I was 10 when I first noticed ‘breast buds’ forming and, armed with a total lack of knowledge, promptly assumed that I had breast cancer. I confided in a friend who was more wordly wise (she follows this page so I wonder if she’ll remember this) and she calmly informed me not to panic. Totally normal. Aaaand, breathe. I’d had the ‘growing up’ chat with my stepmum a year or so prior to this and she was so thorough – periods, sex, babies – but I don’t remember breasts ever coming into the conversation. My Usbourne ‘Facts of Life’ books (‘Growing Up’ and ‘Babies’: who remembers these gems?) mentioned the biology of breasts and (I think) breastfeeding, plus the subject of ‘needing’ a bra at some point soon, but a page at most was all that was dedicated to them.
Fast forward 25 years (sob!) and my goodness me, what a gap in the market this book is about to fill. Finally, gone are the days of those cursory nods to breasts in books about puberty. The Breast Book is ‘A puberty guide with a difference – it’s the when, why and how of breasts’ and It. Is. Brilliant. A must read for girls approaching puberty, their parents, and a fantastic resource for schools. Initially, I wondered how Emma Pickett had managed to fill 174 pages but my doubts were, of course, unfounded – every section is fascinating and necessary in giving girls the full picture when it come to understanding their breasts.
She begins at the very beginning, when we are growing in our mother’s womb, and the effect of this on the breasts of our mothers, and in relation to mammals generally. She also makes an early reference to breastfeeding here, before returning to it in more detail in a later chapter. Chapter Two is titled ‘Here Come the Buds’, which immediately transported me back to my panicked ten year old self. I learnt a huge amount from this chapter, most interestingly about the ‘mammary ridge’ which forms just two weeks after conception. There is a ‘troubleshooting’ section here that most girls will find incredibly reassuring – ‘I have a hair on my nipple’, ‘My nipples don’t stick out’, and plenty of reassurance about boobs looking lopsided.
Chapter Three covers a lot of ground on that most stressful of topics for adolescent girls: bras. The history of bras, their purpose, getting fitted and, perhaps most importantly, the feminist viewpoint and the fact it *should* be our choice as to whether or not we wear a bra whereas we, as a society, are bound by social expectation, sexism and unrealistic messages stemming from media and advertising. Here, and in subsequent chapters, there are lots of anecdotes from girls and women of all ages, walks of life, and bra sizes (Chapter Seven is all anecdotal and there is something there for everyone!). Chapters Four (Being a Grown Up) deals with matters outlined in my ‘Facts of Life’ books but in SO much more detail. Puberty is covered in detail and there is an account by Jack, 35, who has transitioned from female to male. The details of his journey, including breast binding before eventual removal of his breasts, are so important – I suspect I’m not alone in being woefully ignorant about this subject and I feel far better equipped to discuss it with my children and, if I ever go back to teaching, my students.
Chapter Five (Being a Mother) is important in sowing the early seeds of breastfeeding education – something that isn’t taught in schools and about which most pregnant women know very little. Crucially, Emma’s voice here is neither preachy nor judgemental, but empathetic and informative. In fact, as a standalone piece of writing, it would make a handy ‘one stop’ pocket guide for mums who’d like to breastfeed. Chapter Six (Who Makes the Rules?) is one that would never have appeared in the puberty books of old and is a great eye opener. It begins by outlining the contradictions our society faces when it comes to breasts: they are sexy, but we should keep them covered up. But men can show their nipples, no questions asked. And it’s OK for them to feature in adverts, to sell things. Why? Why can we show them on the beach but not elsewhere? Why is it seen as strange for a toddler to breastfeed but not weird at all that the alternative is milk from another mammal? All these confusing messages that we’re bombarded with from a young age are picked apart here.
Before becoming an IBCLC, Emma was a primary school teacher and deputy head. This book is the ‘perfect storm’ of her professions – the knowledge of a lactation consultant coupled with the tone of someone who actually knows how to speak to tweens, teens AND parents makes it perfectly pitched. There is a thoughtfully written note to parents and caregivers at the beginning – a ‘disclaimer’ of sorts. She knows that many mothers and teachers who will be buying this for their daughters or students may not have breastfed their babies and she knows that the world, for teenagers currently, is more bound up than ever in appearance, expectation and commercialism – social media has brought with it a whole aspect to puberty that we didn’t have to consider 25 years ago. She is tactful and sensitive in her approach, whilst remaining humorous and conversational throughout. This book removes the fear and allays the anxiety surrounding puberty. It normalises. It is the knowledgeable big sister, the approachable teacher, the patient, understanding parents and the supportive friend that every girl needs when getting to grips with her changing body and mind.
If you are a parent, caregiver, teacher or librarian responsible for girls aged (roughly) 9-14, I highly recommend getting a copy of this book into their hands. Parents of boys would also do a whole world of good by showing them certain sections and discussing the topics raised. And give it a read yourself – you’ll probably learn a fair amount, as I did! It releases on 14th March and is currently available to pre-order here with free delivery and with £1 off.
Thank you to Pinter & Martin for sending me a review copy.
Jo, The Mother Side x
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