InterACT describes intersex as an umbrella term for naturally occurring differences in physical sex traits such as chromosomes, hormone function, genitals, or internal reproductive anatomy. Intersex people are born with these differences or develop them in childhood. There are a wide range of variations that are possible compared to the usual two ways that human bodies develop.
Being intersex is different from being transgender or non-binary. Someone who is transgender has a gender (such as male, female, or non-binary) that is different from what was assumed when they were born. Someone who is intersex developed one or more bodily characteristics that don’t fit neatly into stereotypes about “male” or “female” bodies. Someone can be both intersex and transgender. But being intersex doesn’t automatically make someone transgender or non-binary, just like being transgender or non-binary doesn’t mean that someone is intersex.
Some intersex traits are noticed at birth. Others don’t show up until puberty or later in life. Some intersex people will have bodies that look visibly different from the outside, but other times, someone will only know they are intersex from medical testing (like blood tests or an ultrasound). And even someone with a known/diagnosed variation in their sex characteristics may not ever have heard the word “intersex” before because some doctors or families still feel that the term is associated with shame or stigma. Doctors’ and parents’ discomfort with difference has tragically led to many intersex children undergoing unnecessary surgeries to “fix” or hide their variations by changing the size or shape of their genitals, or removing hormone-producing organs like testes or ovaries. This can have life-long damaging effects if these decisions are made without the intersex person’s own input and consent. In reality, being intersex is nothing to be ashamed of – our human bodies come in many different shapes, sizes, and combinations, and they all deserve to be accepted and celebrated!
When it comes to puberty, an intersex person may experience pubertal changes at the same time as their peers, earlier or later than their peers, or not at all. If an intersex person was born without testes or ovaries, or underwent surgery that removed their testes or ovaries in childhood, they will not start to experience pubertal changes unless they begin hormone therapy with estrogen or testosterone. They may also experience fewer pubertal changes than expected, or some changes that are unexpected, compared to what their peers are experiencing.
For example: An intersex youth who was assigned male at birth may develop enlarged breast tissue or more pronounced hips, may have a less muscular build, may have less body hair or facial hair, may have smaller testicles than their peers, may experience less genital growth, or may start to have monthly abdominal pain that is unexpected. An intersex youth who was assigned female at birth may get their period very early or may not get their period at all, may develop a deeper voice, a more muscular build, or have more facial or body hair than their peers, or may experience more genital growth than expected.
For more information about intersex variations and supportive resources for intersex persons and families, visit BLOOM’s trusted expert, interACT.
What to Expect as your Young Person goes through Puberty
Written by Lori Reichel, Ph.D.
| Reviewed by Hina J. Talib, MD
Caregivers can expect several growth and developmental changes as a child grows into adolescence, including: physical development, social and emotional development, cognitive development, and motor and sensory development. Between the ages of 11 to 14 years your young person should grow stronger and taller. They will also begin to feel, as well as think, in significantly more mature ways. You may feel surprised as you watch your preteen or teen start to develop into a grown-up.
Those assigned female at birth will start their periods and begin to grow breasts, while those assigned male at birth begin to grow facial hair.
Young people of all genders will experience growth spurts, weight gain, grow body and pubic hair, and experience body odor, sweating, and acne.
In the area of cognitive development, your young person’s brain will grow in its capacity to think, reason, learn, and remember.
Regarding social and emotional development, you can expect your young person to prefer to be more self-sufficient and independent from their family; hormonal changes can also affect their mood and emotions.
You may even notice your preteen or teen becoming more clumsy or awkward, this is simply a phase of their motor and sensory development.
All of these changes can feel awkward and confusing to a developing adolescent. They may compare themselves to their peers and feel insecure about certain aspects of the way they look, how they are developing, and the many changes that are happening to their body (such as acne, weight gain, breasts, hair etc.)
As a caregiver, it is important to communicate with and educate young people about the normal changes that they are experiencing during puberty. Encourage them to appreciate and identify the strengths and abilities that make them unique. Use this time to let go and promote some independence in decision making and responsibilities. To learn more about what to expect and find tools to navigate puberty explore BLOOM’s Puberty section of the HUB.
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