Like I didn’t know what that was about like almost secrecy, like oh if I get my period its fine like I just won’t tell anyone. And we had these scoliosis tests and you could wear an undershirt or a training bra, either one was fine but everybody was like “No! Who wears bras? blah blah blah” Like it was a thing!
Allison: “Oh my gosh!”
Me: So I remember that being really stressful. Like there was a secrecy or a taboo like we didn’t talk about it and it wasn’t like shamed overtly but it was scary.
Allison: So did you have like puberty talks at your school?
Me: Yea so in 5th grade, the year of learning if you will (laughs) the girls would go into one room and the boys would go into another and they would show us a video and I remember that we learned about our own bodies and the boys learned about boys’ bodies and then we got goodie bags, like we got pads and deodorants and our nurse came into the class. And I remember that if people asked questions, we would be like “How dare you ask questions about this? Like how dare you be curious?” Which is obviously immature, but it wasn’t an open environment. There weren’t any community guidelines in 5th grade. But how about you?
Allison: We did that same exact thing in 5th grade and also, I will never forget, but in 7th grade we split up boys and girls and then they would pass out a list of terms, like taboo terms, and (laughing) did this thing and whoever could read through the entire list without laughing would be crowned the puberty princess and they got to wear a crown and a sash all day and wear a little wand and carry it around for the entire day.
Me: Did you win?
Allison: I won Puberty Princess. I almost lost it at scrotum. But I held it together.
Me: (laughing) Iconic.
Allison: My school was just really weird like that. I don’t know but looking back I always am curious, what does splitting us up really achieve? Is that helpful or harmful? Like what are we teaching boys and girls at such a young age about our bodies.
Me: Well I also felt that too, like the reason that they did that was because it wasn’t appropriate to learn about each other’s bodies and I also remember feeling that way with the dress code because it was like oh you have to have three finger width shoulder straps and your shorts or dress must go down past your fingertips when your arms are straight, and I felt like a lot of it was hiding my body and oh these things are happening to my body but they shouldn’t be because its inappropriate or it was just the secrecy made it hard for me to accept my own body. And I think that I have carried that with me. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the past year, but I think the way that I was taught about the changes that would happen in my body has affected the way I am learning about it.
Allison: I also think it affects how men grew up and how men view our sexuality and how they viewed women going through puberty. I definitely do remember after having that talk in fifth grade after we split up, the boys were like “Oh, were you talking about your periods? I know what that means. Everybody just gets moody, and you get blood everywhere.” So I’m always curious about like what if it was done together? Would we have different views of our bodies? Would we even consider them like private parts?
Me: Yea, I also think that it would change the way we would think about gender because talking about it with you right now I’m like oh my God this is so reductive and so limiting, and I don’t know. If you could imagine this really progressive health education program and the kids learned about bodies together, and gender would open up and sexuality would be formed differently. Ugh that makes me sad now.
Allison: I know! Just imagine a class with everybody like “Alright, hey, some people have vaginas and some people have penises. Some people have boobs. Some people have everything, and this is how you handle all of those situations in one classroom.”
Me: I totally agree.
Allison: I always think about that.
Me: Yea. It’s wild. Also, I would like to talk about the term puberty because I feel like maybe just because of the way our education happened, but I feel like that term for me is so loaded. And I wonder like if we didn’t use that word, we didn’t call it that, and we just said “your body is changing” I don’t know if we would think about our bodies differently or what not.
Allison: Yea. That’s real.
Me: Do you have the same connotation of that word as I do?
Allison: Yea I definitely think of my puberty years as me being an awkward lump trying to troll my way into adulthood, like the ugly duckling becoming the swan laughs. But I don’t know if it’s the word itself or what we’ve come to associate that word with what our mentors and friends and parents have all used that word to mean because it could also mean like a bunch of really cool positive things. Like we get our periods that’s fucking awesome, like yea it’s annoying sometimes but like that’s so cool that our bodies do that.
Me: There definitely is a sense of wonder to the changes our body has gone through, but I feel like that has only come to me in the most recent years. Like I didn’t celebrate my period and the miracle that it is. Like our bodies do that every month and that is dope and I didn’t think about it like that until, I don’t really know when that change happened, but it definitely wasn’t when I was in middle school and high school. Maybe at the end of high school.
Allison: Yea that’s true.
Me: I also I remember that I would get really bad acne and like your body got bigger and I was like why is my body growing? Like I didn’t like that feeling, so I feel like it is a mix. There are a lot of things happening but I definitely didn’t feel like there were good changes that were happening like I was scared of them. And I also think I felt ashamed of them like I was going through it so early like I was in 4th, 5th and 6th grade, and I felt like I was one of the first people to have my body change like that.
Allison: I definitely relate to that. So side note, basically I was like the only black person in my grade school for a while until high school, and I don’t know if this is a thing, but my doctors would always tell me that I shouldn’t compare myself to other white students because my body was going through different changes that theirs were going through. So for example, like I got boobs at such a young age, and I had hair all over my freaking body at such a young age and all these things were happening to me, and at the same time, like I had to do that scoliosis test, and weigh myself at school, and get my BMI taken and all of those results were different from everybody else’s. If I’m looking back now that I can say that going through puberty while at the same time having this experience that was so different from everybody else’s experience was really isolating and lonely, so yea, I feel that. I feel like I almost blocked that period of time out because it is rough. And on top of that our hormones are just raging so everything is multiplied.
