The stages of female puberty: hair, boobs, and other signs

Two laughing teenage girls watching something on a smartphone

Puberty kind of sneaks up on you. Maybe it starts with body hair, or you begin to feel like maybe you need a bra. It’s just the beginning of a rollercoaster of big (and totally normal) changes happening in your body. While everyone goes through it, the signs of puberty you experience may be different or happen earlier or later than people you know. Because, like basically everything else in life, you’ll go through puberty at your own pace. Here’s what you need to know about puberty for girls.

What is puberty?

Between the ages of 8 and 14 (there’s no exact age, as this varies from person to person), girls will notice that their bodies are changing and starting to grow. This stage in your life is called puberty and this is when you start to physically become an adult.

It’s important to bear in mind that these changes don’t all happen at the same time, they don’t always happen in the same order, or by a certain age, as the whole process can be very different from one person to the next.

Physical changes during puberty

Generally speaking, the first physical changes during puberty in girls are breast development and body growth. Other puberty changes are:

  • Growth of underarm hair
  • Growth of pubic hair
  • Increase in the thickness and length of body hair
  • Acne
  • Widening of the hips
  • Increase in the fullness of the labia majora and minora, the hymen and the clitoris
  • Change in the sound of the voice
  • Increase in weight

Finally, to complete puberty, the biggest change is the arrival of your first period.

Body growth

Two words: growth spurt! One of the major signs of puberty is that you’re literally growing, and at a way faster rate than you did during childhood. We’re talking a lot of body changes. Your hands and feet will start to get bigger – get ready to go up a shoe size. Then your arms and legs will grow so you’re taller, and your body shape may change, particularly your hips. It might feel kind of awkward and weird to be in this new, stretched-out body, but it’ll eventually become more proportional, and you’ll go back to feeling like yourself again – we promise.

Breast development

Let’s talk about boobs. At first, you might feel little breast buds or swelling under your nipples. After that, your breasts will slowly grow bigger and look fuller. (They might also feel tender, which is completely normal.) It can take three to five years for breasts to finish developing. At a certain point, you might want to start wearing a bra for support, especially if you play sports or exercise – or just feel more comfortable with one. It’s your call. Breasts come in all shapes and sizes, and how big yours get ultimately depends on your genetics and body type.

Nipple changes during puberty

As your breasts develop during puberty, you may notice some changes to your nipples. Don’t worry – this is completely normal! Just like breasts, nipples come in all shapes and sizes: some girls have “outie” nipples that stick out when they’re cold, and others have “innie” nipples that stick inwards. Having inverted nipples is totally normal and nothing to worry about. You may also notice some dark hair beginning to grow around your areola – this is also nothing to worry about, and all part of the process of puberty.

Body hair

You’re going to start growing hair… and not just on your head. One of the most obvious stages of puberty is new hair growing in different places. Pubic hair is often curly hair that grows in your pubic area. At first, it tends to be quite soft and sparse, but as you go through puberty, it’ll grow longer and get curlier and coarser. In two or three years, it’ll cover your entire pubic area and may even grow on your upper thighs and towards your belly button. You may also notice hair growing under your arms, on your legs, around your nipples, and even a little on your upper lip (depending on your genes). You can also decide what to do with it. Shave? Wax? Absolutely nothing? It’s 100% up to you.

Body sweat and odour

Do you smell… different? That’s probably BO. One of the common stages of puberty is when sweat glands get larger and also more active – a double whammy that causes you to sweat more overall. This delightful combo of sweat and bacteria under your arms and in your pubic area creates body odour. We’ve got good news, though: this can be managed simply by using soap and water, then an antiperspirant to reduce sweating (or a deodorant to mask the scent of the odour).

Skin and hair changes

Possibly the worst part of puberty: spots. Thanks to all those new hormones bouncing around your body, your skin produces more oil, particularly on your face. That oil can mix with bacteria and dead skin cells, clogging up your pores and leading to spots or acne. The same goes for the scalp, which can also produce more oil and make your hair greasy. Establish a good skincare routine, such as washing with a gentle cleanser, exfoliating regularly, moisturising every night, and using an acne-fighting treatment if you happen to get spots. Look for ingredients like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, both of which are key ingredients for fighting acne. And wash your hair regularly (or swap in dry shampoo) to deal with all that extra oil at your roots.

Genital growth

Along with pubic hair, your entire vaginal area gets bigger during puberty. The vulva, i.e., the parts that are external, are enclosed by two sets of lips. The larger lips have hair, whereas the inner, smaller lips don't. (We don’t recommend trying to remove any hair around here, as you could potentially cut yourself and cause an infection, and who wants that?) During puberty, these increase in size and may be uneven – all normal. Stuff happens inside your body too: your vagina is growing longer, while your uterus gets bigger.

New discharge

Weird stains in your underwear? Don’t worry – that’s just vaginal discharge. Discharge is a clear or cloudy fluid that your body produces to moisten and cleanse the vagina. It usually shows up right after puberty starts; you'll probably notice yellow or white stains in your underwear. It's perfectly normal. However, your vaginal discharge may become white, lumpy, or start to resemble cottage cheese – or it might smell different than usual or cause itchiness. In this case, you might have a yeast infection. If you notice any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor to get to the bottom of it.

First period

All of these changes lead up to the start of your first period – think of them as the body’s way of prepping itself for menstruation. When you get your first period, it may not arrive at the same time every month. Actually, in the first year or two of getting your period, it might be wildly unpredictable and irregular (which is normal, and usually no reason to worry). After that, your cycle will regulate and you’ll be better able to track your period. That way, you’ll know when you can expect it – and when to stash a few tampons or pads in your bag, just in case.

Emotional changes during puberty

The body also goes through emotional changes during puberty. The way you think changes and you’ll notice you can express yourself better. You may also feel more self-conscious and unsure of yourself – but try not to worry. This is a time of physical and emotional change, so everyone else your age is feeling the same way. You will also feel more emotional in general, thanks to your hormones. Your fluctuating hormones are what cause mood swings during puberty, and you may notice that you feel like crying a lot more or are more easily upset.

Emotional rollercoasters are a normal part of puberty, and although they may not be much fun, they’re nothing to worry about. A great tip for riding these emotional rollercoasters is to work on building your self-confidence. Practising new skills or hobbies is a great way to build up your confidence, as well as working on positive affirmations to boost your self-esteem.

And what’s it like for boys?

Boys normally start to change one or two years later than girls. They also experience physical changes during puberty:

  • Body growth and growth in the size of their sex organs
  • Their muscles become more developed
  • They suffer from acne and facial and body hair starts to grow
  • They start to ejaculate and so are able to fertilise eggs and make girls pregnant.

Every person develops differently and at their own pace, so don’t be worried or get freaked out by comparing yourself to others. And while you might experience some of these physical changes, they won’t happen in any particular order or look the same for everyone. Remember, there’s no wrong way to go through puberty. So, however it happens, you’ll be fine – and on your way to becoming an adult.