Love, Life Stories

When I hit puberty, adults made me feel ashamed of my body

I was in church when a church sister pulled me off to the side and said, "Oh wow. This is exactly how my body looked 30 years ago." I was 11.

Nothing transports me back to my childhood faster than overhearing my mother criticize my little sister’s outfit choice. Change that shirt, I can see your bra straps. Take off that dress if it makes you look too grown

My little sister is 14 but she looks at least two years older and my mother never lets her forget it.

Whether she realizes it or not, my mother is sexualizing my sister’s young body in the same way she did mine. The cycle continues.

When I first started going through puberty, I honestly did not notice. Of course, like many kids my age, I had to watch that “what happens to your body when you become a woman” video on an ancient television set that was wheeled into my 3rd-grade classroom. But, it was hard to recognize those same changes when they started happening to me. I only became aware of these changes when adults around me began to comment on them.

One time, when I was walking down the velvet-lined aisles of my church and a church sister pulled me off to the side and gasped. 

She spun me around so that she could get a better look at me and said, “Oh wow. This is exactly how my body looked 30 years ago and before I had children.”

I remember feeling extremely awkward and I desperately wanted to hide away from her covetous gaze.

Another time, at my grandmother’s house during the summer, I was in a t-shirt and shorts while my lounging around. When I started to run upstairs and back outside to the deck, my aunt stopped me and lifted my shirt up just over my belly button. She wanted to see just how quickly my hips were beginning to fill out and curve in.

In both of these instances, and during countless interactions like them, these older women probably thought their actions were harmless and even complimentary. But they made me feel insecure. During the height of puberty, I wanted nothing more than to hide my developing body away so no one could look at it.

As my breasts, hips, and thighs grew, so did the number of stares and comments I received from adults.

I couldn’t understand why my mom wouldn’t let me wear the same clothes I would see my friends wear. You look too grown, was always her answer. But, I wasn’t grown and I definitely wasn’t eager to look older. It frustrated me that I had to constantly be worried about attracting unwanted attention at such a young age. Especially when sex and sex appeal were the furthest things from my mind. This confusion and insecurity manifested in my need to always cover up.

Even now, as a woman in her twenties, before I leave the house I always tend to grab a sweater or cardigan to throw on over my outfits.

I spent most of puberty feeling afraid and unsure of my own body. But, instead of sitting me down and having a talk about these physical and hormonal changes, adults projected their own feelings onto me. This caused discomfort and a disconnect within me that lasted well into adulthood.

A part of me still feels like the same 13-year-old girl who had to listen to comments about her shape from her aunties and contend with the more sinister and lecherous stares from older men on the street.

However, an even larger part of me is trying to reclaim a sense of comfort and agency within my own body. These days, I make a conscious effort to shed unnecessary layers of clothing instead of tugging them close like a suit of armor built to hide and camouflage.

Puberty was when I first learned to be ashamed of my body, but adulthood is when I learned that it was possible to rewrite this narrative. I spend everyday re-learning how to love my body and feel at peace with it once again.

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    Shanicka is a Senior Pop Culture Editor at The Tempest. A writer of Jamaican descent living in New York, she believes pop culture is a necessary and accessible way to observe and critique society. Often and without prompting, she enjoys talking about Harry Styles, BTS, her year abroad in London, and the complexities of the Caribbean diaspora.