Not Everything You Wanted To Know About Puberty (But Pretty Darn Close)

Puberty: we hear everybody talking about it, attributing everything from the development of breasts, the desire for sex or you being in a crap mood on Tuesday to it, but what is it, really?

During puberty, the entire body experiences growth spurts until a person’s bone mass, overall body size and shape, sexual organs, and secondary sexual characteristics have finished their basic development. A ton of brain development and change, including neurochemical change, also happens throughout puberty. The human body—including our brain—never, ever stops changing, but puberty is a stage in which some of the most rapid and whole-body changes occur. Puberty often feels intense because it is intense. It's not the only time of big physical, psychological and social change you'll experience in your life, but it's one of the biggest of biggies.

On average, puberty begins for most people between the ages of eight and fourteen. It usually, but not always, starts earlier for people who’ve got a uterus and later for people with testes instead. Currently, puberty is considered to be “precocious,” or very early, if it begins before the age of eight; it’s considered late if none of the development related to puberty has occurred by the age of fourteen. If you're at this website, you have likely already at least started puberty.

Puberty is happening earlier at this point in history for many, especially for girls, than it has at other times: it typically begins six whole years earlier now than it did on average less than 200 years ago. There are a lot of theories for why that may be, but as of right now, all we really know for sure is that it happens earlier than it used to for many: we've yet to have sure answers for why it happens.

Most people's bodies are finished with puberty by the time they've reached their twenties, though plenty complete the process earlier, and some later. Many adolescents assume that puberty finishes earlier than it actually does, while many adults assume that it lasts longer—finishes later—than it usually does. Puberty doesn't start and end with breast growth and getting a period, or with a voice that has deepened. Overall, the entire process takes a handful of years to complete, and tends to occur in a similar order for everyone, though for intersex individuals, development during puberty may vary.

If you have any concerns about puberty -- whether that's about feeling like things are happening early, aren't happening yet and it feels late, or any given stage of your own puberty has you concerned at all --  the best bet is always to check in with your doctor or another medical professional.

Stages of Puberty

If You’ve Got a Uterus

  • Breast development: Most often, the first part of puberty is initial breast growth, called “breast budding” because growth starts with small lumps just under the nipples. These lumps do not always appear at the same time; sometimes one forms before the other. Breast development includes changes in the size and shape of the areolas, or nipple areas, as well as the rest of the breasts.
  • Vaginal discharges: At or around the same time as breast budding, vaginal discharges become apparent. As a person gets further into puberty, or after they become sexually active, it’s common to become far more aware of what’s going on down there. So, if you’ve just noticed discharges because you weren’t paying attention until now, it’s likely nothing new.
  • Body hair and pubic hair growth: After breast budding, pubic hair and other body hair usually begins growing. For some, pubic hair may appear before breast growth occurs.
  • Menarche: Usually about two years after breast budding, the menstrual cycle begins, starting with first ovulation and then with the first period, called menarche. Menstruation may be delayed or super sporadic if someone is underweight, STET malnourished, overexercises, diets excessively, or STET has or develops an eating disorder.
  • Body size and shape changes: The body both grows taller and changes shape. By the time a person has their first period, their peak growth -- the most growth they’ll have in life, not all of it — in terms of height and bone mass is almost complete. It’s normal during puberty to be gaining weight and to be eating more than before and probably more than you’ll eat after puberty. It’s also normal for the shape of the body to feel a bit disproportionate sometimes, which is one reason why adolescent body ideals should not be based on adult bodies (or vice versa). There's a phase of early puberty some people go through I call the "lumpy potato phase," where things that will go somewhere else eventually don't seem to be in exactly the right place on your body for a while. It passes.

If You’ve Got Testes

  • Penis and testicles: Puberty most commonly starts with testicular growth. During the whole of puberty, the penis and testes will eventually grow to their adult size. It’s common for the length of the penis to grow faster than the width of the penis and for testicle growth to start before penis growth. Growth of the penis and testicles often is not complete until the end of puberty.
  • Growth spurts: Through puberty, people become taller and their muscle mass increases. It’s normal to be gaining weight and to feel out of proportion at times. It is also common to experience nipple swelling, and some breast development is normal for larger people.
  • Erections: Whereas even infants can get erections, during puberty, erections occur frequently and involuntarily—something that is a source of embarrassment for many young people but is completely normal. Most people get erections several times a day or more. Often, an erection isn’t about sex or arousal; it can happen as a result of friction, temperature changes, and hormone fluctuations. Every (or any!) erection does not mean someone wants or needs sex right at that moment, and sex or masturbation isn’t required to make an erection go away. Erections can be waited out and pass in a relatively short amount of time.
  • Ejaculation: When the ability to ejaculate develops—well after the ability to achieve an erection—it’s typical for people to have “wet dreams,” ejaculation that occurs while sleeping, as a result of sexual dreams, high levels of semen accumulation, stimulation from the touch of sheets and blankets, or having a full bladder. First ejaculation is sometimes called “spermarche,” just like a first period is called menarche.
  • Body and pubic hair: Pubic hair—around the base of the penis as well as on the thighs and around and between the buttocks—is usually the first adult body hair to crop up and continues growing around the anus, buttocks, and legs. Growth of underarm hair usually follows, and chest and facial hair often develops last, sometimes even after the end of puberty.
  • Voice changes: During puberty, the voice deepens and may go through stages of being all over the place. At times, someone may experience voice cracking or croaking.

