The Body Basics Story
At a faculty meeting early in my teaching career, our principal announced a new puberty education program to meet state requirements. My colleagues snickered as she handed out the curriculum.
That same night I poured over the curriculum, anxious to take on this new challenge. But it soon became clear to me that the proposed curriculum did not fit my teaching style or my students’ needs. I wanted to make it better. I wanted to make it actually useful. I wanted to make it matter. How could I approach this same material in a way that would honor and engage my students?
The next morning I walked into my principal’s office before she had even hung up her coat.
“I thought I might be hearing from you this morning,” she said with a knowing smile.
“I can’t teach this. May I try creating something else?”
After a slight sigh, she listened to my concerns and agreed to let me try. She gave me two weeks to write my own curriculum. If she did not approve my version, I would be required to teach the original without complaint.
Every day I taught a full course load, and each night I stayed up until 2am researching and writing my new material. I was having a blast.
Computers had not yet made their debut, so I relied on books, articles, and already published curricula. I had a lot to learn. Other than what I had experienced personally, I knew very little about puberty.
As I researched, I gleaned a lot of factual information, but found very little guidance on how to approach actually teaching the material. No existing curriculum went beyond the boys-in-one-room-girls-in-the-other-show-THE-MOVIE-hand-out-deodorant-or-tampon experience. I was disappointed. How could this be?
Here was one of the most relevant, embarrassing, fascinating topics covered in fifth grade and we were still showing “the movie”?
I was feeling discouraged by all these dead ends when I stumbled upon a book called What is Happening to My Body? Book for Girls: A Growing Up Guide for Parents and Daughters in the “Parenting Teens” section of a local bookstore. As I read through it, I knew I had found the resource I needed to create my own compelling curriculum.
I read the book three times. Written for girls seeking real information, the authors shared the real-life experiences of girls going through puberty. The basic principle of their approach was revolutionary: Present facts and emotions with openness and honesty. What a concept!
The authors, Lynda Madaras, and her daughter, Area, presented straightforward and sometimes humorous, but always respectful, explanations of the variety of changes a girl may experience as she goes through puberty. They made the information accessible through simple illustrations and explanations, meanwhile giving girls permission to giggle as they learned. Perfect! In the eyes of a fifth grader, this is pretty silly, gross, crazy stuff! Why pretend that it isn’t?
This was the approach I wanted to take with my students — put it out there, let them giggle, squirm, fidget, and then giggle some more. And then, teach.
I was certain this was the right approach for my students. I knew they were ready to learn about puberty in this transparent and truthful manner, but what about my principal, my colleagues, and the school board? What about the parents? In my curriculum I used terms like penis, vagina, and breasts without apology. I planned to include basic illustrations of reproductive body parts — drawings of the genitals, breasts and unclothed bodies. I knew that my students needed this type of clear information presented in a straightforward way, but I was worried that what I’d created was too much for the system and that it wouldn’t be accepted.
Two days before the deadline, I presented my principal with the new curriculum. (As I stammered a few nervous words, she told me she would read it and give me an answer soon.) Now all I could do was wait.
It was a long four days until I was called to the principal’s office after school.
Convinced that my approach was going to be just too much, I made a mental note to sign out the movie projector for “the movie” and place the order for the students’ “personal hygiene packs”. “Oh well,” I thought, “it was worth a try.” At least I had learned a lot.
“You know this isn’t going to be easy, right?” my principal admitted as I sat down across from her desk. That was the last thing I thought I’d hear! She offered a few minor suggestions and reassured me she would back me up if needed. We talked about the steps I needed to take to get parental approval. I had permission to teach Body Basics to my students!
“Wait, we’re going to learn about puberty with the boys?” gasped the girls.
“Why do we have to learn about…you know…girl stuff?” shuddered the boys.
I just smiled.
The first day of Body Basics, it took the class quite a while to settle down. When they were finally ready, I passed out a book to each student. Everyone sat wide-eyed, staring at the closed book on their desks with the words “Body Basics” printed on the front cover, relieved that the instructions were to not open it.
I walked up to the blackboard and in big white letters I silently wrote the word BREASTS.
The class fell apart. The girls shrieked, the boys turned red with laughter and fell out of their chairs. I just stood there, smiling and observing them. Slowly but surely, the group regained some composure. Eventually, much to the relief of the girls, I erased the board and wrote PENIS in equally large letters. Now the boys were mortified. I waited patiently until there was only mild squirming and an occasional giggle. Then I collected their books and explained that this was the end of class for the day. It was time to get ready to go home.
They were floored. “That was it?” one girl exclaimed. “Wait, I wanna see the next word!”
“That is all for today,” I replied. They thought I had lost my mind. Teaching had never been this fun.
The next day, the kids took their seats quickly and silently, still eyeing the closed book suspiciously.
Up went the words VAGINA, TESTICLES, PUBIC HAIR, PERIOD, SPERM, one after another for the next three days. Each day, the class erupted. Each day, I collected the books and concluded class when the class became calm. By the time I got back around to BREASTS and PENIS a few days later, there were just a few mild snickers.
They were ready.
As I worked my way through the Body Basics lessons plans, boys and girls alike were captivated by the information. Word problems in math calculated the production of sperm. Their spelling and vocabulary tests consisted of reproductive system language. In writing, they documented their personal journeys from the ovary, through the uterine tube, to the uterus. They interviewed their parents about their own experiences with puberty. Most importantly, they asked everyone a lot of questions.
