Women and girls can spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about their bodies. We are hyper-aware of every aspect of ourselves. Let’s put aside whether this is good or bad for a moment and rather ask why. Or more specifically, why is this a girl thing?
As a pediatrician, I work hard to teach kids about health, safety, and confidence. As a mom, I do the best I can to model taking care of myself and feeling good about the skin I’m in. But why do I direct this more toward my 14-year old daughter than my 12-year old son? Why is this type of body talk largely considered a “girl” thing? Girls – especially tweens and teens – and their moms generally grow increasingly comfortable talking about puberty over time. Which is wonderful. But boys and their parents: not so much. I, for one, am not having the same conversations with my son that I have with my daughter and neither is my husband, despite the fact that my son’s body is morphing and his hormones are surging in many of the same ways as his sister’s.
Puberty isn’t just a girl thing. So then why do we leave our boys out of the conversation?
I write about puberty for a living. After med school, I was a pediatrician taking care of kids in an office, but for the past decade I have been teaching and writing health books, and for the last five years, I have been writing books specifically about what happens to the body and the brain during puberty. During this time, I have been involved with American Girl’s The Care and Keeping of You series, the best-selling puberty books in the country. For girls, that is. And so, despite my best efforts to educate all kids about their bodies, I suppose I have been part of the problem.
This is not to say that giving girls information isn’t critical, because it absolutely is. My daughter is a classic beneficiary of the types of books I write. She and her friends are incredibly comfortable talking about their evolving physiques and moods, and they will have these conversations both among themselves and with their moms. I know that, because she is able to talk about these issues, the likelihood that she will live more healthfully increases. My daughter and her friends don’t just discuss body shape, they talk about nutrition and exercise; they don’t just whine about moods, but rather identify the connection between sleep and emotional well-being. The earlier we start conversations with our girls – and these days we start them mighty early, typically around the second or third grade – the more girls learn about general health and safety. Puberty talk goes way beyond puberty.
But as my son began to experience his own physiological revolution – a couple of years ago, as body odor made its debut and the errant pimple appeared here and there – he had no such support network. His friends certainly didn’t discuss it amongst themselves. And even when I (an “expert”) would broach the subject, my son would simply clam up.
Conventional wisdom (and everyone around me, including other doctors) said, “Let his dad have the conversations with him.” So, I assigned the job to my husband. Frankly, it was an unfair ask. While he was completely comfortable delivering a one-liner about why armpit scrubbing in the shower is important or the virtues of flossing, he’s a man who, like most of his generation, was raised to not talk about his body and to just deal with the changes that came. It was difficult for him to have the same on-going conversations I was having with my daughter about growing up, both physically and emotionally.
Boys need the same series of conversations we have with girls about their how their bodies will develop and how their minds will evolve. But unlike girls, they don’t have access to a zillion novels on the topic, or magazine articles, or now, even YouTube videos. They don’t have special classes teaching them empowerment or even basic healthy living skills.
Puberty education is, in fact, the one educational corner in which girls dominate – they have access to so much more information than their male counterparts. Let’s level the playing field and bring our boys into the conversation. We need to start talking to boys the same way we talk to girls, and not just about hair and zits and voice changes, but also about mood swings and friend shifts and smart choices. Even though male puberty happens a little bit later than female puberty, and it isn’t quite as outwardly obvious at first, we cannot and should not ignore the transformation going on inside of our boys. By bringing boys into the conversation about not only how their bodies and minds change but also how to deal with those changes, we are raising a generation of girls and boys who will have the skills to live more healthy lives. And in an age when we are debating the costs of lifelong health care, this may just have life-changing impact for a whole generation.