Puberty and the female body
Puberty is a time of major change for all young people, both physically and mentally. People with female bodies may experience new things like breast development, menstruation and more. It’s good to have an idea of what to expect during puberty.
Throughout this article, Kids Help Phone uses the terms “female body” and “people with female bodies” to refer to people who are born with female sex organs, hormones and chromosomes. However, it’s important to note that people with biologically female bodies may have a different gender identity than the sex assigned to them at birth. Not everyone who is born with female sex organs identifies as female or a girl, and that’s OK.
A typical female reproductive system includes:
- ovaries (two sacs that produce/release eggs and hormones)
- fallopian tubes (tubes that transfer eggs)
- a uterus (a muscular, pear-shaped organ in which a fetus may grow)
- a cervix (a channel that connects the vagina and uterus)
- a vagina (a passage that connects the external genitalia to the cervix)
Puberty usually starts between the ages of eight and 13 and lasts two to four years.
Around this time, you may begin to notice changes to the way you look and feel. This may mean you’re starting puberty.
At the start of puberty, part of your brain (the pituitary gland) releases hormones, which tell the ovaries to start making other hormones called estrogen and progesterone. These hormones initiate more changes throughout the mind and body.
The first signs of puberty happen gradually and are usually visible. You may:
- grow taller (also called growth spurts)
- get your period (also known as menstruation)
- develop breasts
- gain weight
- see the rounding and filling out of hips
During and after puberty, you may also experience the following:
- Hair growth: you may notice an increase/darkening/thickening of body and facial hair during puberty. Hair growth commonly occurs under the arms, on the legs, on the face and around the pubic area.
- Pimples: during puberty, the body produces extra oil, which can clog the skin’s pores. This buildup of oil and bacteria can cause small, pus-filled bumps known as pimples, zits or acne. Pimples commonly appear on the face, back and chest. Try not to squeeze, pop or pick at pimples — this can cause scarring, spread bacteria or cause an infection.
- Sweat: during puberty, sweat glands become more active to help regulate the body’s temperature. You may notice that you’re sweating more than you used to. The sweat your body produces may also mix with bacteria and give off an odour.
- Sexual arousal: as the body goes through puberty and matures, it becomes ready for sexual activity. Around this time, you may start to have sexual thoughts, feel sexual urges and/or experience new sexual sensations. During sexual arousal, parts of the external genitalia (also called the vulva) may swell and the vagina may produce a clear, lubricating fluid to make sexual activity more comfortable. You may also experience an orgasm — a pleasurable feeling in your body — at the peak of sexual arousal.
- Menstruation: menstruation (having periods) starts when the body’s reproductive system is fully developed and capable of getting pregnant. Menstruation usually begins between the ages of 10 and 14 and occurs about once per month afterward. Some people experience symptoms before/during their period such as mood changes or cramps. This is known as premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which can be alleviated by talking to a doctor or pharmacist for treatment options.
- Discharge: your cervix makes a white discharge (also called cervical mucus) in between periods that is sometimes cloudy and sometimes more clear. You may see it when you wipe after using the toilet or notice it on your underwear. This fluid helps sperm survive as they travel through the vagina and uterus on their way to finding an egg.
- Mood changes: during puberty, the body’s hormones are fluctuating. You may begin to experience more emotional highs and lows. Puberty is also a time when mental disorders may first present themselves. If you notice a big change in your mood, thoughts or actions, it’s important to talk to a friend or a safe adult such as a doctor, counsellor, school nurse or social worker.
- Relationship changes: it’s common for relationships to change as you grow up. You may begin to notice shifts in your relationships with family, friends and peers as your mind and body mature. You may also start to feel sexually attracted to other people. Your relationship with yourself (e.g. your body image and self-esteem) may also transform during puberty as you learn more about who you are.
If you have any questions or concerns about puberty, it’s important to talk to a doctor or other safe adult. You can always call a Kids Help Phone counsellor at 1-800-668-6868.