Me: I also think, this could be selective memory, but no one tells you that it sucks. No one says that this can be a really lonely and isolating time. It’s like what people say at the beginning of college, all adults say “It’s going be the best four years of your life,” but also they can be so lonely and sad and troubling. I feel like just saying that helps you immediately deal with the situation. So this could be selective memory, but I don’t remember having a conversation with my peers or anyone saying “oh that is the worst!” when you’re doing it.
Allison: But you gotta do it!
Me: But it happens! It’s the biological clock!
Allison: I do remember the people who fucking thrived through puberty, like there were always those few people where I was like are you not going through puberty?! Like what?! I just don’t understand.
Me: I don’t either. Honestly, I feel like I didn’t even see those people.
Allison: There were so many of them in my grade. I was like rolling through trying to use concealer on my pimples for the first time and like cuts all under my armpits from trying to shave them. (laughs)
Me: Wait actually, a funny shaving story. So I got hairy armpits in like straight-up third grade and my mom was like girl you need to take care of that like I’m going to help you. And I would hate when she would shave my armpits. Like she was so nice about it though, and she got me so many different things to help me and I was like I hate everything about this. Anyway, so I was an adventurous kid, and you know as more time passed I got to shave my own armpits I figured it out and one day I literally shaved my whole body like I shaved my legs, keep in mind, at this point I was probably in sixth grade, I shaved my arms like my tiny little hairs on my knuckles, like I got it all, and I cut every limb. Every limb had a bloody thing on it, and I left the shower, and I was like wow I’m bleeding a lot. It wasn’t like deep cuts or anything, and I was like I’m gonna be real slick about it. No one is gonna know I shaved my body, and my mom comes into my room after I’m done in the shower, and she was like “Are you ok? There’s just so much blood in the bathroom right now.” I literally thought I cleaned the whole thing, and I was like “Yea I’m fine.” I forget what lie I told her, but she was like “Are you sure its just that?” And meanwhile my thumb is bleeding because I shaved my thumb, like who am I?
Allison: I actually had a similarly wild experience. So I have two brothers and going through puberty with two brothers is like a totally different story. So basically we were all best friends, and so watching them go through puberty I was like I want in too! So I saw my dad teaching my older brother how to shave, and we went through the whole thing, so I was like “Oh obviously I have to do that too.” So then I tried to do it myself, so I got the shaving cream and put it all over my face, got my brother’s razor and shaved my face. I shaved my entire eyebrow off. (Laughing) Like I heard “kkkk” and I tried to play it off so cool like I probably looked like an absolute idiot, and I went to dinner and my parents were like “Allison what the fuck did you do to your face?!” (Laughing) And you want to know what I said? (Laughing) I was like “Oh I slipped and fell and hit my forehead on the corner of the table, and that’s why all my eyebrow hairs fell off.” So then I went eyebrow-less for like three weeks until it grew back.
Me: That is simply iconic.
Me: How old were you?
Allison: I was in like 3rd grade.
Me: Can you tell me more about how having brothers affected your experience?
Allison: Again, my family is super weird, and so when I was on my period or when I was getting my period it was like a whole family experience. Everybody freaking knew, so I shared a bathroom with my younger brother, so when I was first learning to use pads and tampons they were like all over the bathroom, and my brothers would just come into the bathroom and were like “Allison can you get your tampons out of here? Your tampons are everywhere. Can you show me how to use your tampon?” Anyway, yea so it wasn’t like a negative experience. Like I learned how to turn awkward situations into funny ones and like yea this is friggen awkward but it’s happening.
Me: I feel like talking about it helps it be less awkward. I also think I am mindful of the way I talk about my own body because it totally helps change the way we influence people around us, especially our peers because I think that’s really important and relevant about the way we talk about what’s happening with our bodies changes people.
Allison: And even just the act of talking about it alone, I feel like people think that talking about our bodies is this taboo thing but it really shouldn’t be because it’s our body. It’s just the way it is it should be something that people feel comfortable talking about, and only then will we be able to learn more about ourselves. So I don’t know.
Me: I also want to know what you think of when someone says, “Oh I look fat today” or like when I feel like when people are not generous of what’s happening to their bodies and they’re critical and vocalize those things that affect people around them. And obviously sometimes things happen with your body, and you’re not feeling your best or you don’t think you look your best, but I want to know do you think that changes the way that people perceive themselves and does that mean you shouldn’t say those things?
