Becoming a Woman

Patient Education Materials

Women’s Health

Becoming a Woman

Growing up means going through many changes. Some changes happen inside your body where you can’t see them. You can see others happening outside your body. Some changes can affect how you feel.

These changes may make you feel confused about whether you are still a girl, or whether you are a young woman. This information sheet can help you to understand the changes that happen to all girls during puberty (PYUber-tee). Puberty is the word used for the time when your body is changing from the body of a child to the body of an adult.

These changes can be scary, but also exciting. Either way, you should understand what is happening to your body so that you’ll know what to expect.

What happens during puberty?

During puberty, your body’s hormones become more active. These hormones signal your body to start growing and changing into your adult body. The hormones can cause emotional changes as well. Sometimes you may feel very happy or very sad. 

During puberty, you will grow taller and gain weight. Your breasts will grow, and your hips will become rounder and wider. You may develop at a different rate from your friends. At the end of your growth spurt, you’ll be your adult height.

You may notice a change in your hair and complexion because your body is producing more oil. Many girls begin to perspire more and need to use an underarm deodorant. You will also begin to see hair under your arms and between your legs, which is called the pubic (PYU-bik) area.

What is a period?

Another important change is getting your period. Beginning your period is a very natural event that happens to all girls. Periods are a part of the menstrual (MEN-stral) cycle that happens about once a month to prepare a woman’s body to have a baby. Periods are also called menstruation (MEN-stroo-AY-shun). 

Menstruation is a flow of blood and tissue from an organ in your body called the uterus (YOU-ter-us).

Your period usually starts when you are between 9 and 16 years old. Most girls get their first period when they are 11, 12, or 13 years old. Your period should come once a month. During the first year or two, it is perfectly normal to skip a month or to “spot” between periods.

Understanding your body

To understand what happens inside you during your period, you need to know about your body.

  • becoming-a-woman-understanding-your-bodyOvaries — Ovaries are reproductive organs located in your lo wer abdomen. You have two ovaries, each about the size and shape of an almond. Inside your ovaries are tiny eggs. Each month, one of the mature eggs is released from one of your ovaries. It occurs about 14 days before your period begins.
  • Pituitary gland — The pituitary (pih-TOO-ih-teh-ree) is a part of your brain. It tells your ovaries to get an egg ready to grow and mature each month. It is the same part of your brain that produces hormones.
  • Fallopian tubes — You have two fallopian (fah-LOW-pee-un) tubes. They are thin passageways that connect your ovaries to your uterus and carry the egg released from the ovary to the uterus.
  • Uterus — Your uterus is a muscular organ in your lower abdomen that looks like an upside-down pear. It is sometimes called the womb (WOOM). The uterus is where a baby grows during pregnancy. The uterus also is where the tissue and blood come from during your period.
  • Vagina — The vagina is a small passageway leading out of the uterus. Your menstrual flow leaves your body through the vagina. It is sometimes called the birth canal.

What happens during your period?

About once a month, an egg in your ovary matures and is released. This is called ovulation (ov-you-LAY-shun). Once the egg is released, it travels into one of your fallopian tubes and moves toward your uterus. 

At the same time, your uterus has built a tissue lining — like a nest for the egg. Sometimes the tiny egg can become a baby. This happens when sperm from a man fertilizes the egg. (Sperm is released from a man’s penis during sexual intercourse.) A fertilized egg may attach itself to this lining. The lining would feed the egg, protect it, and help it grow into a baby.

If you are not pregnant, the egg and the lining of tissue and blood aren’t needed. Then they flow out of your body through your vagina. This is called the menstrual flow, or your period.

What is the menstrual cycle like?

Your period will come about every 28 to 32 days. It will usually last from 3 to 5 days. Don’t be worried if your period is longer or shorter than that. Every girl is different.

When you have your period, it may seem like a lot of blood is flowing from your body. It really is only a small amount (4 to 6 tablespoons). The heaviest flow is usually the first day or two. Its color will change from red to brown to tan.

Between periods you may experience a sticky, wet feeling in your panties. This is called vaginal discharge. It is a normal part of the menstrual cycle. Wearing a panty liner may help you feel more comfortable.

Your first period

Sometimes girls are scared when they first see blood on their panties from their period. It may be red, or it may look like a dark brown or blackish stain. You may think you are sick or that there is something wrong with you. Some girls feel embarrassed when they get their period.

Remember, every girl has a period. It is very natural and normal. In time, your period will become just another part of your life as a young woman. You should have a period every month until you are between 45 and 55 years old (except if you are pregnant).

How your period makes you feel

Right before or during your period, you may notice that:

  • You feel tired.
  • You crave certain foods.
  • You have cramps in your lower belly, or feel “full.”
  • Your feelings are easily hurt.
  • You are grouchy or moody.
  • You may not have any noticeable changes at all.

Most girls have some cramps with their periods. This can be perfectly normal. Cramps are caused by the muscle of the uterus contracting. Taking a walk, doing light exercises, using a heating pad, or taking a warm shower can help you feel more comfortable.

You also can take over-the-counter pain relievers to relieve cramps. Pain relievers you can take include:

  • Ibuprofen (Motrin and Advil are brand names for ibuprofen.)
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol is a brand name for acetaminophen.)

Check with your parents or your school nurse before taking a pain reliever.

You can do all of your normal activities during your period. This includes school, gym class, swimming, and work. If your cramps interfere with your activities, talk to your doctor.

Taking care of your body during your period

You will need to use pads or tampons to absorb the menstrual flow. The choice is up to you. 

Most pads have a sticky side that makes them stick to the inside of your underwear. Pads work outside your body to absorb the menstrual flow. Tampons fit inside your vagina.

Some girls think they can’t use tampons until after they have had sex. This is not true. Using tampons does not change a girl’s vagina — whether she had sex or not. However, you may not feel comfortable using tampons until you are older.

Remember, each girl is different. There are many products you can use that will make you feel comfortable. If you need help using a pad or a tampon, ask your mother, older sister, or another woman you trust to help you.

When using either pads or tampons, change them at least every 4 hours during the day. Do not sleep at night with a tampon in place; use a pad. You may increase your risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) if you keep a tampon in too long.

Good personal hygiene is important. You may need to be especially careful during your period. Wash your hands well each time you go to the bathroom and each time you apply or change a pad or tampon. Daily baths or showers will keep you feeling fresh and eliminate any unpleasant odors.

Discuss your feelings

It may help if you read this information with your mother or another adult woman you trust and who cares about you. Even if you first learned in school about having your period, she can be a big help by listening to your feelings and answering your questions. Remember — every woman once was your age and had to learn about her period, too.

As you learn what happens as you grow up, you will see that having a period is a normal part of every girl’s life. It is a normal part of growing up and becoming a woman.