A brilliant friend of mine has a magnet on her fridge that looks like an advertisement and it states in bold lettering, “I am the expert in my own normal.”
As a sexuality educator, I think this magnet could be the mantra for adolescence.
In the classes I am lucky enough to teach, students ask questions in genuine pursuit of normalizing their rapidly changing feelings, bodies and experiences. Whether students are asking questions about crushes, sexual orientation, gender identity, periods or genitals; they’re searching for information to affirm themselves as normal.
One of the greatest fears youth harbour is that their feelings, bodies, and experiences are every thing but normal. This is completely understandable when the one constant through this high pressure stage of life is change and often just as they become acquainted with their normal, things suddenly shift and they begin the process again.
As adults, one of the most impactful life learnings we can offer youth is to help them develop the understanding of their own normal. Their own normal will evolve as they learn and grow. As adults, we know that learning and trusting your own normal is central to our well-being and connection to others.
A simple yet effective practice that will promote expertise in their own normalcy is body literacy. Some of you may be wondering if body literacy is yet another newfangled term straight out of our pandemic vocabulary such as “circle back, pivot, and zoom fatigue?”
Body literacy simply refers to being educated about and familiar with your body and its processes. Being body literate involves using observation, knowledge and supporting resources to better understand and accept our own normal and engage in healthful practices for well-being.
As parents and adult allies, we can best support our youth with body literacy skills by reminding them to observe their own bodies and take notice of the changes they’re experiencing. We can engage and encourage youth in conversations about the changes they’re noticing with curiosity and without judgement.
Are they experiencing a long-hoped-for growth spurt or have they started a cycle bleed/period—what’s different than they expected or it was last year? A curiosity-based approach helps youth to adjust to the changes they experience with greater acceptance of bodies and their many functions as healthy and natural rather than weird and shameful.
Observation helps our youth to recognize when their bodies are feeling or working differently than they have before. This recognition helps them to know when they may need more information and when they may need to ask for outside support to manage. These observations will also help a health care provider with follow up care if it’s necessary.
Helping our youth increase their body literacy also involves making sure they have a solid level of factual knowledge to understand not only their bodies but the bodies of their peers, friends, and potential partners. When youth hold factual knowledge, they are better able to compare their observations and follow through any gaps between what they’ve observed and what they understand to be happening.
Ensure that youth understand all of the anticipated developments and ways to manage these changes as they present (i.e. pubic hair, chest tissue development, and periods, etc.) whether they will happen specifically to their own body or not.
Creating space for community-held knowledge is one of the reasons current school-based sexuality education sessions involve youth of all sex assignments and gender identities together in sessions. Commonly held knowledge encourages responsibility, compassion, and empathy and normalizes all bodies and experiences.
In order for body literacy to be a useful skillset, we must partner observation and factual knowledge with an inventory of local reliable, accessible community health resources for youth. Offering youth resources such as youth centred websites, texting lines, print materials, and access to community-based clinics for youth will support their factual knowledge and help translate their skills and knowledge into action should their observation and knowledge inform them that they require health services for themselves or a friend.
A great place to start for youth-based health resources is an organization called The Foundry (foundrybc.ca) as they offer full service health services for youth in many communities throughout Vancouver Island and elsewhere in B.C.
Observation, factual knowledge and knowledge of youth specific resources make body literacy the ultimate antidote to the fears of not being normal can cause. Body literacy reminds youth that they are ultimately the experts of their own normalcy whether they choose to advertise it on a fridge magnet or not!