A look into the ways our bodies change as we face our 20s
Turning 20 is a big deal and it’s hard to ignore. Beginning with when we move away to start uni, 20-somethings are bombarded with all types of change, forcing us to come face to face with who we thought we were and who we are growing up to be.
These psychological and emotional changes are often recognised and given the space for us to comprehend as we grow into early adulthood. Physical changes, on the other hand, are almost treated as a taboo. Universal changes that we all face as we evolve from adolescence to adulthood are hushed away, as society hangs on to our youthful bodies.
I remember being in my teens, feeling and seeing all the changes that were happening to my body, my hormones, and my skin. But in my teens, adjustment to these changes was helped by a million and one platitudes about how our bodies change and how puberty is a perfectly healthy thing absolutely everyone undergoes. From a certain perspective, puberty was even desirable as it changed me from a girl to a more attractive and matured young woman.
In your 20s, however, the gathering of weight around your hips and waist, the sudden onset of acne, the changes in hormones combined with the emotional changes you face during this time is relatively ignored. Though I felt my body changing again, I wasn’t comforted by the notion that these changes were natural and beautiful as I was before. This time, my weight gain and hormones were undesirable, and this time, I had to do something to change it.
As if we don’t already have enough to adjust to, the ‘second puberty,’ as it was coined on social media, sneaks up on young adults during their 20s. Though not often discussed, changes from adolescence to adulthood are physically marked on our bodies as they mature.
In the past couple of years, discussion surrounding the ‘second puberty’ has swelled, often revealing a collective sense of being blindsided by our own bodies. Didn’t we just go through the first puberty? As if that wasn’t awkward enough. And now, as we face an endless number of changes, the bodies we have just come to terms with ups and changes again, as they will for the rest of our lives.
One major part of our bodies that continue undergoing development throughout our 20s is our brains. According to Dr. Sandra Aamodt, the prefrontal cortex associated with inhibiting impulses and making rational decisions is not fully developed until at least the age of 25. Changes in the brain's reward system may also cause young adults to dabble in more uncertain situations to achieve a reward, negatively impacting their ability to deal with certain pressures such as peer pressure.
This means that, though we are expected to act as adults, and should, our brains are not even fully developed, leading young adults in their early 20s to continue to make impulse decisions, succumb to peer pressure, and not think things through all the way. Sound familiar?
These ongoing developments in our brain are matched by continued changes in weight distribution, bone strength, and hormones. Like The List mentions, while our metabolisms reach a peak in our 20s, they also face decline as we get closer and closer to 30. As a consequence, women in particular may find that they gain weight throughout their 20s. The more matured womanly figure differs from that of the teenage body, and may be changed by more weight in the hips, waist or thighs region.
Changing hormones mean acne may make a return and women may get an onset of period cramps when they did not experience them before. Hormonal changes, however, also mean good things, such as an increased sex drive as our bodies reach their peak reproductive age, and more regulated periods for women.
Bone density and strength, like your metabolism, also reaches a peak throughout the 20s. This means now is the time to continue to be healthy and treat your body with love; the stronger you can build your bones now, the better off you will be when you reach 30 and your bone strength starts to slowly deteriorate as you get older.
Despite all of these changes, the ‘second puberty’ is not a legitimate medical term. There is a lot of disagreement between conversations on social media regarding what age the ‘second puberty’ sets in, and the fact that our bodies change every decade. Why call it the ‘second puberty’ when you can simply call it ageing?
Labelling this phenomenon as the ‘second puberty,’ however, allows a conversation to start, acting as a title many can designate to the physical changes they may be facing. These things are often not talked about in communities, and naming the change gives power to those who feel as if they are struggling with the ‘second puberty’ to gain some sort of power over it. In our 20s, it ironically feels as though we lose so much knowledge and power, even though the tag-line is that your 20s are for living and learning. The label ‘second puberty’ allows us to categorise and face up to at least one of the many changes we face.
These changes, like the ‘first’ puberty we all undergo, are very natural and healthy. So why is the ‘second puberty’ not talked about? Why does it feel as if our bodies are punishing us for getting older? Even as we continue to age, everyone knows our bodies will only get slower, more wrinklier, and by society’s standards, less beautiful.
It’s in moments like these where one truly realises society’s idealisation of the adolescent body, particularly with women. Think about the bodies you see in the media, and the expectation women are often held to. You can have a butt, but not too much. You should be curvy, but make sure your waist is tiny. You should have perfect skin; no acne, no cellulite. And, as we grow throughout our 20s, these standards become harder and harder to achieve, when they were already unrealistic. What’s worse, these expectations are perpetuated by those around us. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has gone home to receive a couple comments about how my body has changed since leaving for university.
The tight skin and perky body of your teens is no longer appropriate for your body’s needs, so it changes, and society fights against that. Whether it be through surgery, procedures, diet culture, or extreme exercise, both men and women are urged to maintain their youthful bodies. We are urged to fight against nature.
If you’ve spent any time on the ‘influencer’ side of social media lately, you’ll notice an obvious increase in the normalisation of filler, botox, and small cosmetic procedures. While I don’t have an answer for the ongoing debate surrounding the morality of these physical alterations people do to themselves, I will say that they have become a lot more prevalent than most people notice. Some celebrities and influencers are not upfront about the procedures they have had done, notoriously the Kardashians and influencer Madison Beer, ultimately contributing to the construction of an unattainable idealised ‘social media’ body and face.
These influencers, who often times lie about the work they have had done, or the amount of work they have had done, only serve to worsen insecurities and have brought up a generation of girls who believe their natural bodies will never be enough, and a generation of boys who reject a real, or natural woman’s body in favour of the filtered and altered bodies seen on social media. As a consequence, a new generation of insecurities rise, particularly centred around ageing. I myself have been victim to this, lately developing a new insecurity for already visible wrinkles on my forehead, as I am told time and time again that they are undesirable. So I worry about my wrinkles. At the ripe old age of.. 20.
The reality is, however, our bodies will never stop growing and changing. There will be a second, third, fourth puberty as we continue to adjust to the needs of our bodies with age. To fight against these inevitable changes, or worse, to punish ourselves for them, is unfair to the body that has been with us our whole lives.
As we grow into our 20s, and into adulthood, it is hard to accept the seemingly never ending chain of change that comes our way. It’s important to remember how far we have come, and how different we are, mentally and physically from our younger selves. Whatever age we are, whichever puberty we may be facing, to compare your body or yourself to younger versions of yourself is simply an unfair comparison. So whatever physical changes you may face as you wade through your 20s, remember our bodies are changing to support us, not to punish us.
Illustration: Liza Vasilyeva