Puberty in Girls: Your Changing Body

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Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

 

“Am I normal?” That can be a nagging question once your body starts changing during puberty. And guess what? Wondering if you’re normal is a normal part of puberty.

Chances are your body development is very normal. But there’s so much going on at once -- breast development, raging hormones, hair in new places, menstrual periods. Just knowing what to expect can help put your mind at ease. 

This article fills you in on what body changes to expect and why they happen. It also includes tips on how to handle the changes so you can grow into your new body with confidence.

Intro to Puberty

Puberty is kind of a hormone party in your body, beginning with gonadotropin-releasing hormone, or GnRH for short. Your body releases GnRH, which in turn causes two other puberty hormones -- called LH and FSH-- to be released in your bloodstream. LH and FSH stimulate your ovaries to start producing the female hormone estrogen, and off you go! Your girl’s body starts changing into a woman’s body. Your body is preparing itself to conceive and carry a child. All these surging hormones can also make your mood go up and down.

Though it may sometimes seem as if your body is out of control during puberty, all the changes actually occur in predictable stages. 

  • Puberty generally starts between the ages of 8 and 13 and can last a few years to five years or more.
  • Girls who are obese may start puberty earlier than 8 years old.
  • On the other hand, girls who are anorexic or who are very athletic and have low body fat -- such as gymnasts, ballet dancers, runners, and figure skaters -- may start puberty late.

But every girl experiences puberty according to her own biological clock. “Research shows that there’s a huge variation of ‘normal,’” says Kathy McCoy, MD, a psychiatrist who co-wrote The Teenage Body Book and was the “Sex and Your Body” columnist for Seventeen magazine. “In many cases, it has to do with family history. If your mother started her periods late, you may too.”

When should you be concerned about your body development?

“If you haven’t had any breast development by age 12, your doctor will want do a physical exam and some blood tests to check on your hormones,” says Melisa Holmes, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist and coauthor of the Girlology book series. “And even though it's normal to start menstruation as late as age 16, if you aren’t menstruating by 15 years old, she will also want to do a full physical exam.”

Growth and Weight Gain During Puberty

Your body grows faster during puberty than at any other time in your life besides infancy. During a growth spurt -- a period of fast and furious growth -- you may get four or more inches taller in a year.

Growth and Weight Gain During Puberty continued...

Most girls experience growth spurts early in puberty, while most boys have them later in puberty. That’s why many girls are taller than boys in middle school.  

Increased body fat is also a normal part of puberty. “You may go from 8% to 21% body fat,” McCoy says.

Don’t go on a diet to try to lose this weight. “Girls will come in to see me and say, ‘I’ve gained weight!’” Holmes says. “They have to realize that it’s not bad fat. Women just have to have a certain amount of body fat for reproduction and the health of our menstrual cycles.”

It would be nice if girls’ bodies grew up and out at the same time. Unfortunately, they usually don’t. “Throughout puberty, girls kind of grow up and then out a little bit, and up and out a little bit,” Holmes says. “There’s this scary fluid growth process going on that a lot of girls don’t like.”

Your Changing Body: Breast Development

Along with gaining curvier hips, of course, your breasts grow during puberty. This happens because estrogen spurs the growth of both your mammary glands and cushions of fat around them. Meanwhile, a network of milk ducts connected to the mammary glands start the prep work for you to be able to nurse a baby.

Breast development is one of the changes that stress girls out the most. “There’s lots of concern about breasts because they’re visible,” McCoy says. “It’s something boys notice and girls notice.” Our culture’s obsession with female breasts can make it more stressful.

Many girls worry that their breasts aren’t growing enough. But breasts usually continue to grow until you’re 17 or 18 years old -- or even into your 20s. Others worry that their breasts are uneven. Sometimes one breast does grow faster than the other, although the slower one usually catches up.

Your final breast size is based partly on heredity. “Your breasts aren’t necessarily going to be the same as your mom’s because you’ve got your dad’s genes added in, but you can look back at your ancestors and get a pretty good feel for it,” Holmes says. “The good news is that it doesn’t matter what size breasts you have as far as what your breasts are used for.”

Like breasts, your nipples also change during puberty. They can become pink or dark brown, turned inward or out. Sometimes hairs grow around them. All of this is normal.

Menstruation and Your Changing Body

Usually about two years or so after a girl’s breasts start to develop, she gets her first period. Some girls are happy about this and some aren’t, but basically menstruation is a good sign that your puberty is progressing nicely.

Menstruation and Your Changing Body continued...

Here’s an explanation of the menstrual cycle in a nutshell: When you hit puberty, your ovaries release an egg down the fallopian tube into the uterus about once a month. In preparation, the lining of the uterus (which is made of blood and tissue) thickens to so that a fertilized egg will have a comfortable place to grow. If the egg isn’t fertilized -- in other words, if you don’t become pregnant -- the uterus sheds the old lining through the vagina and, voilà, you have a period.

