How to respond to teens who think their bodies are “gross”

Guest post by Ash
Gross waterproof shower art by Etsy seller UglyBaby

I am a nurse educator for a non-profit that provides free childbirth education classes and case management for pregnant teenagers and their partners. My classes are almost always riddled with at least one or two teen parents who think that any/all body parts are super “gross.”

In fact, I just taught the breastfeeding class — my very favorite — last night. I had a teen dad tossing around my breast model and making jokes before I even got a chance to start.

How do I deal with teens who think body parts are gross?

1. I always reinforce anatomical terms

It is an expectation of our classes that all our teens and their guests use appropriate language, including the correct names for various body parts and activities one can do with said body parts. I think it helps to de-sexualize them a bit and make them like any other body part on our incredibly awesome bodies (arm, leg, breast).

2. Respect their comfort levels

Not only is it normal for teens and pre-teens to have those types of feelings about their changing bodies, but often times “gross” is just teen-speak for “embarrassed.”

I am also constantly working to remember (because I work with groups of girls and boys) that some of them have very negative associations with their “private parts.” This may not apply to all teens, but many of our clients have experienced molestation (often times by a relative or family friend) and rape. Breasts have an entirely different meaning and feeling for those girls. And pushing that positivity towards breasts on them might be damaging.

3. If they’re interested or a good opportunity presents itself, teach a little about the human body

While the breastfeeding class always starts with giggles and groans, by the time we’re 15 minutes in, everyone is riveted. The teens (boys and girls alike) are always amazed at what the breast can do and how it is designed to work. By the end of class, I have 15- and 16-year-old dads raising their hands to tell me how much areola should be showing above and below baby’s mouth to indicate a good latch. They begin to use the terms themselves and (I’d like to think) walk away with a better understanding and respect for the human body and for breasts themselves.

A great way to do this (in a non-breastfeeding class context) would be through books. Knowledge is power, especially if you have a reader on your hands. Check these out:

I am really passionate about teaching young people about their amazing bodies (pregnant bodies in particular) and, as the big sister to a 15-year-old brother, it matters to me how he grows up viewing his body and the bodies of others. The best thing of all is to make yourself available and trustworthy, so your teen knows that they can share their feelings about breasts, puberty, and anything else with you!

What are some of the ways that you’re teaching teens about bodies?

Comments on How to respond to teens who think their bodies are “gross”

  1. I don’t talk to teens about bodies because I just don’t have a lot of interactions with teens at this point in my life. But I do very distinctly remember a “sex ed” lecture when I was in 7th grade. I went to an all girls Catholic school and they decided that they would show a slide show of graphic images of STDs. Now everyone is different but I personally was 12 years old in 7th grade and hadn’t developed any kind of interest in sex of any kind at that point. And this shit TERRIFIED me. I was TERRIFIED of having sex, like I had literal nightmares about having sex and then having insects under my skin very much like the scene in The Mummy where the scarabs crawl under that guys skin and like eat him alive (this movie came out when I was in 7th grade so it was a relevant nightmare).

    Because Catholic school there was no follow up education of STD prevention or treatment. It was just don’t have sex before you get married because if you do you’ll get horrible disease and/or pregnant and/or die.

    So not really a story or advice on how to talk to teens as much as a real life example of how not to talk to them.

    • I went to a public school, but my friend’s Catholic mother *oh-so-generously* volunteered to come show us those slides anyway.


      I distinctly remember that her lecture ended with “and remember, there’s no condom for your heart.”

    • Fun story, that shit is still happening in public schools today. Where I live outside of St. Louis, a group called Thrive does their Best Choice program in our schools and it’s the same: saying you can’t bond to future partners if you have sex, that teen parents are unable to bond to their babies, that girls have spaghetti brains and are soooo emotional, giant STD pictures but then pairing that with a one-minute presentation about STD/pregnancy prevention with “condoms don’t work and are annoying anyway.

      It’s all about waiting for marriage and super hetero/cis normative to begin with since it’s being taught by a religious group that runs a fake pregnancy clinic. Hooray.

  2. With my daughter, it started way before she was a teen – open, calm discussion using accurate language and following her lead and interest level. It isn’t “the talk” – it’s an ongoing conversation. Still ongoing, and she’s 17. We talk about pleasure as well as protection, and about the emotional consequences of sex, and about enthusiastic consent. She talks to her friends. I have not managed to convince her that virginity is a social construct….but nothing’s perfect.

    As a doc, I listened as much as I talked to teens, answered their questions calmly and accurately, promised them confidentiality, and was not judgmental. Back when we still did Paps and pelvic exams once girls became sexually active, I did a lot of first pelvic exams, and it was nice to help them relax and get comfortable with their own anatomy.

    • Happy to see another doctor here!
      My kids are younger, but I made a point to teach them both the difference between a vulva (outer bits) and vagina (birth canal), since a Ms. Magazine pointed out that a lot of people call everything around a woman’s crotch vagina, and that’s not right. We don’t get confused about penis vs. scrotum. It sounds like a small thing, but it’s important.

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