For Every Body

  • Skin changes: During puberty, it’s normal for the skin to become oilier and for perspiration and body odor to become stronger because certain hormones are shuttling through the body at higher levels than in childhood, working their way up to levels where they’ll stay when puberty is over. Pimples and zits, suck as they may, are as common as the sun in the sky.

For many people with intersex conditions, signs often first start showing up in puberty. The Intersex Society of North America reports that about one in fifteen hundred to two thousand children are born with what is considered "atypical genital anatomy," a common sign of intersex conditions. Yet many conditions don’t show up until puberty, when reproductive organs may change in unexpected ways, or secondary sex characteristics don’t develop as expected. If you find that unusual things, changes not described in this article, are happening to you during puberty, or feel that puberty hasn't started for you at all by your mid-teens or seems to have stalled out in some ways, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor. Remember too, that puberty doesn’t happen on a specific timetable for anyone, but if you don’t experience any puberty changes within a few years of everyone else your age, it’s never a bad idea to check in with your health care provider.

Puberty can also be extra complex for people who are trans, or may be trans, but feel uncertain. For information about hormone blockers, check out this page from our Trans Summer School series. You can also seek out a trans-informed medical professional -- including mental health professionals -- for help and advice about or during puberty as a trans person.

It’s common to feel awkward, overwhelmed, and self-conscious during puberty.

Puberty is stressful for plenty of people, and that often goes unacknowledged. While the development that's happening due to puberty is largely physical, not only is a lot of emotional and social development also going on, all the changes that go on during puberty create emotional and social issues as well. It can be hard to have your body changing so much and so uncontrollably. Accepting phases that are far outside the physical ideals -- or ideas about what bodies should look like to be "perfect" in full-grown adults -- isn't often easy. Getting acceptance and respect from others while you're in them can sometimes be a challenge as well.

Many people struggle also with body image issues throughout. Bodies gain weight as a necessary part of puberty, and they can become proportioned in ways that don’t match cultural, or our own, beauty ideals. Parts of our bodies during puberty can be in places for a while where they won’t eventually land, and that can make a lot of people feel worried. Acne, voice changes, body hair, breast development (or slow development), unwanted erections, and the arrival of menstrual periods can be sources of body image woes. Adults and peers—often without even realizing it—may call unwanted attention to your changing body. A parent may feel their child needs a brassiere before the child wants one (if they ever want one) or may make a public joke about their child’s wet dreams without thinking. Things like that often seriously increase the very common social shudder of puberty.

Ridicule or hazing is not a required part of puberty, and it really-really shouldn't be coming from anyone, let alone people who are supposed to care about you. A lot of adults who went through puberty had people do this stuff to them, so they may do it to you -- and their own children, who can then do it to their peers and so on -- without even thinking. Some good-natured, gentle ribbing may not bother you: or it might. No matter what, you get to have and set limits and boundaries with it that people around you should respect. So, if what anyone is saying to you about your changing body, or the way they're treating it, makes you at all uncomfortable, you get to say so, and they should listen and respond well. It can be as simple as saying, "Hey, the way you're talking makes me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. Can you please stop and not do that again?"

Our bodies feel simpler during childhood (mostly because they are). We don’t have to navigate the challenges puberty brings. Developing more complex sexual feelings, the visible maturation of our reproductive and sexual organs, and the attention from others that comes with these developments can be big-time uncomfortable. Plenty of folks going through puberty have times when they truly hate or don’t feel at home in their bodies; some people experience certain developing parts—such as breasts, pubic hair, or an erect penis—as gross and feel ashamed of them. For anyone who doesn’t feel a harmony between their gender and assigned sex, puberty can be even more deeply traumatic.

Wishing you could avoid some or all of these changes is hardly uncommon. The ideas people have about young adult bodies as they’re developing can be hard to deal with sometimes, like the insistence that you should be excited about development that doesn’t thrill you at all or that you should hide things you really can’t or don’t want to hide.

Teens or pre-teens who start developing earlier or later than most of their peers can experience added stresses. Late bloomers may feel like babies—or be treated like them—compared to their friends or siblings and may feel left out. Those who start puberty early can find themselves the center of unwanted or inappropriate sexual attention or teasing, and feel weird compared to most of their peers who haven’t started yet. People assigned male sex usually start puberty later than people assigned female sex, so the former group can encounter expectations of sexual development or desire from their peers that they don’t feel ready for yet or just don’t want at all.

Alas, just like other times in life where we have a lot of physical or emotional changes that are outside our control -- like menopause, pregnancy, some kinds of illness or disability, death -- puberty is unavoidable, and there’s no healthy way to curb the strain of certain parts of it. Excessive dieting, for example, to try to stop developmental weight gain, breast growth, or menses is only going to make you sick. You also can’t make puberty hurry up by using herbal supplements or hormones, by weight training, or by behaving in certain ways.

Puberty has its own timetable, and no matter what you do, it’s probably going to stick to the schedule for you as an individual, which is mostly determined by your genetics and influenced by environmental factors such as nutrition and stress.

But while puberty can feel like it goes on forever sometimes, it really doesn't. It only goes on for, at most, about 1/15th of your entire life: usually, for less time than you spent in elementary school. Puberty is temporary: it does end. That isn't to say your body will never go through changes again in your life, because it will, but outside of pregnancy, medical transition or menopause, you can rest assured it'll never likely go through SO many changes in such a short period of time ever again.

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