Puberty is a stage of development during which boys' and girls' bodies begin to develop and change into those of young men and women. During puberty, the body grows faster than it has since the first year of life. It is important to realize that everyone goes through the changes, embarrassments, and confusion that can be associated with puberty—it is a normal and necessary process! Although your friends may experience the changes sooner or later than you, eventually everyone will develop the bodily characteristics of an adult female. While these changes are similar for many people, remember that variation is normal, and no two people are exactly alike. There is no right or wrong way to develop; that is the beauty of the human body!
When Do Women Hit Puberty?
When the human body reaches a certain weight (which differs among individuals but is usually around 12 years old), the hypothalamus in the brain releases a hormone called gonadotropin that initiates the onset of puberty. Boys and girls begin to go through similar stages of physical changes, but with different timing, intensities, and durations. In general, when a person is between 8–18 years old, the gonadotropins are released into the bloodstream; these hormones stimulate activity in the gonads and produce changes in the male testes and the female ovaries. Specifically, the female ovaries begin to produce estrogen, a hormone which helps prepare the body for reproduction by causing sexual maturation (ex: gaining breasts, producing pubic hair, releasing eggs, etc.).
Physical Changes during Puberty
Girls usually begin puberty approximately two years earlier than boys do. The ages vary greatly among girls, so if you start earlier or later than your friends, it is perfectly okay! Every person is made up of different sets of genes and complex bodily functions, which causes some to develop earlier (“early bloomers”) and others later (“late bloomers”). In general, girls begin to notice the various following changes during puberty.
· The breasts begin to develop into small mounds, or breast buds, around the ages of nine or 10. On some occasions, one breast may develop faster than the other, but they often even out over time. However, it is actually quite common for one of a woman’s breasts to be larger or smaller than the other. More often than not, adult women claim to possess two different sized breasts and can almost always indicate which breast is bigger or smaller. In this way, it is perfectly normal and healthy to have breasts of different sizes and should not be viewed as negative or scary.
· Breasts develop at different rates for every female. There is no way to speed up or slow down breast growth (despite the various products advertised to accelerate it). If you or a few of your friends are developing more quickly or slowly than your classmates, it is okay and nothing to be discouraged by! Allow your breasts time to grow and develop; they will, we promise! Until then, learn to love your body, and understand that breast size does not determine beauty, sexuality, or identity.
For more information about menstruation, please visit our article “Getting Your Period”.
· Approximately 1.5-2 years after the onset of breast development, girls may experience their very first menstrual period, referred to as menarche. During the menstrual cycle, the period during which the body prepares for a possible pregnancy, an unfertilized egg (called an “ovum”) is released from one of the two ovaries, travels through the fallopian tube, and ends up in the uterus, a pear-shaped organ also referred to as the “womb.” While the egg is on its journey from the ovary, the uterus builds up its inner lining with extra tissue and blood to prepare for implantation. If the egg is fertilized (combines with a male gamete sperm cell), it will implant itself inside the lining of the uterus, now nourished with tissue and blood, and begin developing into a child. When the egg is not fertilized, implantation does not occur, and the built-up endometrial tissue and blood sheds. This shedding of the endometrial lining due to the lack of fertilization creates the process of menstruation. The menstrual period lasts an average of five to seven days. Typically, bleeding is heaviest during the first three to four days of menstruation and then begins to lighten. In a regular 28-day cycle, two weeks (14 days) after menstruation begins, another egg is released from one of the ovaries in a process called ovulation.
· Some girls experience irregular menstrual periods for several years before their cycles become regular and predictable. It is perfectly normal to have periods longer or shorter than the average of five to seven days or miss periods altogether. However, if you are sexually active and not using reliable contraception, a missed period may indicate pregnancy. During their periods, girls may experience certain side effects, such as bloating, moodiness, bodily aches, abdominal cramping, vomiting, fatigue, headaches, and heightened emotionality. Many of these physical side effects, including cramping, bloating, headaches, and abdominal pain, can be relieved with over-the-counter medications (e.g., Advil, Ibuprofen, Midol, etc.).
· The vaginal walls become thicker, and the uterus becomes larger and more muscular.
The Vulva during Puberty
A female’s sexual organs also undergo various changes during puberty. The vulva—a term that refers to all the external features of the female genitalia, including the labia, clitoris, and mons pubis—experiences an incredible transformation. To see a detailed illustration and description of the various parts of the vulva, please visit our page on female anatomy. The vulva is a primary source of sexual pleasure for women, and it is important that all women be familiar with this part of their anatomy.
Are All Vulvas the Same?
There is a huge amount of variation among women in the color, size, and shape of their vulvas, just like any other body part. These variations are natural and do not have a direct effect on reproductive function or sexual pleasure. Women can explore their vulva by standing or sitting in front of a mirror with their legs spread apart or holding a mirror between their legs while propping one leg up. If you find, while exploring, that your vulva does not really look like the ones you have seen on this web site, in magazines, or elsewhere, do not worry! Each person's body is different, and as we have mentioned, difference is the key to human beauty.
Vaginal Discharge and Odor
Some common concerns about the vulva are the discharges and smells that are sometimes associated with it. With the onset of puberty, the vagina begins producing a discharge (called leukorrhea) that acts primarily as a germ and pollutant removing mechanism. This discharge varies slightly in texture and color between individuals but usually has a smooth slightly sticky texture and is clear, white, or off-white in color. In this way, the vagina can be compared to a self-cleaning oven because it ensures that no bacteria or other harmful substances enter it. This discharge is the byproduct of vaginal cleaning. A different type of discharge is produced in the vagina when a woman becomes sexually aroused. (It is clear and slippery and serves serving as a natural lubricant.) Every woman’s vulva has a unique smell that may be sexually arousing to her and her partner. Fishy, yeasty, or other foul smells emerging from the vulva may indicate the presence of an infection and should be checked out by a health care professional.
