Growing up, I was a massive tomboy. I wore boys clothes, I wrestled my four younger brothers, I read fantasy novels marketed at boys such as Alex Rider and Artemis Fowl and I played PC Games such as The Hobbit and various Harry Potter titles.
My younger sister, in marked contrast, was as girly-girl as they come. She loved Disney princesses, Barbie, and her bedroom wasn’t just painted pink — it was painted glittery pink.
My parents raised us exactly the same and would let us wear whatever we wanted and we’d get whatever we ask for toy-wise come Christmas, whether that was an Action Man figurine or a EasyBake playset.
It’s interesting to me that despite our identical upbringing, I had such a strong tendency towards the more stereotypical ‘masculine’ toys and activities, whilst my sister was inherently drawn towards the more stereotypical ‘feminine’ end of the spectrum.
It was after finding some early childhood photos of us both recently that I was struck with a memory of how intensely I tried to resist growing up from a girl into a woman.
There was one family holiday when I was about 11 or 12, where we went to a waterpark and I left my swimming costume behind by accident. Rather than sit out and miss all the fun, I happily donned a pair of trunks (going topless) and was called ‘Keith’ by my family for the day. It’s obviously hugely embarrassing now whenever anyone brings up the occasion I pretended to be a boy, but at the time I didn’t care. I was way more preoccupied with getting to go on the water slides than I was with what I looked like, or what other people thought of me.
As a teenager, I tried to ferociously resist the inevitable consequences of puberty. When my best friend at school got her first training bra, I would stare at the straps through her white school shirt in disgust. Why she wanted to wear one (when she had less of a chest than I did at that time) was confusing to me. Why would anyone want to grow up? I refused my Mum’s offers to take me for a bra fitting well past the point of needing to wear one, to the extent that it’s actually a bit uncomfortable looking at some of the photographs of my teenage self now.
On the day that I got my first period, I hid my knickers in the bin in the hope that I could delay it indefinitely. It was only when my sister came into my room in tears a few weeks later, telling me she’d started hers, that I finally admitted that I had begun mine as well.
This was the pattern for most of my adolescence; my sister was always one step ahead of me when we were growing up. She was a lot more popular at school and so it’s perhaps no surprise that she had her first kiss whilst I was sat at home reading. She came into my room and told me about the experience, and I remember being a combination of horrified and a tiny bit jealous. I think my main feeling was, despite being eighteen months older than her, why would anyone want to do that with a boy?
In trying to pinpoint why I behaved so awkwardly and evasively regarding my journey into womanhood, I think it all comes down to feelings of confusion and uncertainty about my sexuality. I’m now openly bisexual, so I think in part my resistance to my friends getting bras and starting their periods was the first time I was sexually aware of what the adult female body looks like and how I felt about it.
The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle slowly came together for me when I started crushing on a friend later in my teens. This was around the time that I had started a blog on Tumblr, and it was only through the blessing that is the internet that I realised that it was perfectly OK to be attracted to both men and women, despite everything I’d been taught about same-sex attraction at my conservative Catholic school.
Luckily, my parents are open-minded, caring people — when I came out to them aged 19 it turned out to be no big deal. But I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to tell them had it not been for the welcoming, inclusive community that I found online when I was struggling to make sense of my sexuality. Particularly growing up as a Catholic and attending a religious school, it’s easy to worry that those closest to you might judge you or feel differently towards you.
The main takeaway from my experiences navigating the puberty minefield is that for all you parents out there, if your child is having some difficulties accepting they are going through puberty, it might be related to their uncertainty about their sexual identity, in which case the most important thing you can do is help foster an open, supportive environment where they know it’s OK to be gay, bi, pan, or any other sexual identity.
Did you have a similar experience going through puberty or raising a child who doesn’t want to grow up? Tell me your story!