A few weeks ago, I was at a seminar for adults who are interested in being an ally for young people when it comes to sex ed, sexuality, gender, and general health. To start, the instructor asked the room, most of whom were women, when they first heard about puberty.
There was that awkward “who’s going to talk first?” silence, and then one woman finally spoke up. “Well, my mom gave me this American Girl book — ”
Immediately the silence was broken, as almost everyone else in the room suddenly shouted “Mine too!” “I was going to say that!” “With the girls in towels on the front, right?”
It took another minute before we could explain to our bewildered instructor exactly which book we were talking about.
It wasn’t just this group, either. When I was in fourth grade, we all got assigned pen pals from a different school for a month, and then we got to meet them in person. This book came up yet again, because we’d all recently been given our copies, and we bonded over the good and bad parts of it while the boys and teachers looked on with varying looks of shock and horror.
For those who don’t know, yes, that is the same American Girl that makes dolls that cost more than your rent, but part of their brand is also female empowerment. The girls in the books based on the dolls are always the heroes of their own not-centered-around-boys-or-men stories, and they’ve put out many self-help books for girls over the years on a variety of topics.
So why did so many of us have this book? Because it essentially was (and I imagine it was advertised to our parents as) a guide to puberty that didn’t involve either party having to make eye contact with each other. No, it doesn’t talk about sex, but it does talk about breast development, periods, and pubic hair, among other things. And yes, there were pictures.
After that seminar, I got curious about whether that book is still around. The answer is yes, but not as it was. It has now been split up into two books:
This just made me even more curious, and luckily, my library carried both these two new books and the OG version. So let’s compare, shall we?
The Care and Keeping of Laziness
Well, first of all, did you notice the cover of the original and the updated Part 1?
It’s the same cover, just with an art style change. I bring that up because, hey, so is LITERALLY THE REST OF THE BOOK.
First, the gripes.
I mentioned one already, but this new art style is just so much lazier. Just look at the picture above. On the left, the girls have kneecaps and shadows, the wall and barre have detail, and their leotards and tights have little creases. The one on the right is just a flat cartoon. This wouldn’t be such a problem if the whole point of this section wasn’t trying to make the point that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. That sentiment works way better when your ballerinas don’t all have legs with no knees and the one in pink doesn’t even look very different from either of the two others.
It’s also a little troubling that the advice apparently hasn’t changed much since 1998, when the original came out. Both books read basically the same, word for word, despite being made almost 15 years apart. Sure, body development doesn’t change much, but public perceptions do. The new book mentions the internet, but only in places where it’d be laughably outdated if they didn’t.
But even then, that’s not a hard and fast rule.
And finally, we need to talk about the art style again, and unfortunately I can’t show it to you because it involves drawings of literal children topless and bottomless, respectively, and I’d like to keep my Medium page, thanks. But the two sections I’m talking about are the sections on breast development, and the one on tampons.
The breast development section shows five pictures of one girl in various times in her life doing varous bathroom things in the mirror (brushing her teeth, doing her hair, etc.) while naked from the waist up, in order to show the five stages of breast development. So far, so good.
But remember how I mentioned that the newer art style lacks detail? That applies here, too. The newer book’s stages are basically: flat chest with dot nipples, flat chest with pink nipples, half-breasts, half-breasts again, then full chest out of nowhere. There are descriptions underneath each stage that go into detail, but the pictures are as non-helpful as can be. In contrast, the pictures in the ’98 version weren’t the most anatomically detailed, but each picture looked distinct, to the point where I remember directly comparing my progress with the pictures. It was always clear where I was. If I’d had this book, I would think my boobs would just suddenly pop into full form from my flat chest one day.
But the biggest issue for me is the tampon section. This was the section we were talking about in 4th grade that got us looks from teachers and the boys. It’s a step-by-step explanation of how to put a tampon in, with pictures of a girl putting a tampon into her anatomically-correct vagina. In detail. I was actually able to find the picture pretty easily on Google just by searching the name of the book, and that was with the safe search on. Go figure.
Now, yeah, we all went “Ewww!” in 4th grade, but I also know I and many other people I know had that page open in the bathroom when we were trying to put one in for the first time. The detail in that picture was crucial, otherwise God knows I probably would have tried to put the damn thing in my urethra.
In the new version? That section’s cut out. It’s in Part 2, thankfully, but still. They show how to put on a pad instead, and the girl is built like a Barbie doll.
Why would you put tampons in a separate section? It’s not like eight-to-ten year olds don’t do sports or would just feel more comfortable with a tampon. And they would probably need help with that even more than the older girls! Why is that considered too “adult” when they are already perfectly aware that a) they have a vagina, and b) what it looks like?! I will never, ever understand that decision.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, there is a reason this book is considered a classic, and why I still remember it to this day despite not remembering most of what I read when I was ten.
Even though a lot of it talks about puberty, that’s not the main focus of the book. It’s more about taking care of your body in general. Most people at this age have had their parents take care of their food, hygiene, and exercise their whole life, so most of the book is actually more basic than puberty. There are how-to’s for brushing your teeth, washing your face, eating healthy, and treating a sprain, among many others.
As I mentioned before, it also doesn’t focus on sex, relationships, or even boys. The only time boys are even mentioned is in a couple of the Advice segments (which are also the exact same stories in both books, by the by), where a girl’s asking advice about how to stop the stupid boys from teasing her all the time. With so much of puberty education focusing on how it changes your relationship to the opposite sex (which is heteronormative anyway), it’s nice to see a book where that’s not even mentioned.