The vulva is naturally self-cleaning, so douching and using feminine deodorants is completely unnecessary. In fact, douching on a regular basis can upset the natural balance of bacteria found in the vagina and lead to an increased risk of vaginitis. To keep your vulva healthy, simply eat healthily, exercise on a regular basis, wash it regularly with gentle soap and water, and wipe from front to back after going to the bathroom. If you wipe from back to front, you may accidentally infect the vagina with agents from the anus.
Check out this article for more information on the vulva and all of its parts.
Changes in Body Shape
· Girl’s figures develop womanly curves as they gain weight in areas such as their hips. This extra weight is an important part of becoming a woman. There are many theories as to why this occurs, but the most common one is that wider hips attract more mating partners. Evolutionarily, it is believed that wider hips indicate sexual maturity and signify that a woman’s body is ready to conceive a child. In turn, this attracts more mates to her. Wider hips are also useful during childbirth for both the mother and baby because they allow for a wider birth canal. Overall, girls tend to fill out all over the body and develop curves as they grow older. These curves should be embraced and understood as natural and normal occurrences in female puberty.
· Increased activity of the oil-secreting glands in the skin causes the emergence of pimples, but acne usually subsides with the completion of puberty. (If acne becomes or remains a particularly difficult issue, there are several drugstore acne cleansers, such as Cetaphil and Neutrogena, that may help. If none of these cleansers are effective or acne seems especially extreme, we recommend visiting a dermatologist. They are able to prescribe cleansers and/or creams which may be more effective.
· Remember, puberty is a time of great change. If you are confused or scared about any aspects of puberty, do not be afraid to approach your parents, adult relatives, or other mentors and ask them questions. After all, they too have gone through puberty! If you would like to explore additional resources, we have listed several at the end of this article.
· Women may start to notice stray hairs around their nipple’s areolae (the lighter-toned circle of skin around the nipple). This hair is completely normal and natural.
· It is not yet definitively known why women have nipple hair, although it is speculated that the reason for growing this hair leads back to primitive times when both male and female bodies needed more body hair to keep them warm. The hormone testosterone has also been linked to the growth of different types of body hair for males and females and may play a role. However, females produce much less testosterone than men and thus have fewer hairs on the chest and face.
· The hair can be removed by means of shaving (although this is recommended with extreme caution due to the proximity to your nipple), tweezing, or waxing.
· It is important to note that this hair is not dangerous and does not need to be removed. Many women decide against removing this hair and retain a more natural look. Overall, keeping or removing body hair is a woman’s decision and is natural and beautiful either way!
Pubic hair is the hair that grows on the mons pubis, around the genital area, and sometimes at the top of the inner thigh. Although some very fine hair may be present in the genital region during pre-pubescent childhood, the term “pubic hair” generally applies to the thick, coarse hair that develops during puberty. In response to the increasing levels of androgens in the body as puberty begins, the skin of the genital area begins to produce thicker and often curlier hair that grows quickly.
The areas of skin which have pubic hair will gradually increase over the next several years after the onset of puberty. For most girls, the pubic hair first appears along the edges of the labia majora and spreads over the mons during the next two years. By about the time of the first menstrual cycle, the “pubic triangle” (the area in front of a woman’s pelvic region and below her belly button) is densely filled with hair. Within another two years, the pubic hair can also begin to grow near the top of the thighs. Sometimes a small amount of hair forms a line up to the belly button (informally termed the "happy trail").
Variations of Pubic Hair
The characteristics of pubic hair differ among people. On some, the hair is thick and coarse while on others it may be sparse or very fine. The color of pubic hair also varies; both pubic hair and armpit hair can differ in color from the hair of the scalp. On most women, the pubic hair patch is roughly triangular, with the top zone lying over the mons.
Purpose of Pubic Hair
There is no definite answer as to why humans have pubic hair, but there are several theories. The prevailing theory relates to pheromones, which are the chemicals that the body produces to indicate reproductive availability or convey information about genotype. This theory argues that pubic hair traps and emits erotic scents from the genitals which can then be spread to attract possible mates.
Other theorists argue that the pubic hair keeps the genitals warm or that, for females, the pubic hair prevents foreign particles from entering the vagina.
Attitudes About Pubic Hair
There is a large amount of variation in both cultural and personal attitudes towards pubic hair. Some people consider it to be highly erotic, others may look upon it negatively, while still others may view it neutrally or have no strong opinions about it.
The least noticeable change in female puberty is probably the changing of a girl’s voice. Women’s vocal chords do not deepen nearly as much as men’s do, but they do in fact deepen. The slight change allows for a woman’s tone to develop a more adult, lower-pitched sound. Unlike men, women experience this change gradually, their lives and not solely during puberty. Women who sing have been known to lose the ability to hit certain high notes they could sing before their voices matured. Overall, however, the change in a woman’s voice is relatively slight.
Besides the physical changes mentioned above, the hormonal developments associated with puberty can cause a shift in emotions as well. These changes can lead people to experience new thoughts and feelings about sex, ranging from confusion to arousal, that they had never felt before. You may feel funny about asking your parents or teachers questions pertaining to puberty or sexuality, but asking questions is one of the best ways to learn about the changes your mind and body are undergoing. If you are not completely comfortable speaking with your parents or a teacher, you can talk to a doctor, school nurse or counselor, older siblings, or ask us using our “Ask the Sexperts” submission page.
For more information about puberty, check out the following websites:
Peri, Camille and Nazario, Brunilda. WebMD.com. “What Girls Need To Know About Growing Up”. Online Website. http://teens.webmd.com/girls-puberty-10/puberty-changing-body
Last Updated 21 April 2015