Menstrual cycles -- the time between your periods -- can last from 21 to 35 days. A 28-day cycle is common, but often it takes a while for cycles to get into a groove. Periods usually last between two and eight days. During that time, your body only releases a couple of tablespoons of blood, though it can seem like a lot more.

Not every girl experiences menstrual cramps. They usually don’t start until a girl has had her period for three or four years. “That’s because ovulation has kicked in more regularly by then,” Holmes says. Her advice: “Exercise can make you feel better -- especially a brisk walk. A heating pad may also help. If you have to use medication, a nonsteroidal drug is best.”

If you can’t get relief for cramps or you feel that you are bleeding very heavily, see your doctor.

Vaginal Discharge

You may notice white, sticky stuff in your underpants. This is called vaginal discharge. It’s simply a bit of the fluid that keeps the vagina moist and clean.

Vaginal discharge can become thicker and stickier at some points during your menstrual cycle. It has an odor but not a bad one, and most people can't smell it. If your discharge does have an odor, it may be caused by sweat in your pubic hair. Bathing regularly with soap should prevent this.

If vaginal discharge becomes itchy or irritated, has a strong odor, or is dark yellow or greenish, you may have a vaginal infection. See your doctor.

Girls and Puberty: Body Hair

Puberty brings hair to your body in new places: under your arms and in your genital area. You may grow some hair on your upper lip. The hair on your arms or legs may also get darker or thicker.

Pubic hair usually starts with a few straight strands and becomes curlier and darker as it grows. Eventually it grows into a thick triangle over the pubic bone and spreads a little to your inner thighs. This growth may start at the beginning of puberty or any time during it.

If you grow hair on your chest or chin, see your doctor. You may have a hormone imbalance that needs to be corrected.

Sweating Through Puberty

Your body starts sweating more during puberty. “This is very common, especially around age 13 to 15, because you’ve got all these new androgen hormones circulating, making your sweat glands more active,” Holmes tells WebMD. When sweat combines with bacteria -- under your arms, for instance -- it causes body odor.

What can you do if you have underarm odor? First, bathe or shower every day. “Wash with a good deodorant soap,” Holmes says. “Then use an antiperspirant -- the higher the aluminum chloride content, the more antiperspirant activity it will have. All ‘clinical strength’ deodorants have about the same amount. If you use antiperspirant once a day, apply it before you go to bed. That tends to work better.”

If you develop a rash under your arms, you may be allergic to aluminum and should use an antiperspirant that doesn’t contain it.

Holmes also recommends wearing clothing made of fabrics that wick moisture because they dry faster and won’t show armpit stains as much. “Wet isn’t usually so bad for most girls,” she says. “It’s the pit stains that are more embarrassing. Light-colored cotton shows stains the worst.”

Sweaty feet and hands can be another problem. For feet, try these tips:

  • Keep them clean.
  • Wear cotton socks, which are more absorbent.
  • Don’t wear the same shoes every day -- give them time to dry out.
  • Avoid shoes made of plastic, rubber, or other manmade materials.

If you have sweaty palms, try not wearing hand lotion. Use a hand sanitizer to keep your hands drier.

A Teen’s Changing Body: Acne

Acne -- whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples -- is the bane of many teenagers’ existence. Some people think acne is caused by bad hygiene or eating junk food, but it isn’t. It occurs when your pores get clogged with a body oil called sebum and skin cells. Androgen hormones boost sebum, which is why teens get acne in droves.

Acne tends to run in families. Some people get a little acne on their face and others are covered with it on their chests and back, too.

If you have acne, try cleansing with a gentle non-soap cleanser and use OTC acne products with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. It also helps to use sunscreens, moisturizers, and makeup that are labeled “oil free” or “non-comedogenic.” If these things don’t get your acne under control, a dermatologist can use other treatments that will help.

Some people believe that acne is just part of growing up, but it doesn’t have to be. Bad acne can lower your self-esteem or even make you depressed. It can also scar your skin, so it’s important to treat it early. There are many good treatments out there, so you don’t need to live with acne.

Making Your Body Work for You

At some point during puberty, you will probably look at your face, hair, or body in the mirror and not like what you see. “That’s a normal part of growing up and adjusting to the changes,” Holmes says. If you hate your body most of the time, however, it may help to talk to a school nurse or counselor who can help you learn to look at your body differently.

“I tell girls to try not to dwell on what they don’t like about the way they look,” Holmes says. “Instead, appreciate the great things your body can do -- things like playing the piano, doing a back flip, or climbing a mountain.”

Tue, 30 Nov 2010 @15:29

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