I entered puberty at age nine. I’m still not exactly sure why or how my body started going through adolescence when my mind was still deep in childhood, though I suspect stress had a lot to do with it. All of a sudden, my breasts started to look like the breasts of young teenagers on TV, instead of a small child’s narrow, slender ones. My body filled out, and I got what I later found out was my period. I couldn’t dress as fast as the other girls or wear most girls’ clothing anymore.
The teachers in elementary school never knew what to make of me to begin with, and the arrival of adolescence in a particularly sensitive nine-year-old was absolutely no help to anyone involved. Many had been teaching children since the sixties and saw no reason to change their attitudes in the late eighties and early nineties. I was sent to the nurse’s office several times after I got my period, because no one knew how else to handle blood coming out of a nine-year-old girl’s vagina.
My childhood hadn’t been quiet up to this point, roughly 1988 to 1991, and things were quickly getting worse. I became more and more obsessed with movies and TV. Fantasy was one of my main escapes in a world that seemed to be falling apart around me. My mother and stepfather were handling substance abuse and marital problems of their own. School was a mixed blessing; it meant getting out of the house and away from the fights and arguing, but it also meant going to a place where I was a joke, a freak, and a nerd. I preferred sitting behind a book or in front of the TV set instead of going outside and playing games, and I figured my slow legs, oversized body, and lack of coordination would be laughed off of any Little League team.
If I could have gotten out of gym class somehow, I would have. The class was run by a huge woman, a towering, rotund battle-ax who insisted we run laps in the searing heat of a June morning until a few kids passed out but was too big to run with us. She pushed us to swim laps in the pool and criticized us for our lack of perfect form but almost never joined us in the pool herself (and was a sight to see in a bathing suit that looked like it would pop off any second). She came from a generation that considered the body to be something sinful and horrible, and god help it if you dared get your period! I had to sit out of swim class initially when my menstrual cycle first began and endure the shame of the reason I couldn’t swim when I was perfectly healthy except for the big changes my body was going through.
I hated it. I was afraid and embarrassed and ashamed, and almost no one seemed to understand what I was going through. My best friend, like most of the kids in school, had parents in the Coast Guard. Her family moved sometime in 1988, and I’ve seen her once since then. I wouldn’t have another best friend until well into my teens. The other girls in school either jeered at me or shunned me. The few "friends" I had were often just as bad as the ones I knew were definitely not friendly. Thinking back on it, I wonder if they were a bit jealous that I now looked like an adult while most of them still had their slender, girlish hips and almost no busts to speak of.
Getting dressed in the locker room was a farce. We’d be half-way through lunch, and I’d still be getting dressed. The teachers started to let me bend the rules and wear sandals to school or leave the pool early, just so I could have a chance to eat. I didn’t like that, either, but I seemed to have little choice. It wasn’t fair to anyone that I had to have the rules bent because my body decided to jump into adolescence while I was still a kid, but I had to eat lunch. It was so weird to be putting on an adult woman’s bra while the other girls were still going bra-less or wearing training bras. I’d be half-way through trying to get the thing on while the other girls would be out the door and in line.
I still remember so much of it as clear as day. I remember being mortified when one of the girls pointed out a red spot I’d left on the cafeteria benches when my period showed up while I was at school and I had no pad. I remember finally lying to my gym teacher about when I had my period, just so I could swim with the other kids, and proving that no damage is done by entering a public pool during the menstrual cycle. I remember the resentful taunts and withering stares of the other girls who still looked like girls, and the boys who still regarded the opposite sex as something with cooties and didn’t know how to react to a girl who didn’t look like the other girls with anything but insults.
My mother was the only one who seemed unfazed by my body’s leap into puberty while still in single-digits. She told me stories of how her mother had encouraged and helped her when her body began to develop around the age of fourteen. She showed me how to put on a bra correctly, just like her mother had shown her. She bought me my first pads and taught me how to put them on. She told me that I may have been going through puberty early, but it what was happening to my body wasn’t sinful or horrible or even abnormal, that all girls would stop looking like girls and start looking like women.
