How can I talk to my tween sister about breasts and other body parts?

February 13 2012 | offbeatbride
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Photo by cphoffman42, used under Creative Commons license.
I'm not a mom, but I'm getting lots of practice while helping raise my nieces and cousins and by living with my twelve-year-old sister, Angela. Angela is on the cusp of puberty and doesn't really have a parent to talk to — my mom sent her to live with us, and my dad isn't much use for gender-specific troubles. I'm stepping up to the plate, but am being confronted with some sticky situations.

We were watching The NeverEnding Story the other day, and when Atreyu comes to the Southern Oracle we were met with the classic representation of a Sphinx — bare breasts front and centre in all of their glory. My sister, who is just beginning to develop in this area, informed me that she found the statues gross. I asked why, and she stared at me with the most ashamed look on her face and explained, "They're not wearing shirts."

My first response was to launch into a tirade about how breasts aren't gross, but I didn't — honestly, I'm not sure if that's a conversation I should have or if I should tell my mother and hope she can explain it to her. How have you explained this kind of thing to older kids and tweens? — Allyssa

  1. Ahh, puberty. I remember distinctly my repulsion of the fact that my body was about to change into something that I was not at all comfortable with. There were so many things about a woman's body that I suddenly found gross: cleavage, moles, large pores, underarm hair, the odor, etc. I did not want to beome one. And I don't think that's particularly abnormal.
    Your sister is just expressing her opinion, and I think it would be cool of you to respect it and offer yours without being too parent-y. Maybe something like "Yeah, I guess you don't see too many bare breasted women these days. Must be awkward for you. But they are a pretty remarkable part of our body."

    • I've often wondered if very young women become naturally very prudish as an instinctive way to protect themselves.
      It seems to me that so many girls /women going through puberty become hyper-modest, and I don't think that's necessarily bad or unnatural. (I know of myself and most of my female cousins and nieces becoming untouchable and wearing tshirts over our swimsuits and we all became "normal" by our mid teens.)

    • I agree with the approach of respecting her feelings but not reinforcing the negative perceptions.

      I'd probably go with something casual like "Yeah? Hm. I don't find breasts gross."

  2. Okay, when I was 19 I got my 16 brother to look after. I hear you. I now have three kids of my own and my daughter is about to turn 11. If you can get a copy of a book called "What's Happening to Me?" by Susan Meredith it will help (publisher Usborne). I got mine from the UK on ebay. For starters there are things you will forget to talk about and the book covers lots of stuff but it can also help to get conversations started. Secondly, google a bunch of art when the subject comes up again (either of you could bring it up) and explain the different purposes of representation. And this is not something she'll get in the space of one conversation. If you can keep being someone she can talk to without fear or shame over the next, well, the rest of her life, she'll be a lucky girl. Congratulations on being a patient and mature sister – proud of you 😉

    • My mom got me that book! at the time, I thought it was because she was uncomfortable talking about it (she's not a terribly open person) but now I think about how that was before the internet and she must have looked through all the different books to find one that was good for me. It was actually pretty helpful. She gave me space away from my siblings where she left the book and I could read it in her room if I wanted so they wouldn't bother me. I don't know what she did with my siblings, but that book was a good solution for me, reading was my favorite thing and it meant I could go back and re-read things I was unclear on without having to have many awkward conversations.

  3. would she appreciate a girly shopping trip to the mall and you could just happen to wander into some underwear areas of shops and bring up a conversation about bras and boobs and then offer to help her pick one out when she's ready?

  4. I think her reaction is pretty normal. going through puberty i think kids start to become very aware of what is socially appropriate and what is not. i think by saying that to you, she was asserting that she knew that most of the time it's not okay to walk around without a shirt on. She was trying to show you that she knows what's up and prove her "normality," which i think is another big thing in pubescence. I would probably giggle and be like, "yea, it is unusual to see women without shirts on. but that doesn't make it gross!" and not make too much of a conversation. it'll probably embarrass her more, if she was already ashamed to say the word "boobs" to you.

  5. My sister is 14 and she's been asking me a lot of similar questions. We do have good parents who would probably be OK giving good explanations and advice on these subjects, but I'm her big sister I am glad that she trusts me to ask very intimate and difficult questions. I'm not about to send her away, like her questions are in any way shameful or that she should not be asking them. I'm also a nurse and I have pretty strong feelings about sexual education, as in, I don't think there is NEARLY enough of it in the US.
    She has not asked me exactly this, but she has told me that she thinks that the idea of sex is kind of gross and that kissing using tongues is also kind of gross. So I told her that it is totally alright for her to think these things, it's normal. I also explained to her that when she finds the person that she really wants to do those things with, they become something beautiful and fun and should definitely to be enjoyed.
    Another thing I emphasize in all this is safety. I think that you don't have to worry about this part of the conversation yet, but it's a good thing to keep in mind for future conversations.
    So it's not exactly where you and your sister are, but she will get to this point as well. I think that by answering all of her questions and responding to her comments in a completely non-judgmental way, you will be able to help her to become more comfortable with her own body and also more comfortable about coming to you with the questions about sex and intimacy that she WILL have in a few years.
    I completely agree with Liora, her thoughts and feelings on breasts being exposed are NORMAL and it's important to let her know that. It's also important that she be given the chance to learn what we all know, that breasts are wonderfully beautiful and important parts of our bodies!
    These can be pretty uncomfortable conversations, even when you think you are prepared, so good luck!

