Judy Blume is one of the most famous authors of teen fiction, and her books are some of the most frequently banned and challenged. Blume doesn’t shy away from puberty and the sexual awakenings and tensions of being a preteen/teenager–in fact, many of her books seem to celebrate those aspects of adolescence. At the very least, she doesn’t shy away from it, unabashedly writing about first periods, body image, and sexual desire in all their complexity.
Perhaps none of Blume’s books encapsulate this better than Are You there God? It’s Me, Margaret. Margaret Simon is just a few months shy of 12 when we meet her; she’s just moved from New York to small town New Jersey and starts attending a new school. Margaret’s father was Jewish, and her mother was Christian, though neither of them are religious, and Margaret is raised outside of any religion. This presents the first of many conundrums, as her neighbor and new friend Nancy points out that she doesn’t know whether to go to the Y or the Jewish Community Center. Margaret talks to God, and looks for God, throughout the book….And she looks for her period, the mark of growing up and being normal.
Margaret reflects the ways that girls worry about their bodies, the way they are uncomfortable in their own skill, especially during puberty. Sure, some of what Margaret does is funny–but only in retrospect. At 12, the things that Margaret worries about are real worries for her–and the humor is biting to me, as I remember having the same worries.
I remember worrying about being smelly, for instance. And it’s amusing that Margaret doesn’t “think people start to smell bad until they’re at least twelve” and that later, on her 12th birthday, she uses some of her mother’s roll-on deodorant “just in case.” But Margaret’s concern about how she smells, her putting on the deodorant even after she’s verified that she smells no different than the day before, also suggests a discomfort with her body, with growing older–and this is overwhemlingly the case as we watch Margaret hope for her period, begging God to please let her be normal and not the last girl to get her period and develop breasts.
And the way the characters, in particular Margaret, treat Laura Danker, the tallest and largest girl in their class. Laura is a sixth grader with the body of a high school senior, if Margaret’s idea of Laura’s body is any indication. Initially, Margaret describes her as “pretty.” But Nancy and the other girls Margaret hangs out with quickly inform Margaret of Laura’s “reputation.” Not only has she been going “behind the A&P with [Nancy’s brother] and Moose,” but “she’s been wearing a bra since fourth grade” and the girls “bet she gets her period.” In other words, at the tender age of 11, these girls are slut-shaming. They take Nancy’s older brother’s word at face value–or really, what Nancy has reported that her brother has said. We hear none of the three people in this situation speak.
The girls avoid Laura as much as they can, but when Margaret is assigned to work with her for a group project, she has to “talk to Laura Danker! There would be no way of getting out of it.” And eventually, of course, Margaret and Laura get into an argument, wherein Margaret lets loose “I know why [the boys] do it…they do it so they can feel you or something and you let them!” Laura is embarrassed and angry. and she runs away. When Margaret realizes that she sounds like Nancy, and that that’s a bad thing, she chases after Laura, who says “think about how you’d feel if you had to wear a bra in fourth grade and how everybody laughed and how you always had to cross your arms in front of you. And about how the boys called you dirty names just because of how you looked.” In other words, the slut-shaming started earlier, as did the negative attention from boys. The body issues started earlier. Discomfort with being a girl started, for Laura, at least as early as 9. Margaret has her own body image issues, but so does Laura.
By book’s end, Margaret has started her period–and officially feels happy about it, thanking God for it. She’s “almost a woman.” She’s been given a very brief sex ed in school that mostly talks about what happens when girls get their periods (something she points out they wait far too late to do); she’s stuffed her bra with cotton balls to see what it’s like to have larger breasts (and she’s done exercises nightly to increase their size); she’s tried on a pad several times to see what it’s like before getting her period; she’s started using deodorant and has worn her first pair of pantyhose. She hasn’t chosen a religion, but she doesn’t feel as though she needs to. And she’s learned about slut-shaming, even if she doesn’t have that particular vocabulary. She’s learned about the damage shaming can do and how far rumors can spread—and that they often stem from jealousy.
Margaret is, indeed, well on her way to becoming a woman.