The Importance of ‘Body Literacy’ During Adolescence

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

I recently listened to a great podcast which discussed the concept of ‘body literacy’, and how important it is to educate our young women especially, about their hormones and cycles, before the customary ‘sex education’ discussion even begins.

Adolescence follows the onset of puberty, and it is a time when self-understanding and awareness is more important than ever.

This stage of life is when a young person is developing from a child into an adult, and we all know it can be, well, most of the time… challenging, and almost ALL of the time… awkward!

BUT… the more we learn about how and why our bodies are changing, the more we grow to appreciate how normal and wonderful these changes are right??

Why body literacy before sex education?

Typically, during sex education, students will now learn how to navigate the process of becoming sexually active adults, and hopefully they will learn how to engage in consensual and safe sex (hands up who else remembers having to put a condom on a banana in high school?!). All of this is, of course, incredibly important.

We have to bear in mind however that teaching teenagers about their adult body is not the same as teaching them about safe sex, and to really grasp sex education, it helps to have a solid foundation of body awareness.

How can we expect young people to get the most out of sex education if they don’t fully understand their bodies?

What does the data tell us?

  • “Girls’ attitudes and expectations about menstruation are negatively biased and have been found to contribute to self-objectification, body shame, and lack of agency in sexual decision-making” (1)
  • “Girls’ knowledge of the location and function of reproductive structures was faulty, and most did not understand how they were interrelated. Girls associated a variety of negative physical and psychological changes with menstruation, indicating that although they had not yet learned the biology of menstruation, they already had learned and internalized the cultural stereotypes and myths about menstrual symptomatology.” (2)
  • “Our data shows us how little women actually understand that menstruation is just part of a cycle and that when you don’t have your period, there are just as significant and dramatic changes happening in your hormonal profile” (3)
  • “Both expectations about, and initial experiences of, menstrual cycle-related changes were associated with longer-term menstrual experiences. The different outcomes for positive and negative changes have implications for menstrual socialization, and provide the basis for some optimism about facilitating a more complex and multidimensional understanding of menstruation.” (4)

As well as these issues, a lack of body literacy can put teenagers at risk of not being able to make fully informed decisions relating to birth control, and they may not be aware if things start to go awry with their cycle.

So how does it work and who teaches it?

Body awareness and education can be passed on by anyone who is informed themselves and is a trusted individual; such as parents, communities, teachers, other family members, schools and/or health professionals.

Conversations around menstrual charting, cervical mucous changes, the phases of the cycle, the importance of ovulation (and that ovulating regularly may take some time), what PMS symptoms can indicate, and education around sanitary items are good places to start.

It’s also important to remove any stigma and shame associated with menstruation. Menstruating is as natural as sweating. It’s the most basic, earthy cycle we have, and it’s one of many cycles both we and the environment experience (such as sleep/wake cycles, sun/moon cycles, tides and seasons).

Bottom Line

In my view, a deepening of body knowledge makes the ‘adolescent road’ a little less bumpy because there is a greater sense of empowerment, understanding and acceptance.

Seeing as I don’t have a time machine to go back 20 years and boost my OWN body literacy (which needed some serious boosting!), all I can do now is help other’s boost theirs, which gives me so much satisfaction! 😊

Until next time,