    • I'd like to add that it's also perfectly normal (although not as common) for people to NOT experience sexual attraction. This is usually called asexuality, and like many things, it's got a whole spectrum of manifestations. While it's important to acknowledge and normalize that a person on the brink of puberty may be grossed out by sex-related stuff (whether boobs, tongue-jousting, or going all the way), and while they may (and likely will) change their mind when someone special comes along, it's not inevitable. It's also perfectly okay to grow into someone who doesn't experience sexual attraction. Framing it as "you may change your mind" rather than "you will definitely change your mind" leaves a little bit more wiggle room! (For more on asexuality, asexuality.org is a barrel of information.)

  6. My mom got me a copy of "What's happening to my body, book for girls." My brother got the book for boys version, but I think they revised it (read: dumbed it way down) somewhere in there. I lent him my copy so he could read about the girl parts of puberty(pun definitely intended).

    Between my brother and my younger (female) cousin, I've found that trying to get them to ask the questions is the hard part, but once they do the conversation takes off. Just answer as accurately as you can and let the answers give you questions for them that'll lead deeper into the subjects.

    • I also had "The What's happening to my body, book for girls". It was the best of the sex education books that I had. I have also heard that they've taken a lot out of the newer additions and it makes me sad:(

  7. The book "It's Perfectly Normal" is the very best book ever.
    No, really, I mean that. It is SO GOOD. It addresses all the really hard-to-talk-about aspects of puberty and sex, including masturbation, birthday control, etc. as well as all of the basics.

    And definitely talk to your sister– listen to her too, if she'll talk, but if she won't… Just talk. Chat. Recall silly memories. Eventually she'll become more comfortable with her body, and with talking about her body.

  8. I remember saying that "body-stuff" and "puberty-stuff" was gross as well.

    But as I've learned, when a tween says "that is gross" they often mean "I am intrigued, but also embarrased, so I will point out that it is gross, so they don't think I like it".

    You seldom hear small children saying that a naked woman is "gross", maybe because they don't care, or they feel they can ask questions without "people thinking they like naked woman/men".

    Your sister will say a lot of things are gross, and maybe for her, they are. But as she matures she will see that the changes to her body is normal. Just support her and say "I understand why you think that penises/ menstruation/ boobs/ pubic hair is gross, but it is perfectly normal, and I bet a lot of your classmates go through the same. Maybe you will get used to it after a while?"

  9. For my own daughter, I want to model love and confidence and comfort with my body. I think that if she says, "Boobs are gross," I will shrug and say, "Really? I like mine."

  10. I think that modeling body confidence will make a huge difference. Like Amy said, just shrug and say, "I like mine" is a good way. Sometimes kids want to talk and sometimes they don't. You can ask her why she thinks that and if she clams up, then tell her that you don't have to talk about it until she wants to, but asking why may also open the door to talking. I've found that TV and Movies are the easiest way to bring up difficult issues.

  11. My sister is very important to me but we don't live together. She (my middle sister, the little one is too young) trusts me with some questions and information that she may not feel comfortable with telling other people. Aside from that, the sister is a very special role on it's own.

    I know that my sister's mother is very different from me and that she has different values. I am always very careful to acknowledge that other people may not feel the same way I do and then let her know how I feel. Then she can be comfortable thinking about what I've said without thinking it's the ONLY option, the only way to think or believe.

    If I were you, I would take some time to talk to her earnestly. It's important to me that my sister knows how I feel about things, too, because it might be one of the few times she gets another viewpoint than that of her mother or our father.

  12. Lets not forget good ole' Judy Blum for this, Dear God, are you there, its Me Margaret was my favorite book at this age, my mom gave it to me, after we did talk, but it helped so much more to read a story, and identify with it. I didnt have many girl friends growing up, so thank god for Judy. <3 Good luck!

  13. I agree with the commenter above who alluded to the fact that often times 'gross' is just teenspeak for 'embarrassed'. Also, this reaction is often a learned behavior from their peers.

    I chuckled when I read this because my first reaction is to ALWAYS want to "launch into a tirade about how breasts aren't gross". 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 teens (moms or dads) 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?
    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 desexualize them a bit and make them like any other body part on our incredibly awesome bodies (arm, leg, breast).
    2) Respect their comfort levels. It was good of you to resist that tirade. Not only is it normal for teens and pre-teens to have those types of feelings about their changing bodies, but 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 breasts (and other "private" parts). This may not apply to your sister, 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. Pushing that positivity towards breasts on them might be damaging.
    3) If she's interested or a good opportunity presents itself, teach her a little about breasts. 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 one of the many books suggested in the comments above. Knowledge is power, especially if you have a reader on your hands.

    I just realized how long winded this became, but 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 sister knows she can share her feelings about breasts, puberty, and anything else with you.

  14. From what I remember about that age, having non-parent adults to talk to was SO important. If she's willing to talk with you about body stuff, I say go for it to the best of your ability.

  15. I wonder if your sister is having trouble with the adjustment from being considered a child and non-sexual being to being considered a potentially sexually-active young woman. I remember as a child and tween being uncomfortable with things I considered sexual – steamy television scenes, seeing my parents kiss, the nude statue in my grandparents' house – because I knew that sex was only for older people. I knew it was okay for me to want to understand how reproduction worked and to ask about it, but I also understood that expressing any interest in carrying out a sexual act would completely freak out the adults. So I refused to wear a bra and called anything sex-related "Gross!" because I thought that was what my parents wanted to hear. It was a strange adjustment for me, entering puberty and suddenly being allowed (if not encouraged) to think about and want sexual things. So maybe your sister is just telling you what she thinks adults want to hear?

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