Finally, there’s definitely something to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. For all that the book could have done to update, most of the book does still hold up. The questions in the Advice sections are probably problems girls still have today, like wondering if there are foods that can make breasts grow faster or how to combat pimples caused by bangs. And most of it is just basic hygeine and wellness tips which will never go out of style, like getting plenty of sleep and putting on sunscreen.
Alright, let’s get into the actual new book.
So the tampon thing is here, and I spotted one thing taken from another American Girl book only because I recognized the picture, but other than that, this is brand-new material.
I really liked the more in-depth stuff in this one. An actual diagram of a vulva! Lists of hormones and what they do! How to perform a breast exam on yourself! This one’s all about the details, which is great.
It also addresses some of the myths in the previous books, like the myth that eating greasy foods gives you acne or that weighing yourself at home is healthy. There were even some updates that really surprised me, like mentioning that sports drinks are actually pretty sugary and listing prescription drugs alongside alcohol and non-prescription drugs as substances that can be abused.
I have very mixed feelings about how parents are portrayed in this book. On the one hand, I have no problem with the book hammering in the fact that puberty isn’t something you have to navigate alone, and that your parents can be a great resource and support system. It’s easy for young people to feel like their parents will never understand them or that they’ll get in trouble for mentioning topics that used to be taboo, so that’s important for them to hear.
On the other hand, there are a few times where it crosses the line from help and guidance to taking away bodily autonomy.
For example, there was one advice bit where a girl wrote in saying she wanted to shave, but her mom told her she “wasn’t responsible enough yet” (???), and what she could do to prove it besides all the extra chores she was already doing. The books does suggest a compromise, but the tone is very “mother knows best”. This seems harmless, especially since it doesn’t give the girl’s age, but little things like this can make young people feel like they don’t have control over their own body, since they can’t even remove body hair without parental consent.
There was also a segment on style, which…just…
Not only are we starting the slut-shaming and victim-blaming early, we then IMMEDIATELY cut to the “unwanted attention” section, which brings the victim-blaming to a new level. Also, minimizing gross attention from siblings is a whole new level of ugh, and the kind of attention you’re talking about isn’t just “uncomfortable”, it can be dangerous. I’m not saying show little girls the murder rates, here, but downplaying it as just something annoying can minimize the real fear that catcalling and leering can cause in young girls.
The assumption that all parents are helpful allies made me uncomfortable, too, especially after the seminars I mentioned at the top. Parents being mentioned a lot is good, but the book constantly reiterates that they know best and they only want what’s best for you and you should always listen to them. This is obviously not helpful advice for children in abusive situations, something that’s only given a passing mention in a section about when it’s okay to tell an adult your friend’s “secret”, and even then, it doesn’t talk about the signs of abuse, which might help a young person put the pieces together about their own situation.
And one section about periods that encouraged young girls to talk to their moms about it since “she’s been through this before” reminded me of a gripe I figured wouldn’t be fixed but still disappointed me: there is zero mention of transgender issues in this book. I don’t mind not mentioning gay, bi, ace, etc. stuff as much (although some mentions of same-gender parents would have been nice), but not mentioning anything trans in a book about puberty is a huge oversight. Many closeted trans boys might be given this book, and not understand why they don’t find these changes at all exciting. Many closeted trans girls might get their hands on this book, only to feel like an imposter for wanting those changes instead of the changes they’re “supposed” to want. And closeted nonbinary kids will just be even more confused than they already are. Not including even one sentence on the topic is so bizarre.
Overall, this book series gets a C+ from me. I liked the more in-depth explanations about certain topics, but the things that didn’t progress or got even worse made it a real disappointment. It was definitely an important book in the 90’s, when no one was talking about these things, but it hasn’t really aged as well as it could have. Not to mention the fact that this was split up into two books, when they could have just as easily added all this new stuff to the original book. Part 2 isn’t nearly as long or exhaustive as Part 1, they could have done it. Why make it separate? Did parents really complain about the crotch shot that much?
Like with most things, The Care and Keeping of You wasn’t as great as I remember it. It was incredibly important for me when I was growing up, but with the knowledge I have now, I can see the gaps and misjudgments.
Most of the books I’ve seen are certainly trying, but not great. They either have names that make puberty seem terrifying —
— or are split up into “boy” and “girl” without regard for the fact that other genders exist, gender and sex aren’t necessarily linked, intersex is a thing, or just the fact that everyone could benefit from learning about other types of bodies.
The point is, we need better resources for young people. I can only recommend one book with absolute confidence.
Sex Is A Funny Word doesn’t talk as in-depth about puberty as the Care and Keeping series, but it does touch on it and goes way more in depth about gender, sex, and sexuality. The way it introduces the concepts is straightforward without being overwhelming, gradual without beating around the bush.
The book even admits it isn’t some be-all, end-all guide to these things, and there are plenty of moments where the book asks YOU questions, and encourages the reader to think about these ideas on their own.
(My only real complaint with this book is that in the glossary, it calls asexual “a newer word”, when it’s been in use for at least 30 years, and the concept has been noted since 1948, with the famous Kinsey scale.)
No one person or one resource can answer every single question a child may have. But we can do better than heteronormative, cisnormative, slut-shaming, “You’re a Dumb Kid Who Should Listen To The Smart Adults” type of books. Let’s leave that in 2017, or better yet, in 1998.