A Girl’s Guide to Puberty: Columbia University Professor Addresses Stigma

In Tanzania in 2004, Columbia University professor Dr. Marni Sommer was looking into the issue of menstruation and puberty for girls as a part of her doctoral dissertation research. She expected to find large gaps of knowledge and resources for these young girls in lower-income countries and areas, and decided to write a book that was composed of facts and tips, as well as first-hand accounts from older girls about their own puberties. After the great success this received, she turned her gaze onto the youth of America.

“My team at the Mailman School at Columbia University [and I] … had become increasingly concerned that even girls in the U.S. were not getting enough information and support about their changing bodies,” Dr. Sommer says. “The participatory research that we did with American girls, including collecting first period stories from twenty-five states across the country, led to our new book, ‘A Girl’s Guide to Puberty and Periods’!”

Fresh off the press, though also available digitally, this book aims to provide girls in low-resource areas of the country with the knowledge they need. Sommer and colleagues decided to self-publish to maintain the low price-point. They have also reached out to over 200 youth-focused non-profits who can use the book in their programs, and are also in the process of getting in contact with libraries and school-systems to get it placed on as many shelves as possible.

To the Drawing Board

In the style of a graphic novel, its pages covered in awesome drawings by Emily Scheffler of girls from various backgrounds, races, and cultures, “A Girl’s Guide to Puberty and Periods” is bound to help many girls identify with and showcase how different each puberty experience can be. Though the places and settings of the story can be quite different — it could be a dad, mom, or grandma helping out — themes of fear, embarrassment, and shame frequently popped up in the personal anecdotes. This not only shocked Dr. Sommer, but it also helped drive home the fact that this book was needed.

“The first period stories were all collected from the participatory research we did across the country, an approach that I’ve used since my doctoral research when I collected first period stories from adolescent girls in Tanzania,” she says. “In this way, the book becomes a book by girls for girls, as the stories are so central to the learning. It’s always been important to me that we have adolescent girls include, at the end of a personal story, their advice for younger girls who have yet to reach puberty. In that way it’s like an older sister advising a younger sister, and it is much more meaningful.”

Spotting the Issue

Puberty can be tough. The stigma surrounding it, particularly when in regards to female puberty, makes discussion of the ins-and-outs of periods, PMS, and feminine hygiene uncomfortable at best, scary at worst. 

“As my own friends begin to have kids reaching puberty, I have found it so interesting that they are across the board quite uncomfortable needing to ‘have the conversation,’ as it were, with their kids,” says Dr. Sommer. “Or their kids are eager to find anyone but their parents to talk to. I think the discomfort may be about the symbolic meaning that people — the girls themselves, parents or caregivers — give to puberty as a sign or symbol of young adulthood, of leaving childhood behind, even though many kids enter puberty long before we would perceive them as adults.”

Tiffany Pottkotter, a ProMedica Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner from Findlay who has had over fifty articles published and has engaged in fifty-six public appearances, also understands that there is a major problem in the stigma that surrounds girl’s puberty.

Photo Credits to ProMedica

“I wish I knew why [there is a stigma],” says Pottkotter. “I think it’s because, at that age and through that cognitive lens — nine or ten-years-old — it seems like such a weird concept for them. But if we really start to normalize it and look around, obviously everybody goes through it, just at different times. In my own conversations talking with my kid’s friend’s moms, they’ll be like, ‘No, I don’t want to freak her out,’ or, ‘No, I don’t want to scare her”. And I thought, man… if that’s the message we’re sending to the girls — that this is a scary thing — then that’s definitely the wrong approach. My approach with my daughter was, ‘Hey, this is a very natural and beautiful thing your body is going to go through. Let’s be prepared, let’s make a little kit.’”

Pottkotter pushes adults to realize this stage of everyone’s life, like Sommer’s new book suggests, is “not ‘one size fits all’. The best approach is open and honest communication with your child, and to really just normalize these events so it’s not this big mystery nobody has talked about. We should culturally be talking about these things.”

“A Girl’s Guide to Puberty and Periods” can be purchased from most major retailers, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.