Should puberty be optional?

Girls deserve a better deal growing up — but avoiding puberty isn’t the answer

Artillery Row

Being the first girl at school to get breasts is not all it’s cracked up to be. To be nine, ten years old, suddenly propelled from child to consumable product, can be deeply distressing. The patriarchal marketplace leaves you with two choices: gloss your lips, smile your smile and brazen it out, or resist by declaring war on your own flesh. 

The ultimate human-to-object rite of passage

For a while, I hovered between the two, unsure which way to jump. This was the mid-eighties, Samantha Fox and Mandy Smith served up as examples of just where, if you were lucky, your tits could get you. I decided this wasn’t for me and stopped eating. I didn’t bleed or need a bra again until 1996.  In the changing rooms for PE, I’d look down on the other girls, the ones allowing themselves to become woman-shaped. Hips, breasts, blood, surrender; I was better than that. These girls, I’d tell myself, had made a choice. If they weren’t exactly what they looked like — female, normative, inferior — they’d have been like me and said no. 

Back then, no one offered you shortcuts to puberty avoidance. You did it old-style, slowly, like a starving saint. It wasn’t like today, when we are far more progressive.

It’s not that we don’t continue to put precociously pubescent girls on a one-way ticket to sexual exploitation. It’s that we offer a select few — those who do not consider themselves tits and ass and are willing to suffer to prove it —  a medicalised exit strategy.

The recent rise in adolescent females wearing binders and requesting puberty blockers has been well-documented. What also needs exploring is how this reinforces our prejudices about the girls who continue to grow. What about their needs? Are we interested in changing the experience of female adolescence for them? Or is the fact that they’ve stayed the course evidence enough that they’re happy with their lot?

Female puberty, we are increasingly being told, is only for those who identify with it. A 2019 medical ethics paper explores “the ethics of ongoing puberty suppression for non-binary adults”, proposing that there be such a thing as a body remaining forever in “a “genderless’ state”. Finn MacKay, a self-identified radical feminist, likens encouraging “normal” puberty in those who don’t identify with femaleness to encouraging lesbians to have heterosexual relationships. A recent article on stopping “the puberty apocalypse” compares puberty itself to a life-altering medical procedure. 

The narrow assumptions I made as an anorexia sufferer — that female puberty is optional and reveals something about a female person’s acceptance of patriarchal gender norms — are slowly being recast as serious feminist insights. 

By positioning puberty as something to which one should “consent’, misguided feminists and LGBTQ+ activists repackage the same lies predatory men have always told about the pubescent girl. If she wasn’t happy with slowly morphing from child to sex object to Stepford wife, she wouldn’t have agreed to go through the ultimate human-to-object rite of passage. If she didn’t see herself as a prime cut on the patriarchal meat market, she’d have stayed small forever. If she didn’t want her tits grabbed, she wouldn’t have grown them.

We’re not so interested in the girls who stick with their female bodies

The conflation of a healthy, developed female body with, at best, surrendered heterosexuality, at worst, fetishised non-personhood, is a form of victim blaming. It repositions adolescent girls as volunteers rather than conscripts in a battle against their own subjectivity. Those opting out, with their binders and blockers, can disdain the normies the same way I used to in the PE changing rooms, allowing their assumptions about “mere” females, those apparent ignoramuses when it comes to challenging “the gender binary system”, to run riot. 

Post-anorexia, I went through several years of promiscuity, believing this was the only way to inhabit the “wrong” body, to justify its space on this planet. It’s nonsense, of course — I have the body of an adult female, but I can write and think and assert my own boundaries. I am not a walking stereotype; none of us are. 

Conversations about gender identity and puberty suppression revolve around the inner lives of trans-identified individuals. That we’re not so interested in the girls who stick with their female bodies, braving the patriarchal storm, is testimony to the very belittlement that others flee. The ascription of “cisness” (that imaginary state of identifying with the sex role stereotypes imposed on one because of one’s sex) sanitises the idea that adolescent girls don’t care what the world throws at them. If those basic cis bitches didn’t want to be objectified, they’d have put it away, “it” now being their growth, their health, their entire female presence.

A feminism that cannot even embrace the idea of all girls growing into adult human females — that perceives such growth only through the patriarchal gaze, as a fixing in place as heterosexual sex object/gestational vessel — is in serious trouble. I reject this feminism every bit as much as I once rejected the body that was, is, mine. 

In her poem Hearts, Tricia Bauer compares the isolation of anorexics and bulimics — “Holding their bodies back / fulfilling themselves in another time / abbreviating now to no” — to the fully-fledged humanity of the girls who allow themselves to go forward: “We welcomed our bodies thickening / for the size we somehow already knew / we would have to be / just to support our hearts”. 

The opt-outs might think, as I did, that their gender non-conformity is more authentic because it is paid for in physical sacrifice. It’s time we realised the real gender non-conformists are the girls — and that’s most girls — who refuse to accept stunted growth as the price of their personhood. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover