In third grade, my mom handed me a frail copy of Are You There god? It’s Me, Margaret (AYTGIMM), by Judy Blume. The pages were discolored, the binding hanging on by a thread (literally). The state of the book mirrored my feelings after having “the puberty talk” at school, split by males and females, cramped in a classroom with the other third graders and a few teachers. After filing in, we watched a somewhat outdated video that described the pubertal changes that might occur in the coming years. I left the room nervous about the prospect of these impending changes – Would I still be a kid after I got my period? Would it hurt to have my body develop? Would other people know I was going through puberty? The following week, my friend got her period at recess. In minutes, my nervousness about puberty coming for me was replaced by an instant wave of jealousy that puberty had already come for my friend. I felt like she had won something that I was not sure I even wanted in the first place.
At its core, AYTGIMM is a book about what remains constant versus what changes with our identity during adolescence, explicitly highlighting the impact of puberty. In Blume’s narrative, 12-year-old Margaret has just moved homes and is now starting at a new school. On top of that, she is in the thick of “puberty talk.” Her friendships are primarily formed on the shared eagerness to develop, with most conversations about crushes and cup sizes. Additionally, Blume has Margaret grapple with an identity crisis rooted in religion, with the fear being that she will be “nothing” if she does not belong to a church community. Throughout this all, Margaret calls on god to ease her through the unknowns. However, the relationship Margaret forms with god portrays more of a friendship between her and herself. She uses her conversations with god to talk through her pressures, such as “Please help me grow, god. You know where.” (Blume 42).
Research surrounding adolescence has worked hard to understand how we can best support our youth during this complex developmental period. Pubertal timing, or the onset of puberty for an individual relative to their peers, is an especially salient aspect of adolescent development. Earlier pubertal timing increases an individual’s risk for decreased psychosocial well-being, such as increased reporting of depressive symptoms in adolescence and young adulthood (Hoyt et al., 2020). The mechanisms behind this relationship are currently unknown. One suggestion is that the psychosocial component of puberty, or how someone feels emotionally about puberty, is a potential factor contributing to the relationship between pubertal timing and well-being. For example, in Blume’s novel, Laura Danker is referenced throughout by Margaret and her friends as someone who is a social outcast due to her early physical development. The effects of this on Laura’s emotional development become more apparent during a confrontation between her and Margaret. Laura tells Margaret to “…think about how you would feel if you had to wear a bra in fourth grade and how everybody laughed” (Blume 135).
Notably, the relationship between pubertal timing and adverse developmental outcomes is more robust for youth already at risk for worse well-being. For example, those who have experienced higher numbers of childhood stressors come from a lower socioeconomic background or hold a marginalized identity (Seaton & Carter, 2018; Acker et al., 2023). While Margaret and her friend’s experiences are relatable to some, many more stories have yet to be told to highlight the varying experiences and perceptions of puberty.
While Are You there god, it’s Me Margaret does not teach young folks how to use tampons or what hormones coordinate reproduction, it is one of the most honest portrayals of the human experience surrounding puberty that exists in media. In re-reading the book and watching the new film through the lens of a developmental researcher, I was struck by its power to illustrate the variability of youth’s experiences with puberty and its frank demystification of the pubertal process. Perhaps most compellingly, Blume invites the audience into Margaret’s internal and external discourse, thus illustrating how psychosocial aspects of puberty are driven both by our direct experience and how others treat us.
Similar to my educational experience, Margaret describes the movie they watched in her school as being unhelpful, stating that “…it did not really show a girl getting it [their period]. It just said how wonderful nature was and how we would soon become women and all that.” (Blume 111). While Blume published AYTGIMM in 1970, the faults of the puberty curriculum and conversations still need attention. We must educate parents, teachers, and individuals going through puberty using a more inclusive framework to provide those at risk with additional support, emphasize the different trajectories one may take, and include information about the psychosocial nature of going through puberty.
Acker, J., Mujahid, M., Aghaee, S., Gomez, S., Shariff-Marco, S., Chu, B., Deardorff, J., & Kubo, A. (2023). Neighborhood Racial and Economic Privilege and Timing of Pubertal Onset in Girls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 72(3), 419-427. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2022.10.013
Blume, J. (1970). Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. New York, NY: Atheneum Books.
Hoyt, L. T., Niu, L., Pachucki, M. C., & Chaku, N. (2020). Timing of puberty in boys and girls: Implications for population health. SSM – population health, 10, 100549. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2020.100549
Seaton, E. K., & Carter, R. (2018). Pubertal timing, racial identity, neighborhood, and school context among Black adolescent females. Cultural diversity & ethnic minority psychology, 24(1), 40–50. https://doi.org/10.1037/cdp0000162