Along with the increase in my breasts came weight. It was around fifth and sixth grade when I began to have weight problems. Until then, I was relatively thin, a normal-sized kid, but I started to take more comfort in food as my body shot to its full five-four height and I felt more and more awkward. Food was there. It was something that wouldn’t make fun of me, wouldn’t run away from me. It was something to do when I watched TV, something to buy downtown when I went for a walk. Given that I lived in a New Jersey shore resort, it was often the only thing I could afford to buy downtown.
I’ve always preferred indoor activities to outdoor ones. I was a couch potato as a child, and I still love to read and write. Playing with dolls and reading a book did not require activity or running around. My sisters played softball in junior high, but the only thing I played in those days was board games and the occasional rough game of floor hockey in gym class. I gained so much weight in such a short time and ate so much sugar, my teachers and parents believed I had diabetes or any other myriad diseases or problems and took me to various doctors. Their only diagnosis was no diabetes, just simple early growth and stress. I don’t know how many psychologists and doctors I saw, and their answers was the same - nothing wrong with her, just stress, anxiety, and early puberty.
While this was all frightening as a nine-year-old, it did make for a more placid adolescence than most people claim to have had. By the time I hit high school, my body and hormones had more-or-less developed. I was able to concentrate on really learning while other kids were still figuring out what their bodies were doing. High school still wasn’t easy; boys in particular still made fun of me. It was easier than grade school, though. By that point, my parents resolved most of their problems and had a fourth child, my only brother. There was stress, as there is in any high school, but I was more in command of my body and less awkward than many of the other students around me who were still getting used to their own bodies.
I took part in various activities in high school, including sports. I played field hockey. I wasn’t very good at it, but I played. I did the yearbook and choir and plays and musicals. I was an editor on the school newspaper my junior and senior years. I participated in a program for troubled students that allowed them to have a teacher "mentor" to talk to when things went wrong. My mentor was a lovely, tiny older English teacher with no children of her own but a bountiful heart. We were friends for many, many years, a fellow writer who didn’t mind that I was as big as a house, only that I shared her fondness for old buildings, quiet nights, and writing.
I still struggled with my weight even in high school, still felt awkward and out-of-place, especially where boys were concerned, and I still bore the scars of my tumultuous childhood. At one point during my junior year, I started skipping lunch and hiding in the library. It partly had to do with the school’s hideous lunches and avoiding the crowded cafeteria, but it was partially a desperate attempt to finally drop the hundred pounds I’d gained in the almost ten years since puberty began. This idea ended about mid-way through my junior year when my mother noticed frequently came home hungry and I finally spilled to Mom about what I’d been doing.
Even now, when I look in the mirror, I see that little girl. I see the child everyone thought had something wrong with her, because her body began to age before other girls’ did. I see her everyday; at work, at home, running errands. Sometimes I wish she’d go away and let the woman show through; other times, I understand she’s just frightened that there’s something wrong again, that there will be boys putting glue on her chair because she’s so fat, or girls whispering behind her back because she already has breasts. Though I’m now twenty seven, she’s still a part of my life, no matter how many psychologists I see to make her go away.
Please, if you have a daughter who has enter puberty while still in single digits, try to be as supportive as you can. She’s going through a scary time, made all the more frustrating due to her young age. Talk to her teachers, school nurse, coaches, and family doctor and ask them what they can do to help her, too. Becoming a woman isn’t a simple or a fast process, but it’s a part of being a female human being. Tell her she’s only growing, and that this kind of growth is perfectly normal. Tell her you love her, and that you’ll always love her, no matter what her body goes through. Tell her there’s nothing wrong with being a woman, that she now has an understanding of something other girls her age don’t.
But most of all, remind her that becoming a woman doesn’t make her wrong, or bad, or stupid. It’s just the next step on the journey of life.