Marawa Ibrahim is an internationally known gymnast and hula-hooper. She's also a woman, and was once a girl who went through puberty. Like many of us who dealt with first periods, growing boobs, acne, smelly armpits, and all the other joys of puberty, she has some pretty awkward and sometimes cringe-inducing stories. And she's written them all down in a book.
But this isn't just a fun trip down memory lane. Ibrahim's The Girl Guide is a treasure map for getting through puberty unscathed. Or, at least, to help girls understand why all these awkward and embarrassing things keep happening to them. It's Ibrahim's way of paying it forward and making life a little easier for the next generation (who she thinks are already pretty awesome).
Below, Ibrahim speaks to us about why a puberty guide is so essential, the hilarious reactions she's gotten from kids (and parents) who've read the book, and why even grown women might get something out of The Girl Guide.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Can you tell me why you wanted to write a book about puberty?
"Because I wanted one when I was a kid. You know when you’re a kid and you’re like, ‘I wish things were like this’? Now I’m enabled as an adult to make it. I always felt like there was a huge gap in knowledge. I know it’s changed a lot — the internet has changed a lot of things — but I don’t think it’s improved necessarily. I think it’s in some ways dragged things even further out of proportion. I think girls are getting a lot of misinformation. They’re getting fed a lot of images that don’t make anything clearer. And I think in terms of women understanding their bodies, there’s still no information there. You can see porn in 0.5 seconds, but you can’t access information about what a period is, really."
Unless you really know what you’re looking for.
"In which case, if you know what you’re looking for then you don’t need it. That’s why I was really interested when we were doing the research for the chapters. For each of the chapters, I would pretend I’m a 10 year old girl and I wanted to search something on the internet. So I’d type in something like, ‘sore boobs.’ And it was just crazy. I would go down these rabbit holes and think, Oh my god. If I was 10 and this is what I saw, every single time I would end up thinking I’m dying. The misinformation is crazy."
One of the girls was definitely finding out about tampons for the first time, and you could just see the horror in her face. She said, ‘What do you mean it goes up there? How big is it?'
Marawa Ibrahim, author of The Girl Guide
So your target audience is a 10-year-old girl?
When I pitched the book, I said 10 to 14. And the publishers were like no, it’s 8 to 12. And then I was doing all this research on the average age girls are getting their periods now and in the UK there’s a huge percentage of girls who are 8 or 9. I mean, I couldn’t even tie my shoes up properly [when I was that age]. I can’t imagine what it would be like. I was 12 and most of my friends were around that age. But it’s definitely getting younger, which is a lot of responsibility. So that’s why it was important to me that the information was easy to digest.
My sister is 9 and she just started having to wear bras and deodorant because her body is changing. My mum and I have had a few puberty conversations with her, and she was so mortified. So I can see the appeal of having a book like this that you can just hand to your kid and they can go flip through it in their room.
"Yeah! I’ve gotten feedback from mums and dads that’s like, ‘You saved my life.’ Most of them say that their daughter sat down, read the whole thing, and then asked them three questions that they’d never expect she’d ask, and that was it. It was chill. The book kind of breaks the ice. It's saying: Here's the information, it’s all there."
"I’ve done a few readings at schools, and there was one school where the teacher said the girls were never going to ask their questions if the boys were around. But I said the boys should come too, because everyone needs to hear this. I just started talking. I read one of the embarrassing stories out of it. And then it went wild. They asked questions I’d never expect.
"One of the girls was definitely finding out about tampons for the first time, and you could just see the horror in her face. She said, ‘What do you mean it goes up there? How big is it?’ And the teacher was floored. But as soon as you tell someone a horror story, like a period story, then everyone wants to tell you their story right away."
That’s so cute.
"Yeah, it’s super cute. Especially when it’s a group, whether it’s a mother-daughter thing or girls who are in school together, you can see that the embarrassment is gone, and they can actually just laugh about it or bond over it and support each other. And I think that’s what’s missing [in conversations about puberty].
"One person told me a story that was so awful. I’d written a piece about the breaking your hymen, virginity thing. And I wrote about how I broke mine doing this crazy split in gymnastics and it took me two years to work out what that sharp pain and little bit of blood was. A woman in the comments wrote about how she got her period and her mum marched her to the bathroom, handed her a tampon, opened the door, and said, ‘It hurt a lot for me the first time, too.’ And then shut the door. She just sat there on the bathroom floor, jabbing herself with the tampon, and broke her hymen in the process. I feel we can break that silence in this next generation, with these insanely woke eight year olds."
It’s true. I feel like these conversations weren’t typical when I was going through puberty.
"Even mums have been reading the book and coming up to me to say, ‘The chapter on thrush [yeast infections] makes so much sense. I didn’t realise. Of course I kept getting it because I was doing X, Y, Z.’ Even though the book is for girls 8 to 12, I find that it's pretty ageless. A lot of my friends have bought it and they said they were buying it for their niece and then the next day they'd text me and say, 'Oh, my, god. I started reading it and I learned all this stuff. I had no idea.'"
Were there any chapters that were hard for you to write?
"Two chapters that were hard to write were about the kid-to-little-lady moment, where you might start to be more independent and you go off for a bit and there's a group of guys who look at you and you’re like, ‘What was that about?’ Or comments that people say to you. For me it was when I was at the supermarket and this guy touched my bum and my mum was there and I didn’t say anything. So I say in the book that I didn’t say anything, but at the same time I say that you should if you can, but I didn’t. I really struggled with whether I should lie and say that I did say something. I thought what was most important was that it’s a true story. And again, people don’t talk about it."
Hopefully, in the next generation, having something like this to look to will help break those taboos.
"Oh absolutely, I’m excited. I think the kids coming up are going to kill it. They’re super cool."