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Selfie of Toby resting his face on his hand.

“Puberty isn’t a one-time thing”, let’s change the narrative

At the ripe old age of 22 – long after the typically prescribed puberty years – I was on the tube during a heatwave wearing a vest when I suddenly noticed that I had WAY more armpit hair than I used to. I was so surprised that I announced this loudly to my friend (as well as half the carriage)!  

That anecdote was what inspired me to write this article. It’s silly and lighthearted but it nevertheless demonstrates that there is a disconnect between our bodies being ‘complete’ after puberty versus how our bodies actually work and how we experience them. Had I thought of puberty as more of a stage of development in a lifelong series of bodily changes, I probably would have been less alarmed. But I think we need to look further than me being jumpscared by my own armpits in order to fully understand the nefarious side conceptualising puberty in this way. 

There is a tendency to treat puberty as a one-off event.

At some point in the swirling mess of hair, sweat, spots and endlessly outgrowing your clothes, you reach the point where teenage hood ends and adulthood begins. But that’s just not how puberty works. 

I think it’s a natural human reflex to conceptualise periods of change as having a start and end; change is scary and this makes it easier to manage. We also divide lots of other things during our teenage years neatly into timeslots – from GCSEs to A-levels, every minute of the school day is accounted for. So when it comes to puberty, it makes sense that we approach it almost like an exam: with a start and an end, something to be ‘completed’. 

Take for instance the phrase: “balls dropped”. During male puberty the testicles increase in size as more testosterone is produced, but the idea of balls ‘dropping’ inflicts a suddenness – a painful sounding one at that – onto what is a gradual, physical change. This suddenness adds an anxiety to how we experience our bodies – as if puberty weren’t stressful enough, the thought that it could strike at any moment is not comforting.  

I’m not suggesting that there are swathes of teenage boys silently fearing that their balls may suddenly ‘drop’ while on the bus or in the supermarket, but rather that the version of puberty it presents is a bad one. Much like the prescriptive time of the education system, the phrase ‘balls drop’ ushers in an idea of completeness: puberty with a sharp breakpoint which separates a before from an after – boy from man.  

When we consider puberty in this way it does not prepare us for embracing our bodies into adulthood.  

The idea of a puberty that ends with a ‘finished product’ becomes problematic when our bodies inevitably continue to change. When puberty is a question of being ‘complete’, the follow up question becomes ‘What does complete mean?’ or moreover ‘What does it look like?’. This idea of ‘completeness’ is perfectly set up to play into the standards of what a ‘perfect male body’ should look like –  whether it be height, muscles, or penis size.  

We’re constantly subjected to messaging of what is ‘ideal’ or ‘most attractive’ in the media and online, particularly with the rise of shows like Love Island and the constant accessibility of internet pornography. These messages sow seeds of doubt and insecurity onto how we feel about our own bodies, preventing us from embracing our bodies as our own as we become increasingly preoccupied with how we don’t meet these standards. When puberty is tied to this ‘completeness’ of the male body, it not only strengthens these standards and the harm they can cause, but it thrusts them onto the youngest and most impressionable slice of the population.  

In recent years, consciousness has grown around the danger of these body standards – with conversations both online and offline highlighting them and pushing to deconstruct them.

Changing how we talk about puberty needs to be part of this process.

A good definition of puberty (such as this one from the Brook website) would describe it as “a stage of development” during which one may “experience a number of physical and emotional changes, though exactly what these are and when they happen will vary from person to person.” What this version of puberty offers, which ‘fixed event’ puberty doesn’t, is a focus on individuality and continuity which sets us up better for embracing our bodies into adulthood. Puberty as a “stage of development” unlocks it from the confines of adolescence and opens it up to be part of wider conversations about bodies and bodily changes across our lifetimes.  

Furthermore, the emphasis on “what these changes are and what they might look like” being different for each person shifts the focus away from a constrictive ‘endpoint’ – turning our attention inwards towards the individual experience. Instead of immediately jumping to an ‘end’ which is tied up with body standards which we can unhealthily obsess over, this definition allows space for reflection on our own bodies, encouraging us to become more in tune with them and, crucially, to embrace them as they change. 

In doing so, puberty stops being something which happens to us to make us ‘complete’, it becomes something that we can own and think of for ourselves, reclaiming it and embracing our bodies in the process.  

Rethinking puberty isn’t going to topple unrealistic body standards overnight, but it is a step in the right direction. Fears such as having too much or too little body hair or being too large or too skinny are easier to deal with when they aren’t stuck in the shadow of a puberty which forces us into a box. This, in my view, is what embracing bodies is all about: Owning and embodying our own bodies, lives and experiences because each time we do it, each time a body is embraced, the grip of the so-called ‘perfect body’ slips and life gets just that little bit easier.  

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