The Importance of Body Literacy in Puberty

By
Kate Causbie
/
Women's Health
/
March 10, 2016

On February 9th President Obama released the 2017 federal budget, and revealed that he had cut the final ties to funding abstinence-only sex education. After a long history of being slowly defunded (SEICUSa), the government paying to teach teenagers that no sex is the only way to be safe with sex is out for 2017. More funding for programs about responsible sex is in:

The President’s Budget supports the sexual health of our nation’s youth by eradicating abstinence-only-until-marriage funding, increasing funds for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, maintaining funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, and calling for a five-year extension of the Personal Responsibility Education Program. (SEICUSb, 2016)

Students will now learn how to navigate the process of becoming sexually active adults: hopefully, how to engage in consensual and safe sex, when they are ready, and what will make pregnancy more and less likely to occur. Of course, religious, cultural, and familial values about sex can and should be introduced outside of federally funded sex education.

Sex education comes at a critical time in teenagers’ lives. Puberty is a coming-of-age milestone — we need to educate young people about its effects wholly if we want them to develop into healthy adults. Sex education is an important piece of that, but we must keep in mind a simple fact: that sex happens from the context of a body, but the body exists independently of sex.

This may seem like an obvious statement, but where else are pubescent teenagers educated about their bodies’ changes so routinely? And yet, teaching about safe sex and teaching about having an adult body are not the same thing – there is more to an adult body than the capacity for sex. We aren’t doing a good job, as a culture, teaching people to be “body literate.” This is particularly evident in regards to the menstrual cycle.

A study of 6th grade girls showed that even though they considered themselves educated about menstruation and claimed that they had talked about it with their mothers, they offered explanations of menstruation that:

reflected at best incomplete knowledge, and more typically a variety of misconceptions or ignorance. … they tended to focus on one particular element of the process (e.g., eggs or blood or the uterus), and were not able to integrate the elements into a comprehensive whole. Girls' knowledge of the location and function of reproductive structures was faulty. (Koff & Rierdan, 1995)

Furthermore, they had managed to learn and internalize cultural associations about symptoms of menstruation: cramps and mood swings. As Koff and Rierdan conclude, this research demonstrates a dangerous “failure to adequately educate girls about their own anatomy and physiology” (ibid.).

A study from 1979, 19 years after the first pill was approved by the FDA for birth control (PBS, 2010), showed that 7 out of 10 U.S. women had taken a sex education class, but only 3 out of 9 knew the time of greatest fertility relative to her cycle (Zelnic). In another study, only 2% of teenage girls reported “receiving information about menstruation from their health care provider” (Houston et al., 2006).

How do we expect teenagers to get the most out of sex education if they don’t fully understand their bodies?

And do we, as a culture, see this bodily knowledge as only relevant to sex?

Such implications leave teenagers vulnerable to not being able to make fully informed decisions about their body, including birth control, and blind to important signals about their health.

We should also have body education, teaching young people about their hormones and cycles, well before sex is even in the picture.

With a deeper bodily knowledge they can become more responsible, educated, and empowered adults. They should be offered this education by their community: older family members, teachers, mentors, and doctors.

Thus, at first menses, a girl should be taught what her cycle involves. Apps like Kindara make it easy to introduce these patterns. She should understand how to chart her period on an app, on paper, or merely on her calendar. She should know how to check her cervical fluid, and what its consistency means. She should know about the diversity of vaginal sensations, and what they indicate about her cycle. She should know what ovulation is, and what is does to her basal body temperature (BBT). Her cycles will involve a bleed before ovulation is fully regular, as studies have shown that 80% of the cycles in the first year are anovulatory (Apter, 1980). Tracking her BBT, she can notice if ovulation happens, and need not be concerned when it doesn’t. Her cycle awareness will provide her will vital information besides fertility – she might notice the symptoms of a thyroid disorder, endometriosis, or a mineral deficiency. She will learn to listen to her body, setting a foundation for health literacy at an early age.

She will attend sex education classes already comfortable with what her body is doing, able to learn about safe sex practices in the context of that bodily knowledge. She already understands and charts her cycle, so she will learn when she can and cannot have sex without getting pregnant. She will be able to talk to her healthcare provider about hormonal birth controls and truly understand how each method works. She will be empowered to make decisions about her body and needs.

People who don’t menstruate should generally understand the menstrual cycle, too. It’s the cycle of their mothers, sisters, and potentially their future sex partners. Women’s bodies must be respected, and a culture of true understanding is an important step towards that.

Good sex education introduces students to their full spectrum of options, responsibilities, joys, pleasures, and risks as sexually active adults, in a way full enough that they can easily connect the dots to their own beliefs, and know where those beliefs fit into the whole spectrum of sexuality practice. That can be best done when teenagers have a solid foundation of understanding their bodies.

Further Resources:

- Cycle Savvy: The Smart Teen’s Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body (Toni Weschler) www.cyclesavvy.com

- Becoming Peers: Mentoring Girls Into Womanhood (DeAnna L'am)

Citations: 

Apter D. (February 1980). "Serum steroids and pituitary hormones in female puberty: a partly longitudinal study". Clinical Endocrinology 12 (2): 107–20. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2265.1980.tb02125.x. PMID 6249519.

Hoerster, K. D., Chrisler, J. C. & Rose, J. G., (2003). Attitudes toward and experience with menstruation in the US and India. Women & Health, 38(3), 77-95. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J013v38n03_06?journalCoe=wwah20.

Houston, M. A., Abraham, A., Huang, Z. & D'Angelo, L. J. (2006). Knowledge, attitudes, and consequences of menstrual health in urban adolescent females. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 19(4), 271-275. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/17367522/Knowledge_Attitudes_and_Consequnces_of_Menstrual_Health_in_Urban_Adolescent_Females

Koff E., Rierdan J. (1995). Early adolescent girls' understanding of menstruation. Women Health, 22(4), 1-21. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7571658.

Nikolchev, A. (2010). A brief history of the birth control pill. Public Broadcasting Service. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/health/a-brief-history-of the-birth-control-pill/480/

SEICUSa. A history of federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Retrieved from: http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewpage&pageid=134&nodeid=1

SEICUSb. (2016, February 9). President’s FY 2017 Budget Applauded By The Sexuality Information And Education Council Of The U.S.. Retrieved from: http://siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Feature.showFeature&featureid=237&pageid=611

Stubbs, M. L. & Costos, D. (2004). Negative attitudes towards menstruation: implications for disconnection within girls and between women. Women & Therapy, 27(3-4). DOI:10.1300/J015v27n03_04 Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J015v27n03_04?src=recsys. 

Subbs, M. L. (2008). Cultural perceptions and practices around menarche and adolescent menstruation in the United States. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1135, 58-66.

Zelnick, M. (1979). Sex Education and Knowledge of Pregnancy Risk Among U.S. Teenage Women. Family Planning Perspective, 11(6), 355-357.  DOI: 10.2307/2134219 Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2134219.

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