Anatomy, Puberty & Periods


Why learn about sexual and reproductive anatomy?

Our bodies change all the time – and that’s okay! Everyone needs to learn about every part of their body, including the sexual and reproductive parts.

Being familiar with the different parts of sexual and reproductive anatomy, including those that you don’t have, is important. Learning how they work is key to having healthy sex and enjoying it, and preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) and pregnancy. Identifying if something is wrong, like an infection, can be challenging – so let’s learn how our bodies work to stay healthy :)

Female sexual and reproductive anatomy

Let’s start with the outside or external anatomy. Together these are called the vulva. The clitoris is the main part of the vulva that feels good when touched. The labia provide some protection for the opening of the vagina, which is inside the body. Each person’s vulva is unique to them, with different colors and sizes.
Diagram of external female sexual anatomy.
Now let’s look at the inside or internal anatomy.
Diagram of internal female sexual anatomy.
Many of the internal parts of the anatomy are responsible for reproduction, the processes needed for periods, pregnancy, and childbirth. Visit the pregnancy and periods pages for more info.

Male sexual and reproductive anatomy

Similar to female anatomy, male sexual and reproductive anatomy has both external and internal parts.
Diagram of external male sexual anatomy.
Diagram of internal male sexual anatomy.
On the outside, there is the penis and scrotum. Inside the penis is the urethra which is a tube where urine comes out when someone pees and semen comes out when someone ejaculates. Sperm are created inside the body in the testicles and combined with liquid from the seminal vesicles to make semen. The size and shape of a penis are unique to that person.


What is puberty?

Puberty is a period of time when young people’s bodies go through physical, emotional, and social changes to become adults. It is a moment in life that starts between being 8 and 14 years old. Everyone’s body is different, so each person’s experiences of puberty will be different.


How does puberty work?

Brains are pretty awesome. They decide when puberty should start and send chemical messages called hormones that tell different parts of the body to start doing what they need to do to keep on developing.


What changes happen during puberty?

Some of the changes in puberty only happen to people with certain body parts. Each person’s experience with the changes that happen to their body is impacted by their context – their family, their school, their socio-cultural background. 


Body changes

  • Brains grow and change to help with making decisions and understanding the world in different ways
  • More sweat which might have body odor
  • Hair growth in armpits, around genitals, and on arms and legs
  • Might get pimples and acne
  • Grow taller and bigger, with maybe some pain in arms and legs as they grow
  • Mood swings
  • Sexual thoughts or feelings, attraction to someone
  • Voice gets deeper or sounds different
  • Want to spend more time with friends and be more independent


Changes for people with a vagina: 

  • Developing breasts
  • Menstruation, or getting periods
  • Hips grow wider, some bodies become curvier
  • Labia might change color or get bigger


Changes for people with a penis: 

  • Penis and testicle grow larger
  • Might start growing hair on the face, chest, and back
  • Might have swelling on the chest around the nipples for a while
  • Chest and shoulders grow broader
  • Penis gets hard and stands up, this is called having an erection
  • Fluid comes out of the penis often at night, sometimes called wet dreams


What is “normal”?

Puberty can be tough because it can feel like everyone else is normal except you – but that's not true! Most of what happens during puberty happen to other people in their unique way. So in other words, “normal” is looking different – celebrate that you are you!

In some cases, finding support from a medical provider or trusted adult is key:

  • If someone is being hurt or not respected, suffering physical and emotional abuse.
  • When identifying bumps on genitals or a burning feeling when peeing – this could be an STI.
  • If the changes happening to someone's body don’t match their gender identity.
  • If someone wonders if they might be gay or are trying to figure out how to come out.
  • Anytime you feel worried about what is going on with you.


How can I better enjoy my puberty?

Puberty can cause stress, anxiety, and changes in our relationships. We have to learn new ways to take care of ourselves like showering more, wearing a bra, or thinking about what we need in a healthy relationship.

Taking care of our mental health is also important. No one has to just “suck it up” – remember that knowledge is power! Talk with people you trust. Who’s in your support system? An older sibling, parent, or cousin? A coach or faith leader? Someone at school? Talk with them. Ask questions. Listen. Take a walk and reflect.

Sports, performing arts, mindful breathing exercises, and creative projects are great ways to find balance. What's your favorite one?


What are periods?

Periods (AKA “menstruation”) are days when blood trickles out of the vagina a little bit at a time. The amount people bleed varies, but it is usually about 1-3 tablespoons over the next few days.


How do periods work?

Periods happen when hormones from the brain tell ovaries to release an egg. The inside of the uterus builds up a layer of tissue where a fertilized egg attaches to grow. If the egg is not fertilized, the uterus will shed its lining of blood and tissue. This is a period.

A period happens about once every 21 to 45 days and it lasts between 3 and 7 days each time. How often they happen and how long they last is different between people. At first, a period may happen every couple of weeks or suddenly take many weeks to show up. This is normal and, as you get older, your periods will become more regular. 

Keeping track of periods is key to staying healthy! Some people use a calendar, a journal, or an app. If your periods are coming more often than every 21 days, take longer than 45 days to show up, or last longer than 7 days, you may want to talk to your doctor.


How does it feel to have a period?

People can feel pretty uncomfortable during their period and it is different for each person.


Some common symptoms are​

  • Acne
  • Cramps, which can feel like an ache in your lower stomach, back, or thighs
  • Feeling sad, crabby, angry, or anxious
  • Headaches
  • Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS).
  • Sore feeling breasts
  • Tiredness


How to take care of yourself and others during a period?

Periods and the bleeding it produces has to be absorbed by menstrual products. Many people try different types of products to decide what works best for them.


Some products are

  • Pads and panty liners: These are small, thin pieces of material that have a sticky back so they can be stuck to the underwear and stay in place. They absorb the blood. There are different pads for different amounts of bleeding or flow. Pads can be one-time use or reusable where they are washed after each use.
  • Tampons: These are small rolls of cotton that are put into the vagina. They come in different sizes for different amounts of bleeding and they can be used for a maximum of 8 hours to avoid infections like Toxic Shock Syndrome.
  • Menstrual cups: These are flexible cups that are put into the vagina. They collect blood in the cup, which the person removes after a period of time and dumps out into the toilet. Most menstrual cups can stay in for up to 12 hours before being emptied and rinsed.
  • Period underwear: Is like normal underwear, but it absorbs the bleeding. It is worn when having a period and then washed in cold water.


More tips

  • Different products might be better for different activities. For example, for swimming, tampons and period underwear are better than pads.
  • When someone has their period, it is important to bathe frequently.
  • Do not use scented pads or tampons, vaginal deodorants, or douches to wash out the vagina. They can cause irritation or infections.


To lessen the pain

  • A heating pad or medication can help lessen the pain from cramps or headaches.
  • The emotions that come with periods can be tough. Getting plenty of sleep, eating a healthful diet and exercising can help with these feelings.
  • If someone is having really bad symptoms with their periods, they should talk to a medical provider.


Talking with a health provider is a great place to start. It can also be helpful to talk with friends or trusted adults in your life. Everyone is different, what works best for one person might not be what works best for you.

Go Ask Tara

Go Ask Tara is on a mission to provide sex education and help the youth of Colorado prevent pregnancy and STIs.