Do you remember the first time you heard the awkward word “puberty”? If you are like me and many others it might have been in fifth grade during an embarrassing meeting with a school nurse or while watching an uncomfortable video on the subject.
For some children, the conversation about the changes that occur during puberty never happens.
As a health care provider focused on woman’s health, I saw the opportunity and need to change this heritage of embarrassment and shame around puberty. My work as a doula for 25 years, a midwife for 10 years, a childbirth educator and a teacher who has trained close to 400 women in the art of labor support, made it clear to me that the work of empowering women during their childbearing years must start with young girls as they enter womanhood.
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I set out to create a program for girls, ages 11 to 13, that would not only focus on the physical aspects of maturation but the social, emotional and spiritual aspects of these changes as well. While working at a birthing center in Texas during the summer of 2009, I began my first outline for a class. I envisioned a course that would extend over a few weeks, building slowly on sensitive topics, communication and trust. My class would be interactive and have a creative framework that would allow girls to be active participants; my students would not be passive recipients of traditional “education” which could be clinical and impersonal.
The need for this type of class was solidified a few years later while I was training Jewish doulas in Crown Heights. During the training, I met several women from different Jewish communities who shared similar stories with me — stories of fear, shame, and ignorance around the topic of puberty and change. They and their daughters were told little — in some cases nothing — about puberty and the changes young girls underwent. To my shock, some told stories of waking up one day thinking they were dying when seeing menstrual blood for the first time. I knew then that my passion for empowering women during childbirth must extend to empowering young girls during this pivotal and complex time as well.
It was not until I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011 that the course would take shape in earnest. To my delight the Yeshiva Girls School of Pittsburgh was receptive to my ideas and recognized the need for my class. With the support of the administration, I shared my curriculum with Rebbetzin Blumie Rosenfeld, longtime educator, speaker and kallah (new bride) teacher, who added spiritual insights, guidance and refinements to my program.
The result of this collaboration was a course that was both honest and forthright with a healthy decorum of modest speech grounded in Jewish values and spirituality.
For the past eight years I have facilitated the course Welcome to Womanhood at the Yeshiva Girls School. The five-week class allows for integration of the subject matter, communication between daughter and mother (or other close adult), and comfort. The class builds organically as the subject matter becomes more intimate. Each week the girls work on creating a personalized journal that mirrors the message of each class.
Keeping a journal symbolizes each girl’s uniqueness. The message of God creating each one of us perfect and different is emphasized in the class. As the girls happily choose from an array of colorful papers and fun embellishments, that sentiment is reinforced.
Girls are inundated with messages about body shape and beauty standards now more than ever. One study found that at age 13 more than 53% of girls are unhappy with their bodies. That number grows to 78% by the age of 17. Therefore, discussions about inner beauty, different body shapes, Jewish values, modesty and self-esteem are opening topics. Once that foundation is set, the class covers physical changes on the outside, including ranges of normal breast, hair and body development.
As the classes mature, normal anatomy and physiology of a young woman’s body and the process of menstruation are discussed. With each new topic the parallel deeper meaning of our bodies’ changes is shared. It is not a coincidence that our physical changes coincide with the age of becoming a bat mitzvah. The girls are introduced to the concept of menstruation as a blessing that signifies good health and the ability to bear children in the future, one of our greatest blessings and responsibilities. This focus creates a sense of empowerment alongside the new physical stage of life.
Welcome to Womanhood also centers around respect for and honoring the strong emotions that come with becoming a woman. As a class we brainstorm ways to deal with strong feelings and normalize the cycles of emotions girls and young women have. The girls are given writing prompts that encourage them to express themselves and think deeper about the topics discussed. Privacy is a strong concept in my class and while the girls are encouraged to speak with their mothers or other appropriate adults about sensitive topics, they also know their journals are private and need not be shared with anyone. This process allows me to broach the topics of appropriate touch, consent and body safety, which are important issues that should be discussed often.
At the end of each class the girls are given a blank card. They are encouraged to write down any questions they have. This has been a great tool to gauge the girls’ concerns and allows them to feel free to get answers on sensitive topics. Administrators and parents know that children have questions, talk among themselves and seek answers. If there is no safe space for this exploration, children can find false and/or inappropriate information that can be disturbing and unwelcomed. Welcome to Womanhood classes are a safe place where questions can be asked and answered in an appropriate way with the guidance of Torah values.
I am happy to have entered the stage wherein the first group of girls that I taught is now well adapted to womanhood and entering into childbearing years. It is my hope that through Welcome to Womanhood these young girls grow up with a sense of knowledge, empowerment and healthy body image. These tools can serve them as they navigate the next stage of womanhood, that of childbearing, with the same sense of confidence and inspiration.
As we choose to change the narrative around women’s health we have an opportunity to empower our girls so that “awkward” and “puberty” are no longer synonymous and young women are welcomed to womanhood with respect, knowledge and ease. PJC
Chana Luba Ertel is a doula, midwife and educator. Her website can be found at maternalwisdom.org.