Never Growing Up: A Muse on Delayed Puberty

Adolescence is a notoriously difficult time for everyone. This particular perspective recounts the struggles of lagging behind national averages with a diagnosis of ‘delayed puberty’. Whilst, openly discussing the emotions and experiences of developing late, this piece reminds us that age really is just a number.

The idea that puberty is a ‘difficult time’ is no news to anyone. If you haven’t heard this joked about by parents, in many a cliché pop-culture reference, or, indeed, from the Munch painting under that title, you’ve been told it comfortingly, or cried it hysterically, at some point. I know I’m not alone in associating puberty with turmoil. I do, however, feel alone in that, in my twenties, my puberty still isn’t over.

Like many an emotional, mental, or otherwise personal thing, I wouldn’t like to pose a competition. The last time I mentioned that what made puberty rough for me was how unbearably late it started, I was quickly put in my place by all other members of the conversation who conceded that I should be thankful, since – unbeknownst to me – they’d all started unusually early, and that’s certainly worse than my way around. Obviously, this is an unanswerable comparison since no-one can experience both, but I’ll happily guess that the surrounding consequences of developing young are probably more serious than anything I’ve experienced; I’m aware that sexual harassment, assault, and even marriage – dependent on culture – can begin earlier for someone who offsets puberty younger, for example. I’m also aware that we have a global issue with sexualising young people and children. On a less serious level, however, I personally found the other end of normality painful and have always struggled to find relatable accounts of it.

I was diagnosed with ‘delayed puberty’ at fifteen when, showing no signs of development, I’d officially reached three years behind the national average for first periods. I was roughly four foot six and lacked absolutely any features that would indicate womanhood. By this point, my infuriation was reaching climax: I was utterly desperate to burst out of my childhood prison and completely incapable of doing anything about it – it didn’t matter if I lost weight or gained it, exercised or didn’t, cried every night in front of the mirror or made a sacrifice to the gods, it was in the hands of fate and she was taking her sweet time, with absolutely no indication as to when she’d put me out of my misery.

I had spent year upon year nervously glancing at every other body in the changing rooms as training bras sprung up around – but never on – me. They’d started on just one or two girls at the end of primary school and gradually spread until the majority of the room were wearing them, leaving me quite stubbornly in the Tesco’s-basics vest camp with fast-emigrating friends. I’d also sat attentively through period-jargon for at least two years, uncomfortable in the knowledge that I was the only girl I knew who didn’t have them. Although my friends protested that I was lucky, that they were painful, and so on, I was repeatedly promised by every medical professional that my first period would be my unshackling; that it would kickstart everything else I had clenched my teeth in waiting for like breast and hip development, a growth-spurt, and a more mature face.

In terms of body-image, mine, like most pubescents’, was pretty bad. I argued frequently with my slim mother who claimed she could relate, because an important distinction, to me, was that I wasn’t only flat-chested, I was also chubby, which seemed like the worst of both worlds. I’d see positivity campaigns featuring older women of around my BMI, but so many things I perceived to be beautiful about them I lacked; breasts, hips, or a curve in any region beyond my beer belly (a family joke was that I was shaped like Winnee-the-pooh). It felt, to me, that every girl at my school of a similar clothes-size was far more curvaceous and womanly, whilst every girl equally undeveloped was stick-thin.  

On a basic level, I also just felt so left-out. Although people weren’t making a conscious effort to make me feel abnormal with a capital A, they certainly managed to, anyway. I still remember feeling extremely perplexed by assumptions everyone seemed to have agreed upon in a meeting I must’ve missed: girls have periods and girls have breasts. I’m still not sure at what point these became universal truths I was suddenly on the outside of, but it gave me the unpleasant sensation, every time someone alluded to these things, that I was fundamentally lacking body parts and functions I should have. If I wasn’t reminded constantly of my shocking abnormality in life, I could find it in every piece of art, reading, or pop-culture I laid a hand on. My rage became as bottomless as the seemingly endless coming-of-age tales that had caused it; Fairly Tales such as the sixteen-year-old Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, Cosette’s burst into womanly beauty at age fifteen in ‘Les Miserables’, and, of course, every television show and film casting thirty-two year olds as high-schoolers (‘Glee’, ‘Community’, ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘High School Musical’, I’m looking at you).

On a deeper level, though, this felt worse than simple exclusion; to me, it was significant that I wasn’t just being left out, I was being left behind. Each time I missed a milestone I felt like years were being added to my age but I wasn’t getting any older. Every two years that I lagged behind the average on national periods felt like dead time, where I was essentially stuck at age thirteen, so those were two more years of lost adulthood I’d have to make up for. It seemed from films and friends that everyone else’s normality was a realm filled with adult things; drinking, smoking, and – to my greatest jealousy – sex, which, for me, was certainly not an option since no one wanted to be referred to as a paedophile.

I personally still feel this now in being perpetually mistaken for anywhere between two and seven years younger than I am. Every time someone looks me dead in the eye and says: ‘you look sixteen’, I feel like they might as well add: ‘so I’m going to treat you like you are’. People often don’t understand why I find it irritating when they tell me: ‘I thought you were; a first year, a secondary-school student, or, essentially, a child’. Although I’ve somewhat unconvincingly argued that these are synonymous with calling me ugly, what I really feel this does is deduct years of my maturity and life experience. What I hear when people do things like laugh at me for ordering an Espresso and then ask, ‘do you know what that is?’ (yeah, that actually happened), ask me every time they see me how my GCSEs are going and then say, ‘oh I always forget you’re older because you look so young!’, or respond with utter shock when I express thoughts on anything adult is that my life experience and understanding is not only irrelevant, but invisible. It doesn’t seem to matter that I have travelled to around thirty countries solo, overcome a terminal illness, had and lost a long-term relationship, worked in several professions, or experienced grief, because you perceive me as, and will continue to relate to me as, a child. 

I suppose what this really comes down to is an over-spoken but under-digested suggestion: maybe we should treat people for who they are, not how they look. I’ll be the first to admit that I could’ve got a far shorter straw in terms of people judging me based on my appearance, and I’ll be the first to assert that I hope my previous statement generalises.

I’ve also concluded that age-specific prescriptions are senseless. It doesn’t matter where on the timeline we pin certain experiences, events, or ‘milestones’, to make them line-up to some cultural standard.  There is absolutely no saying where you should be in your appearance or your life at any given age, because everyone’s version of that age will be different. Your fifteen may have been wilder than mine, whilst someone else’s might’ve been the worst of their life. There will be some events that dominate the entirety of one person’s decade, whilst they never happened in another person’s lifetime, or perhaps they did, but twenty years later. I said I didn’t want to pose a competition, so let’s dismantle this imaginary race.

My periods did eventually come at eighteen, and I had a growth spurt to the grand old height of five foot two. Breasts, albeit fairly small ones, followed, and I am in a good place with my body, now. Unfortunately, six months after the periods, my orthodontist decided that it was time for braces, which are due off at age twenty-two (just like the three ages before twenty-two). Well, all I can do now is laugh, write, and live as the age that I feel, not look. I’ll also regrettably accept that patience isn’t as sought-after as STEM degrees.