The Early Bloomer: On going through puberty before everyone else
I’ve never wished for bigger breasts. When I hear others talk about their teen selves, it seems almost like a rite of passage. But while some of my peers swapped exercise tips and stuffed bras for a fuller look, I wished for the opposite. My first bra, a pink gingham affair, was hidden in the bottom drawer of my wardrobe. I would stand in the mirror sideways with my palms pressed flat against my chest and I would imagine what it would be like to have a t-shirt just slide down my torso. I dedicated the same process to other parts of my body. I’d hold my arms flat against my sides, robot style, which would temporarily shave inches off my hips. I’d poke and prod at myself like the girls in the movies.
But unlike the girls in the films, I wasn’t twelve or fourteen: I was seven when I started puberty.
Developing that early—before age eight in girls and age nine in boys—is called Central Precocious Puberty. It’s not uncommon, affecting 1 in every 5,000 to 10,000 children and occurring mostly in girls. When I found out the official name for it, I was annoyed. The word “precocious” made me think of characters like Lisa Simpson and Matilda: innocent face, smart mouth. While my early development was to thank for my intelligence at that age, I didn’t feel I owned my maturity. My body’s rapidly changing appearance and my peers’ reaction to it transformed me from an outgoing and talkative child to a socially anxious teenager and the adult I am today.
I remember at age eight, standing in line to hand my work to the teacher, and I could hear the people behind me whispering and snickering that my thighs were thick and that I had hips. I also remember in the middle of math, feeling an alarming dampness, and getting up and whispering to the teacher that I was bleeding. She checked my arms at first but then I told her I was bleeding down there and she laughed, saying I was too young. Age ten, before I left for secondary school, a boy in my class turned around as we were lining up for lunch, looked me square in the face, and said with a deadpan monotony, “You have the boobs of a fifteen-year-old.” And everyone laughed. I guess it was supposed to be some sort of an insult—I didn’t get ten-year-old boy humor then and I don’t get it now—but it worked. It upset me then and I still remember it today. I hadn’t even cared that much about the cramps, the awkwardness, or the stretch marks until I got to secondary school, the place that can make you anxious about anything.
And the monthly injections to slow down my growth were a bother, to put it lightly. On the way to the pediatric ward, there’s a giant statue of Queen Alexandra, and as my monthly visits went on I became enchanted by it. I know now that Queen Alexandra took particular interest in the hospital where I was a patient and that she herself was quite ill and became socially isolated. I hadn’t known that at the time, but maybe if I had, I would have known why I was so drawn to her statue, why I found her to be some sort of kindred spirit. At the time the only thing I could think as I passed her each month was, “Damn her perfectly formed body!”
My monthly injections were painful and I was beginning to put on a significant amount of weight, but it wasn’t what bothered me most. What was most difficult was that I felt I was going through puberty alone. I was dealing with my period, unable to talk to the other girls and hear them commiserate. It was treated like a secret, and I had to avoid questions from friends about my frequent disappearances. As we went through secondary school and I saw my friends chasing maturity, I intentionally headed in the opposite direction, infantilizing myself. At first this was a reaction to the “jokes” and the bullying: I tried making myself small instead of standing up straight, so that people in general wouldn’t think I was pushing my chest out and trying to be a Grown Woman™. My voice grew high-pitched in the presence of adults and people I didn’t know. I acted prudish when people talked about sex. And it worked: people “aww”‘d at me, and told me I was cute and pinched my cheeks and cuddled my doughy body.
I only recently left my teenage years behind when I turned 20 in July, and entering my last year of university, I feel like I’ve finally pressed “play” again. The injections worked and slowed down my early development, but not without side effects. I am 5 ft 3 (and a bit) with a youthful face, which means I often get mistaken for fourteen. It’s ironic: I spent my early childhood looking older than my age and will spend a large amount of my adulthood looking significantly younger. But if revisiting my experience with puberty to write this has taught me anything, it’s that there isn’t one preteen/teenage experience or narrative. All the time I had spent forcefully trying to align my coming-of-age experience with that of my friends and with the stories in the films and the books, I didn’t realize or fully appreciate that I had a story of my own.