Humanizing Adolescence Through Empowering Female Health Education
In my quest for finding positive quotes about adolescence or puberty, all I could find were descriptions highlighting the painfully confusing time that it is. Those of us who somehow managed to survive adolescence can bear witness to the insecure, paranoid resentment and emotional turmoil that seems to uniquely characterize that season of rapid human growth.
After a decade of teaching adult women about reproductive health and their very amazing pregnant, birthing bodies, one thing always came up in discussions: the reality that next to none of us were taught from the beginning about how our bodies were designed to work. There is rarely an encouraging story about being properly educated about female health, whether by well-meaning parents, aunts, school counselors, or teachers. The majority of us were left to figure out for ourselves what was happening inside of us, learn through horror stories from peers, or read it in a book that made us blush--in the end only inciting more unanswered questions! To be fair, we cannot directly fault the previous generation of parents; they were, like the rest of us, doing what they thought was best, and what was demonstrated for them. Nevertheless, the cycle of misinformation, lack of information and fear is often what is passed down. The struggle is real, but does it have to be?
As a mother who is also an educator, I was determined that the daughters in our community would have a different story to tell. There would be no mystery, and certainly no shame, concerning how and why their bodies were created to grow, birth and nurture new life. Nor would they shun or despise the spectrum of adolescent changes ultimately connected to that overarching process--everything from menstruation to body odor to hormones that make you feel cray-ZAY. I was dedicated to humanizing puberty through empowering, biblically-based education for our little girls.
Last May that day arrived. I had the opportunity to teach a special group of "tween" and teenage girls at the Academy for G.O.D., ranging in age from 10 to 13.
As I started my lesson planning for these classes, Psalm 139:14 kept coming to mind, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” This was the message I wanted fueling every bit of new information these girls would receive concerning their bodies. This is the truth missing from the majority of women’s pregnancy, birthing and mothering experiences today. Instead, we are bombarded with traumatic, fear-based, and often false information. So, I appropriately titled the course, “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made.” This theme helped them filter any potentially scary and complicated information presented.
My students were excited to learn their part in raising a family for God and how He is the ultimate Creator of all things female. After learning the intricate processes of ovulation and menstruation, they took a special sense of pride in the way God designed their bodies to function. They retained the information like awesome little sponges, even down to the names of reproductive hormones! With beaming ear-to-ear smiles, they expressed being proud to be female--the ones God chose to grow, birth and nourish new human life. They actually expressed feeling sorry for boys because they don’t get to experience the miracle of life in the same ways they do. (And I can definitely see their point!)
Another theme I highlighted was the power of a deepening sisterhood that could be cultivated between them as they found solidarity together in their newfound female experiences. The safety they felt to ask questions, share experiences and validate one another overwhelmed me at times as I recognized the incredible gift they had in one another--to open up and be vulnerable, without fear of judgment. I just kept saying to myself, “Every young girl deserves this kind of empowering education and sisterhood - this is what strong, healthy societies are made of!” It is a fact that the most healthy and successful societies in the world today are the ones in which women are valued and considered the cornerstone of the family. Likewise, the societies with the highest maternal and neonatal mortality rates are the ones who do not consider the health of girls, women and mothers to be a priority.
Unfortunately, every day, we see a despairing amount of females, young and old, who are dehumanized around the world. One recent horrific news report continues to haunt me. A 31-year-old mother pregnant with nearly full-term twin babies was forced to labor outside of a maternal health hospital because they refused to provide her care because of a lack of funds. As a result, the mother died on their doorstep, in front of a wailing crowd begging the clinic to open their doors and treat her. After realizing she had stopped breathing, a relative of the mother desperately attempted to save the lives of the babies by using a razor blade to cut the mother’s uterus open and deliver the twins herself. Her efforts were too late and both babies laid dead atop their dead mother. Three beautiful lives were taken that day, just wasted like trash right there on the porch of a clinic that is supposed to serve and protect such vulnerable populations. Oh God, to live in a world that places no price tag on the cost of human life! To raise and teach our daughters to see one life lost as an infinite one. "To live in a society that believes human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere" (Elie Wiesel, Night). Three invaluable lives were lost that day, among a crowd of witnesses, dehumanized and disposed of just like millions of other women around the globe. It doesn't have to be this way, but it begins with each young girl, how we treasure and prepare them for life. Because we believe that what we do here, is what we do there, this specialized female education for adolescent girls we teach at the academy is also being taught in our regions of El Salvador and India, and soon Uganda and the Philippines.
An important topic I made sure to address in the course was the harmful activity that takes place inside of us when girls play the comparison game. Some girls will grow bigger hips. Some grow taller in height than others. Some will start their cycles sooner than later. We discussed how some girls will get more acne than others, and I got to share my personal oh-so-fun middle-school narrative. (I had earned the office of eighth grade ASB Secretary after winning the school’s votes through my popular campaign slogan “ASB Secretary - Tara is it, just look for the Zit!” Imagine signs all over the school with those words in big, bold letters, and then me concluding my campaign speech by shouting it from the podium. The school erupted in laughter and applause and I won by a landslide, and in more ways than one.)
I explained to the girls how I took something that could have made me deeply insecure at that age and made it a human, relatable issue through humor. I showed my zits, insecurity and peers who was boss! I encouraged them that laughing at the not so enjoyable aspects of puberty is the best thing they can do for themselves and one another — and that we are even encouraged to demonstrate such a response in Proverbs 31:25, “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.“
With every new topic introduced, I reiterated how every single one of them are developing at different rates and ages, and such stages of growth are completely out of their control, and no rate of development is more superior or successful than another. Their journeys will be uniquely theirs, not to be compared to any other. You could hear a collective sigh of relief in the room when this truth registered in their hearts. I know they’ll still need to be reminded though because, well, they’re adolescent girls, but that’s where us parents come in and do our part.
By the end of our time together, the girls had become a tight knit sisterhood and we celebrated all they had learned with a party that concluded with them preparing “ready packs." They were so excited to prepare these packs that they first decorated and then filled them with a variety of feminine items. Being as prepared as possible for that first menstrual experience meant so much to them and extinguished unnecessary anxiety. Preparing together meant everything.
Something I’ll never forget about this experience was at the end of every class we had together, they begged me to keep teaching, even through their recess time! They simply could not get enough of the information or camaraderie and wanted to keep learning. So most days I would teach 15- 30 minutes over and into their recess hour, per their emphatic request! I guess that’s what happens when this delicate season is celebrated and colored with the wonderment and life that can be experienced instead of the proverbial confusion and paranoid resentment. It’s really amazing what can happen when women and their health, regardless of age, are considered invaluable and even further, wonderful.