Allison: We all have those friends that say “Oh my god I’m so fat today” or things like that without even realizing it. It kind of makes me take a look at myself. Like if she’s feeling fat today then what am I? I don’t know. I think that’s a really negative way to look at things. So what I try to do is if someone is saying something like that I think it’s my place to jump in and say well what makes you say that? And if someone says “I am feeling fat today.” I’ll say oh well what makes you feel like that? And they say “Oh I’m just really bloated,” and then I’ll be like okay well what did you eat? And well talk about what they ate and then ill say well you probably just have to poop and then they’re like “You’re right! I haven’t pooped all day.” And I’m like “Okay go chug a bottle of water, eat some fiber and there you go!” Oftentimes, the situation can be solved like that but there are a lot of other factors, but I do think that talking about our bodies in that way is really negative and can be internalized by ourselves and the people around us.
Me: The other thing I think that has helped me tremendously has been like figuring out my relationship with food and exercise, and this sounds so cliché, and I’m not going to get into body image issues. That’s a conversation for another day, but within the past year I’ve started to care about food and nutrition. When I make myself a promise, and I follow through on that promise, I gain a lot of self-respect and confidence. Basically all throughout high school, I told myself I wasn’t going to drink alcohol or do any drugs, and I think that promise helped me know myself and socialize, and it might not be readily apparent what this has to do with bodies, but basically I did the same process but with food and exercise, and last year I figured out I couldn’t eat gluten, but really I just started loving learning about food and the food I put into my body and that changed my life, and then I felt so much better. And then I was like 2017 is going to be the year of the half-marathon, and then you made me sign up for a half marathon and now I’m training for it, and I feel amazing, and I think that fueling your body with things that make you feel good, and then being like my body is so strong! look at what I did! I ran 30 miles last week and that is something I never though I would be able to do, but then when you feel strong and you are strong for yourself like emotionally, you’re doing these things, and these promises are a game changer.
Allison: I really liked what you said about your relationship with food. Like eating the foods that you know fuel your body in a positive way and in a way that will allow you to achieve your goals is really cool.
Me: I also think food is one of those things where people say “Oh I can’t eat that I’m so fat,” but you can have a french fry you know? So that’s another one of those things that can be internalized so then its acknowledging that that’s such a personal thing and so many people struggle with food, and at least in college right now I feel like I’m surrounded by people who are making food choices in our neighborhood or the dining hall like being surrounded by people who are making decisions about something that is so wrought with trouble and different economic backgrounds and cultural decisions. That’s such a personal thing that also is really difficult to make the individual choice of what’s good for me and sticking to that…. So yea, do you have anything else that you want to bring to the table?
Allison: I feel like we talked about a lot, but I think what a lot of the problems come down to for me is to these societal definitions and implications that you talk about. For me, it’s just been about surrounding myself with friends and mentors and people who are constantly challenging those societal definitions, especially in regards to bodies and women’s bodies. Like people always have something to say about women’s bodies, and I think I’ve only been able to learn about my own body because of the awesome people I’ve surrounded myself with, who always remind me to challenge what people are trying to tell me about my body. So yea that’s just something I’m always working on and something I will always be challenged by.
Me: That’s so true especially because thinking about your body, knowing about your body, is a really individual thing and is also a challenge because you’re in a world with media and people around you. That’s so real, the interaction between you becoming the most wholly yourself but also that process is not entirely individual, but its beautiful when you have people around you who are helping you become more individual.
Allison: Yea, man.
Me: Shoot. Yea that’s a hard idea to express in words. I’ve actually thought of one good final question! What’s one piece of advice you would offer a woman you love to know? Or what’s the TL;DR of this article?
Allison: I think I would say don’t take things at face value. Always ask questions for yourself like always seek information for yourself. I just remember the best advice I got while I was going through puberty was because it’s just a time when your body feels so foreign to you, and I had this really cool teacher, and she was like just explore your body. It sounds creepy now looking back, but basically she told me to explore my own body, and basically what that ended up being was me sitting on the floor with a mirror looking at my own vagina being like “Oh shit! That’s what that looks like, and then calling up my friend and being like does yours look like this?” So yea, I think that that was the first step to me being like “Okay this is my body.” Obviously, my fifth grade brain didn’t think about it like this at the time, but I was like “This is my body. I’m going to seek information about my body and that was the starting point.”
Me: You gotta start somewhere. And there’s no right starting point. It’s better to take the plunge into the whole thing, and it’ll be fruitful no matter what.
Allison: And if you start out embracing that awkwardness, like yes your body is going to feel foreign to you, seek the ways that you can change that, whatever that means to you. Find ways that you can become familiar with your body because it’s the only body you’re going to get.
Me: I think mine is inspired from a lot of the stuff you’ve just said, but just to not take it that seriously. Like when you get your period, I felt like it was sad when I got mine but don’t be sad! Girl you’re a woman, like live your truth. I would be more playful with it and don’t stop seeking information until you’re comfortable and happy with where you’re at. Whenever I’m feeling anxious or upset about anything now like, okay let me read as many articles as I can or talk to people until I sort it out. And I want to talk to people and empower people through knowledge so hopefully that will result in like love.
Allison: I 100% would not have gotten through puberty if I did not have people in my life who I could be like “Yo, this shit sucks.” And we would laugh about how shitty it was and then move on. Ya know? It’s shitty but you’re gonna get through it.
Me: And I think also that’s when talking about it helps so much. Okay, do you feel good about that?
Me: Beautiful. Thank you!