Mommy, my body is changing

Ob/gyn and sexologist Dr Mpume Zenda wants to make conversations about puberty less awkward for adults and children and has written the only book you will need to deal with everything a teenager needs to know.

Ob/gyn and sexologist Dr Mpume Zenda wants to make conversations about puberty less awkward for adults and children and has written the only book you will need to deal with everything a teenager needs to know.

Published Dec 9, 2023


Durban — Talking about sex and puberty to your children is never easy, even in the digital age.

In some cultures, having your period is celebrated, in others you are regarded as unclean. Ob/gyn and sexologist Dr Mpume Zenda wants to change the experience for adults and children with her book Mommy, My Body’s Changing: A Girl in Bloom’s Trusty Handbook for Growing Up.

“I would love to see the relationship between parents and teenagers just a little bit easier and not this dreaded phase in our children’s lives,” she said.

Zenda said the “intrinsic purpose” of the book was to give information and make difficult conversations less awkward, fix intergenerational problems and dispel the myths and misinformation about puberty. When Zenda entered puberty her mom, a midwife, struggled to explain what was happening to her body even though she dealt with female issues every day.

“I am mom to a 13-year-old now, and even like two or three years back when the idea came through, I was looking at her body changing and all the things that were changing in her and in her life emotionally. And I knew that I couldn’t let her go through this phase of her life the same way I did,” said Zenda.

In her practice she sees how parents love their children but “don't have the language” or know what to hold back when it’s time to talk about the changes in their body. While writing the book, Zenda constantly asked her daughter’s opinion and when the bulk of the content was written Zenda’s daughter and her niece were given copies and asked to comment on it; their thoughts were included at the back of the book.

“A lot of girls, particularly in our generation, when we started our period (we), were just handed a pack of sanitary pads and told if you play with boys you will fall pregnant.”

Zenda said other girls were given a biology book to read which just gave details about the anatomy and again they were told to stay away from boys which caused more harm than good.

“We are projecting quite a lot of fear about growing up as opposed to instilling a sense of self-worth, self-esteem and confidence in our kids.

“What’s positive is that people are more open to talking about the changes happening in a teenager’s body, but equally detrimental is that the heightened exposure means that the chances of inaccuracy also increase,” she said.

In a world of TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, teenagers had even more to contend with as they were bombarded with what was considered the perfect life or look.

Ob/gyn and sexologist Dr Mpume Zenda has written a book to help girls and the adults in their lives navigate conversations about puberty.

“Social media doesn’t help because there’s so much pressure about who to be and what to be and what is ideal and what is not. And one of the things that we really instil in the book as well is understanding yourself, learning to love yourself and being the best version of yourself. We talk about how to deal with things like peer pressure and self-esteem.

“I never even thought about self and self-worth at 13 and yet I can see how important it is now for me to instil that in my child. It makes a world of a difference in how she sees herself, how she sees her world and how she responds to the world environment around her,” said Zenda.

The easy-to-read A5 book has 231 pages filled with information, illustrations, exercises at the end of each chapter and space to make notes. It deals with a range of issues from body changes to mood swings, substance abuse and even the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

It has notes for children and information for parents on how to talk about certain issues and a list of frequently asked questions like why some enter puberty earlier than others, what to do when you suddenly get your period at school and you stain your clothes, and how to deal with period pain. A lot of attention is placed on self-care and every imaginable issue that a girl will encounter; from how many times to bathe, caring for your hair, different body shapes and mental health issues. Zenda said while it was difficult for women to talk to girls about their changing bodies, in some homes there were no women, only a father or even two dads.

Since the book was published she had often been told: “I didn’t know how I was going to say this, thank you for putting it into words,” said Zenda.

In addition she wants to add value to the relationship between parents and girls because “nobody has given us a blueprint in terms of how to parent, especially at the stage of teenage years”.

“The ideal way of reading the book and the way it is written is that in every chapter there is a part that addresses the child. And then there is the part of how a parent then supports the child in whatever the topic is that you've been talking about,” said Zenda.

She is also advocating for free menstrual hygiene packs to be handed out at schools and for sanitary products to be tax-free. This is a crucial issue in South Africa where many girls lose out on school every month because they don’t have access to feminine hygiene. The United Nations says it’s a worldwide phenomenon exacerbated by the lack of proper, segregated toilets.

Also a global issue is the shame and stigma around menstruation. Canadian poet and menstrual activist Rupi Kaur was censored by Instagram, twice, for raising awareness about the issue through a photo series which she did as part of a university project and to highlight the debilitating period pain caused by endometriosis.

While the matter went viral and attracted thousands of likes, many others, including women said menstruation should not be spoken about in public.

“The recreational use of this body is seen as beautiful while its nature is seen as ugly,” Kaur writes in her poem about periods.

Zenda said the book would be translated into many languages, including Braille and French, and she had already done some work about the subject in Paris. She would love puberty to be a time when girls entering womanhood are celebrated and period parties are the norm. She said women had celebrations before they became brides, when they turned “sweet 16” or when they were 21, but the missing step was when their bodies changed and they were confronted with puberty.

Zenda threw a period party for her daughter attended by close female friends and family where she received her first bras and first set of diamond earrings.

“So you buy gifts that are meaningful, but also things that become sentimental, memories that she'll always remember fondly as opposed to how most of us remember starting our period, as this dreaded time of confusion,” said Zenda.

Mommy, My Body’s Changing: A Girl in Bloom’s Trusty Handbook for Growing Up is published by Quickfox Publishing. It retails for R320 and is available online and from bookshops.

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