Have you ever reflected on how amazing puberty is? I’m not sure I ever had until someone encouraged me to do so recently. But think about it: we’ve been designed in such a way that in our second decade we go through a period of fast-tracked development through which we transition from being children to being adults. That’s pretty amazing.
Now, I know it’s not as straightforward as that. We all know that puberty can be difficult, in some cases really difficult. Perhaps you think back to your own experience of those years and the difficulties are what stick out to you most. Perhaps you’ve parented children through puberty and you feel that it has a lot to answer for. Or maybe you’ve just observed in young people around you some of the struggles that can come as we seek to navigate puberty.
These difficulties are real, and I’m not saying we should ignore them. But is there a risk that we have allowed them too much influence in shaping our view of this important stage in life? Have we come to see puberty as primarily a problem rather than a positive? I wonder if we have, and I think that could be unhelpful.
Problem puberty and body negativity
We live in a culture that takes a very low view of the body. A living body isn’t enough to give you the right to treatment as a person and so we allow the ending of the youngest lives because they are deemed to be, at that stage, just a living body. Many believe there should be laws that allow us to help someone to end their life when their body has become too problematic. We live much of our lives in virtual spaces where we feel we can overcome some of the limitations of being embodied and where filters and editors can help us to craft the body we wish we had. And some are seeking to transcend the body, exploring ways that might allow us to elongate life on earth even after the body has given up. In modern western culture, our bodies are often seen as insignificant, malleable and disposable.
Casting puberty as a problem might play into this low, negative view of the body. If puberty is a problem, it’s just one more way that our bodies make life more complicated. By contrast, puberty positivity helps affirm the goodness of our bodies.
Wrong puberty and gender
The place in modern culture where puberty is perhaps most negatively viewed is in the transgender conversion. Some support the use of puberty blockers for young people who feel uncomfortable with their biological sex. They see these blockers as a way to stop the distress that can be caused by the development of secondary sex characteristics as puberty hits and progresses. Some openly talk about the need to stop young people from going through ‘the wrong sort of puberty’. Juno Dawson, for example, talks about young people who have ‘dodged the bullet of going through the wrong puberty’ by taking puberty blockers.1 When young people hear things like this, they are hearing that puberty is the enemy. Puberty is a problem.
And yet the reality is, puberty is often good news for young people who struggle with their gender. We know that around 80% of children who experience gender-related distress will find that naturally goes away as they enter adolescence. Puberty seems to help resolve distress and avoid progress towards potentially life-altering medical interventions. The limited evidence that is available also suggests that puberty blockers may not improve things for young people with gender dysphoria We know that pausing puberty can have a negative impact on bone health, but it’s not yet clear what impact they it have on brain development, though we do know that a lot happens in the brain during puberty.
In the trans conversation, puberty is sometimes presented to young people as the worst thing possible, when in many cases it may turn out to be the best thing for them. This isn’t to say it will be easy, but in the long term it will probably be for the best. Puberty is an amazing thing. It’s the transition we are designed to go through in order to be our authentic selves.
Bad puberty and sex
In Christian circles, puberty can get a bad rap because it’s the time when our sexual attractions emerge. There’s reason to think we’ve already made some progress on this, but for many of us who grew up in church contexts, the development of sexual attraction at puberty was portrayed as a bad thing. The classic sex talks of years gone by could easily leave many young people wondering why God chose puberty as the process through which we would become sexual beings. Why puberty? Why not the wedding ceremony? Surely it would have been easier if we didn’t experience sexual desire until we got married (if we do) rather than have to live years or decades or even the rest of our lives with unfulfilled desires which are nothing more than a source of frustration and potential sin. The way Christian teens have often been taught about sex may have made puberty seem like a bad thing and a rather unthought-through plan on God’s part.
But the emergence of our sexuality at puberty is a good thing because our sexualities are a good gift from God designed to point us to him and to teach us about his passionate desire for us. Sexual attraction is meant to point beyond itself to the thing that sex and marriage are both ultimately about: the union of Christ and the Church. Our experience of sexual attraction – the way it helps us recognise beauty, the way it causes us to want to be united to another – is meant to point us to the supreme beauty of Christ and the true union that all humans are longing for at the core of our being – union with God. Puberty is a good thing – it introduces a new way that we get to learn about God.
So, maybe we need to reclaim a more positive vision of puberty: we need to become puberty-positive. Taking a positive view of puberty will help us see the goodness of our bodies. Stressing that puberty is always the right thing for us because it’s God’s good design for us will help young people to see that allowing puberty is the way to be their authentic selves. And celebrating the changes of puberty will help us embrace the ways that God wants to teach us through it. And maybe taking a more positive view of puberty could help us to help young people better navigate some of the difficulties of that particular season in life: ‘I know this is hard. I know it can feel uncomfortable and confusing and embarrassing. I know that some days it just feels rubbish. But it’s also really exciting, and it’ll all be worth it. God is helping you grow from a child to an adult. He’s helping you be your authentic self. He’s helping you be who he’s created you to be.’
- Juno Dawson, What’s the T? (Wren and Rook, 2021), p.130.