For many parents of tween girls, the idea of their daughter entering puberty is nerve-wracking enough, never mind the prospect of talking about it. Young girls are bombarded by media with information about sexuality, their bodies and what it means to be a woman. And many girls are “grossed out” by the thought of their parents trying to discuss any of it with them. So where do you even begin?
Perhaps the bigger question is when do you begin. Sooner than you think, says Nancy Redd, author of Body Drama and Diet Drama, and a spokeswoman for U by Kotex, a new line of feminine hygiene products designed for young girls.
“Take whatever number is in your head and subtract two years. Ideally, if you can start talking about puberty at around age eight or nine, when mommy is still the woman with all the answers, you can create a culture of knowledge and comfort and security.” If you think that sounds too early, think again. A 2010 survey from BMC Public Health found that 14.6 percent of Canadian girls start their period before age 12.
Start the conversation before your daughter develops misconceptions or negative feelings, says Nancy, who has been leading workshops with girls ages 10 to 18 across the United States and in Canada. “When we see a lot of these young women, at age 15 or 16, they are already ashamed and stressed out, and have no one to talk to or ask questions of. There is so much ‘noise’ out there. They don’t know who to trust. Often they turn to blog posts or other questionable sources for their information.”
A U by Kotex survey of 1,607 North American females between 14 and 35 (588 of them Canadian) found that, among the Canadian women, 55 percent were satisfied with how confident they are in themselves, but most (61 per cent) were only somewhat or not at all satisfied with how their body looks. “In addition, three-quarters of them felt it was important to change the way we talk about puberty, but less than half knew how to do it,” says Nancy. “We are trying to give them the key to unlock that door.”
It’s all in the way you raise the topic. “Try to make it fun. Even if you think it’s a serious issue, don’t approach it too seriously – if you keep it light, it makes them okay with it.”
The U by Kotex website (ubykotex.com) contains a wealth of information about puberty, body issues and menstruation and presents it in an approachable and light-hearted way. The site features a Q&A section where questions about puberty are answered by a health expert, a parent and a teenager. Viewers can ask their own question (which will be answered within days) or search the database of more than 1,000 questions already on file. All information on the site has been screened by medical professionals, so it’s guaranteed accurate. And for the little artist in your family, there’s an app to design your own pad. There is even an inspirational video from Patricia Field, the fashion guru who dressed the girls from Sex and the City. At press time, more than 19,000 designs had been submitted. “To an eight-year-old a menstrual pad looks the size of your arm,” says Nancy. “If they can add their own designs and colours to it, it makes the whole idea much less intimidating.”
Workshops pull back the curtain on taboo topic
To help open the lines of communication with tween and teenage girls, Nancy Redd, author of Body Drama and Diet Drama, along with a team of young women, has been leading workshops in cities across the United States â€“ and, starting this past November, in Canada â€“ for groups of girls between the ages of 10 and 18 about their bodies, sexuality and puberty.
- In partnership with Girls for Change (an American organization that empowers girls to create social change), the three-hour workshops, called “Love your body, Change your world”, are held in schools and community centres.
- The sessions focus on breaking down myths and stereotypes around women’s health issues and opening the conversation between girls and their peers.
- “At the beginning of the session, the girls are so uncomfortable”, says Nancy. “We get them to start talking about why they are uncomfortable, even ashamed, about talking about their bodies. Where does that shame come from? So many kids talk about their bodies in a negative light: I am fat, or I am stinky. But here’s the fact: Every girl goes through puberty. Every girl gets her period.”
- “Once you get the facts out on the table, the girls relax and start to talk”, says Nancy. “We pull back the curtains and get real.”
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2012.