Puberty is a process that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is a time of both physical and psychological change.
Girls go through puberty, on average, beginning between ages 9 and 11 and lasting until ages 15 to 17. Boys generally being this process a little later—starting from ages 11–12 and lasting to around 16–17 years of age. The pace at which one matures also differs from person to person. Lagging behind or jumping ahead of your peers a little is absolutely normal.
The changes that fall under the term 'puberty' happen over several years. Every individual’s development is a personal process, happening at a particular rate and in a particular way. You cannot impact the rhythm of your body, but you can make an effort to understand it.
On a hormonal level, all of these changes are a result of signals from the brain. The gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) reaches the pituitary gland (situated at the base of the brain) which then releases two hormones into the bloodstream—the luteinizing hormone (LH) and the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). LH and FSH regulate the production of estrogen and testosterone. Testosterone and estrogen are present in both girls and boys, but at different levels, and they impact the body differently.
The most visible changes are physical. Adolescents experience changes in height, shape, weight, and hairiness as they transform from child to young adult.
Hair growth (where there was none before) is one of the first signs of puberty. Both boys and girls start growing hair under the armpits and in the genital area. Hair on the legs and arms becomes somewhat thicker and darker. Hair type differs from person to person—you can look to your parents for a rough idea of what you should expect.
Boys typically start developing facial hair in the later stages of puberty, around fifteen years of age. Hair on the upper lip typically comes first, followed by hair on the chin and under the jawline. Facial hair growth differs significantly from person to person—some boys already have some fuzz at age 12, while others may struggle to grow a full beard as adults.
What you do with the hair on your body carries social and cultural significance, but ultimately, you should decide for yourself what grooming choices you make. Some people are more sensitive to razor burn, or are likelier to suffer from ingrown hairs as a result of shaving. There are many products to help ease such sensitivities, but sometimes it’s best to just let your hair grow.
A few things to take into consideration if you decide to start shaving:
Along with hair growth, one of the first signs of the onset of puberty in boys is the penis and testicles growing larger, the testicles dropping, and the scrotum gradually becoming darker. The genitalia change over the course of multiple years and are usually fully developed around the age of 18.
Around this time boys start getting more frequent erections. An erection can happen at any time, and the frequency differs greatly—anywhere from one to multiple erection every day. This depends on age, sexual maturity, and a number of other random factors (it is completely normal to have an erection for no apparent reason). An erection can also happen while you are asleep, often resulting in ejaculation, a.k.a. ‘the wet dream’. These dreams are a common occurrence during puberty and start happening when the body’s testosterone production increases. Having little to no control over this process can be annoying and embarrassing, but rest assured—you are not the first to experience this, nor will you be the last.
In girls, the vulva also gradually changes during this time, becoming structurally larger and more pronounced—the labia majora (the larger outer folds of the vulva) become more visible, the labia minora (the smaller inner folds of the vulva) develop, the vulvar cleft (the opening between the labia majora) and the clitoris become slightly enlarged. This usually happens two to three years before the onset of a young woman’s first period.
Development starts with a little swelling under the nipple. The swelling might be accompanied with occasional soreness. You’ll notice a small raised bump behind the nipple (often referred to as a breast bud) which will get larger over time. The nipples and the circle of skin around the nipple (known as the areola) will become larger and darker. Often one breast develops more quickly than the other, and although the other will catch up, don’t be surprised if you end up with one breast slightly larger than the other. Nearly all women have this difference in size—perfectly symmetrical bodies don’t exist.
As your breasts start to develop, you might feel the need to get a bra. This can be especially helpful while doing physical exercise because of the tenderness of growing breasts—you don’t want your body to keep you from doing the things you love. A bra, like all new things, can be difficult to adjust to, and finding the right size and fit isn't as simple as it might seem, but you will be glad if you take the time to find bras that fit you well. Bra sizes have a number (for the circumference of your chest beneath your breasts) and a letter (for your cup size). If you’re going bra shopping for the first time, you might want to ask advice from someone who is familiar with the system—be it a trusted friend or family member, or a consultant at the store.
Your first menstrual period will come approximately 2–2.5 years after your breasts first start to form. At first your period might come irregularly as the body needs time to regulate the new influx of hormones. Your period should stabilize within a year, but this may take more time for some. A common sign that your body is ready for this change is the presence of vaginal discharge: a transparent-to-white, slightly sticky substance you might notice in your underwear from time to time. This first happens about six months to a year before your first period.
Most girls get their first period sometime between the ages of 12 and 13, but anywhere between 10 and 15 years of age is considered normal. Some of the physical symptoms of menstruation that will let you know that your period is approaching include: sensitive breasts, bloating, water retention, muscle and joint pain, headache, acne, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea or constipation, lower back pain, difficulty sleeping, lack of energy, or fatigue. Not everyone experiences the full list of symptoms—in fact, some girls have no symptoms at all—this is a list of potential unpleasantries only. For most, over-the-counter painkillers are effective enough to relieve abdominal cramps, and many of the other symptoms can be effectively combated with a healthy lifestyle.