Maintaining the right to giggle, students adjusted to learning about both boy’s and girl’s bodies, with boys and girls present. As the unit drew to a close, some students were relieved, but most didn’t want it to end.
A few years later, I left teaching to focus on my growing family. I missed teaching but my priorities were at home.
One day I received a call from a dear friend saying she wanted her next daughter to experience Body Basics. Her first daughter had gone through the school program and she wanted her younger daughter to have the same opportunity.
“What if I get few moms with girls together and you could teach classes in our homes?” she suggested.
Since 1998, Body Basics and Beyond has grown into an independent program offering current puberty and adolescence education, guidance, and support for youth and their families. We offer classes, workshops, and retreats for girls grades five through eight, classes for boys in 6th/7th grades and in 8th/9th grades, and room for our gender non-conforming students wherever they feel comfortable. Body Basics is now a fixture for all preteens, teens, and their parents within my community.
It has been my life’s work to help youth in my community grow up with confidence and a deep understanding of their body and the changes it will go through. I love working with young people and seeing the difference I make in both their lives and the lives of their parents.
When youth understand how their bodies and minds work and why, they are empowered to become people who lead from this place of wholeness and confidence. I invite you to join me in raising the next generation of adolescence to know that they are resilient, connected and valued.
I look forward to sharing this information with you and your family. Let’s get started.
Want to read more about Karen’s story?
I grew up like a lot of girls in the 1960’s — a little sheltered, a little confused by the world in general, but mostly, I was a happy kid.
But then one winter afternoon when I was 10, as I sat in my mother’s lap, my head resting on her shoulder, her body became very still. I didn’t know it at the time, I just went and got my father, but she had passed away quietly from an incurable heart condition.
The days and months that followed were a blur of overheard whispers and misunderstanding. I knew nothing of her condition, and in an effort to protect me, no one told me what had happened or what would happen next. It was a very different time. My father was a hard worker and provider, but he didn’t really know how to grieve and care for me at the same time. And almost overnight, my boring, typical childhood turned into a revolving door of nannies and strangers. In all the ways that really mattered, I was alone. And as my body began to grow and change, and I needed guidance and nurturing, I felt the loss of my mother even more acutely.
I had lost the only person who could have helped me truly understand what was about to happen to my body just as I started experiencing the first pangs of puberty.
Thankfully though, for a time I did have Barbara, a very British, very professional nanny. Mary Poppins, with a lot less singing and smiles. But what Barbara lacked in maternal instinct, she more than made up for in practicality, which resulted in her giving me one of the greatest gifts of my young life. It was a simple thing. But to a confused little girl, it meant the world: She filled a small brown paper journal with everything I needed to know (as she understood it) about my body and about what to expect as I entered puberty. She gave it to me with a quiet word that if I had questions, I could ask.
I poured over that little book. Tracing the rough drawings over and over, trying to make sense of every word she wrote.
But nothing in the book could prepare me for the actual, physical experiences of becoming a woman. When I got my first period, my father and I went to the store to buy the necessities, but nothing could help the intensity of my periods. At fourteen, the parade of nannies had ended and I was on my own. I didn’t have anyone to turn to for comfort, understanding, or answers.
I was all alone during my transition into womanhood. But no girl should have to be.
Every day, the work I do through Body Basics heals me as much as it helps the girls I teach. Helping them to understand their bodies and their womanhood, helping them make this transition with poise, clarity, support, and deep understanding, is the greatest gift I can both give and receive during my time here on earth.
Today, I am a retired elementary school teacher and mother of three beautiful and talented young women (Mia, McKenna, and Keeley) who have each had a hand in the work I do. Raising them – learning to be their mother, their teacher, their guide – is a journey into exploring my own ideas and definitions of womanhood and motherhood. At every turn, I think about what I wish I’d had in a mother, and did my best to be that for them.
In my life, I have been fortunate enough to travel all over the world. From Pakistan to Africa, and finally to my home in Oregon, I have met women and girls from all walks of life. And I am always in awe of the universally beautiful strength women carry inside them.
It is my heartfelt belief that every girl, everywhere, deserves to have people in her life to show her that:
- She can be strong.
- Beauty can mean a thousand things.
- Her body’s changes don’t have to be scary and confusing.
- She has the power within her to meet the world with compassion, intelligence, and confidence.
- And that she has the right to feel good about herself and her body no matter what.
Since I started Body Basics in 1998, I’ve been fortunate to work with hundreds of girls while developing and honing our programs. Today, many of our students have grown up to become mothers themselves and it is a special honor to welcome the second generation of Body Basics students. Watching my work become a legacy for mothers and daughters to share has been truly fulfilling.
I created Body Basics to:
- Help parents bridge the communication gap that often starts to widen as our daughters grow up.
- Normalize the puberty experience, by providing a safe place for girls to share their feelings, excitement, and fears about this transitional period.
- Educate mothers and daughters (and dads too!) about girls’ bodies and how they are changing, what to expect, and how to face those changes with as much ease and understanding as possible.
When girls understand how their bodies work and why, they are empowered to become women who lead from this place of wholeness and confidence. I invite you to join me in raising the next generation of girls to know that they are beautiful, strong, and special.
1982 Graduated from Southern Oregon University, BA in Elementary Education
1983-1993 Multi-age teacher, grades 1-5, Lincoln Elementary school, Ashland, Oregon
1996-present Body Basics and Beyond, grades 5-8, founder and teacher