An increase in testosterone production in boys results in a marked increase in muscle mass. Muscles first increase in mass and later in strength and endurance due to the maturation of the lungs and cardiovascular system. There will be noticable differences between boys the same age as not everyone develops at the same rate. Muscle mass in girls also increases during puberty, but usually less dramatically.
Boys might also notice their voice getting lower. Boys’ larynxes grow so rapidly during puberty that they sometimes stretch the capacity of vocal cords, causing the voice to ‘crack’. This period of fluctuating timbre typically lasts no longer than a few months.
Gaining weight can be an undesired part of puberty, but it’s crucial for the body to do what it needs to properly develop—and during adolescence, the body needs the extra resources. It might be jarring to go from being a slender child to a curvy teenager, but focusing on the changes you don’t like doesn't do any good, especially if you’re denying yourself nutrition. It’s always, always better to take care of yourself than it is to maintain a certain image. Loving your body is an important part of that. If you are worried about the extra weight, you can talk to your parents or doctor to make sure things are progressing as they should.
In both girls and boys there is a huge increase in sebum production from pores with sebaceous glands (most of which are located on the back, upper chest, neck, shoulders, and face). Sebum is a key part of the makeup of your body’s natural oils, which are necessary to keep your skin healthy, however, many adolescents suffer from overactive glands, which can lead to clogged pores.
This is known as acne. Some people never have to deal with more than the occasional pimple, others suffer from skin problems well into adulthood. Regardless of your skin type, taking care of your skin—keeping it clean, moisturised, and protecting it from the sun—will help you look and feel good.
Sweating also becomes more prominent during this time. Sweat glands become more active, therefore producing more sweat. Although sweat itself is odorless, the bacteria on the skin break down into amino acids, which results in a bad smell. To avoid being stinky, keep clean—shower or bathe more regularly, paying attention to the armpits, feet, and genitalia. Using deodorant or an antiperspirant can also help reduce the smell, especially during physical activity.
Along with the physical changes that puberty brings comes profound psychological development. An increased ability to think abstractly, grasp the viewpoints of others, and self-analyze are all invaluable tools for navigating the world of communication. Adolescents also begin to integrate coping strategies and understand better how to act in crisis situations. This is the time when you start to question the ideas and beliefs of others, challenging them in order to form your own understanding of how the world works.
Puberty is when we develop autonomy and personal identity, and begin our sexual exploration. During this time, adolescents develop their own system of values, which don't always coincide with their families’ values. They gravitate more towards seeking acceptance from their peers and away from demanding affirmation from family. There is a desire to fit in and stand out at the same time, which comes with an increased sensitivity to social pressure.
Due to the hormonal changes they experience, teenagers often fluctuate between excitement, anger, anxiety, and depression. This can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings where there previously were none. While mood swings are normal, unaddressed internal turmoil can result in mental health problems. If you feel burdened by some problem or fear, talk to someone you trust, or, if necessary, find a professional counselor who can help you find your way through.
Puberty is also the time that teenagers start to develop an autonomous sexual identity and form some understanding of their sexual desires. The surrounding social and domestic environments influence our perceived roles and expectations, and have a significant impact on access to information, education, and opportunity regarding sexuality. Individual personality and temperament also influences our understanding and acceptance of different attitudes to sexuality.
Most sexual exploration starts with the self. Masturbation—especially female masturbation—remains subject to stigma. It is, however, developmentally normal and, just like any sexual activity, an individual choice. The act itself isn’t harmful (unless dramatically overdone), but the shame so many are taught to feel about their impulses is harmful. If internalised, this shame can follow a person for years, decades, even their entire lives, and keep them from fully enjoying sex and masturbation.
For most, sexual exploration involving other people follows sooner or later. This comes with additional risks. It is important to educate oneself on how to practice safe sex in order to reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy, STDs, and personal trauma, but we cannot place all this responsibility on teenagers themselves. When deprived of an unbiased and thorough sexual education, many lack access to trusted resources and often just go with their best guess, basing this guess on whatever information they can get: advice from peers, myths and rumours, porn, and other internet sources
It is important to recognise is that that weird, uncomfortable feeling so many of us get when speaking about sexual topics doesn’t stem from any ‘wrongness’ in sex or pleasure. Shame around sex is a learned behavior, an unspoken rule passed down from generation to generation. An atmosphere of embarrassment, fear, and shame keeps us from communicating freely with people we care about and from keeping ourselves and each other safe. Ultimately, it does more harm than good. We can do better.
The constant changes of puberty can be a bizarre roller-coaster with a lot of new information to process and new feelings to adjust to, but if you treat yourself kindly, you will step into adulthood with a newfound independence, more emotional maturity, and a stronger sense of self.
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