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The first time I masturbated was in the eighth grade. I didn’t actually want to masturbate yet, but two boys in my class had been making jokes about how often they did, and I felt left out. I was raised to believe that masturbation was wrong, though, so I felt guilty. And when I masturbated a second time—and then third, and then fourth, and then to infinity and beyond—my guilt turned to shame.
I learned the difference between guilt and shame only recently, in therapy: Guilt is “I did bad”; shame is “I am bad.” Shame is more personal.
At home, my education about sex and puberty came from Some of Your Bits Ain’t Nice, a puberty and sex-education movie so bizarre that when I became an adult, I thought I had made it up. “You may think you’re clean, but I’ll find the dirt wherever it’s hidden,” said a detective named Mike Roscope, who told teens how filthy their hands, armpits, and crotches were. Some of Your Bits Ain’t Nice came out in 1982, before I was born, but it was still popular enough to make its rounds in the ’90s. It joined half a dozen other videos that taught me just how uncomfortable it was for adults to talk about puberty.
At school, it wasn’t much better, as I was taught abstinence-only sex education and that Jesus would have to bear my sins on the cross. One song in particular stayed with me, complete with verses for what my eyes saw, what my ears heard, what my tongue said, and where my feet went:
Oh, be careful, little hands, what you do,
Oh, be careful, little hands, what you do.
For there’s a Father up above, who’s looking down with love,
So, be careful, little hands, what you do.
Of course, I now know that masturbation is normal and nothing to be embarrassed of. But still, even now, I also know that sex and puberty are taboo enough that readers may be surprised when I mention it.
Puberty, and our discomfort around it, is at the heart of Disney/Pixar’s latest movie, Turning Red, which is so funny and endearing that it has become cinematic comfort food for me over the past week. It’s an instant classic; I watched it the first time with full attention, a second time while I worked, and a third time where I mostly fast-forwarded to my favorite parts. In between, I watched Embrace the Panda, the documentary about the making of the movie. I’m listening to my favorite song from the movie right now.
Turning Red is a coming-of-age story about a Chinese Canadian teen girl living in Toronto in 2002. The girl, Meilin, is a quirky dork who is spunky, loud, and confident, inspired by first-time feature director Domee Shi’s own upbringing as the only child of immigrant parents during the time of boy bands, flip phones, and Sailor Moon–inspired drawings. Mei Mei is the perfect daughter, and everything is going well until her body starts to change—that is, she turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited. The red panda is a metaphor for “magical puberty,” as Shi puts it, and sends Mei Mei on a journey of relearning how to love and accept who she is, despite her body changing into something she’s unfamiliar with.
The movie is about growing up and embracing who you are, which sounds like basic paint-by-numbers fare, but Turning Red sets itself apart in how it captures the challenge of balancing family, friends, and puberty with the emotional weight that a 13-year-old would give those problems. Mei Mei has to bridge the gap between the daughter she was, the friend she wants to be, and the woman she’s becoming.
“I think it took until screening six for us to have an ending,” Shi said in Embrace the Panda. “And that, I think, was because it took a long time for me to process my own relationship with my mother and just trying to figure out how to be a good daughter for [my parents].”
I won’t spoil the ending here, of course, but I will say that Turning Red is a great movie both for kids to see what it looks like to become comfortable with themselves during change, and for us adults to remember what those changes felt like, so that we don’t press “Play” on some modern version of Some of Your Bits Ain’t Nice.
Turning Red is maybe even more important for adults than for kids: The cultural dialogue around Turning Red has been sad, to say the least, in how much it has highlighted our discomfort with talking to them about periods, sex, and emotions. An initial backlash included worry over whether the movie was inappropriate for kids, even 13-year-olds, and comments about how the film isn’t relatable for most 13-year-old girls. In response, the hashtag #at13 began trending on Twitter, with users sharing personal stories about falling in love with fictional characters and explaining that many girls start their periods sooner than that age. Our prudishness often extends to boys as well, who learn little about menstruation: The same year I masturbated for the first time, I also learned this popular joke about periods, and little else. Many kids still aren’t getting an adequate sex education at school, either. More than half of states don’t require evidence-based, medically accurate sex education, and somewhere out there a kid is probably watching a new version of Some of Your Bits Ain’t Nice.
Talking about the message that Turning Red sends to kids, Shi asked, “Is it about being true to yourself, or is it about honoring your parents?” She continued, “I don’t know. It’s some messy mix of both.”
But personally, I’m not worried about the kids as much as I’m worried about us. We should be the ones feeling ashamed until we grow into the people that kids need—adults less reluctant to talk candidly and openly about sex, puberty, and other topics that kids have to learn about. When we do, kids will feel more courage, confidence, and empathy for themselves than I did. And maybe they’ll be fortunate enough to watch a lot more Turning Red than Some of Your Bits Ain’t Nice.
A lot of housekeeping below, so hold on to your butts.
First, sorry I missed writing Humans Being last week; I was exhausted and overwhelmed. But I come bearing good news: My book launch will be at the Strand Bookstore, in New York, and tickets are available now! I’ll be in conversation with author and Black Nerd Problems’ co-founder Omar Holmon, followed by a book signing, on Friday, April 29, at 7 p.m. If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there—we’re going to have a lot of fun and probably chat until they kick us out. I might add another countdown to this newsletter, who knows. (You know I will.) Just a heads-up that the event is limited to about 100 people and tickets won’t be sold at the door, so please get them now.
Unrelated, I still need to catch up on my inbox and owe many of you responses, but thank you all for the support in response to “Why I’m on Strike (at My Other Job).” I love it when a team comes together.
Also, The Atlantic is running this survey to better understand our newsletter readers. I’m not competitive or anything, but if you have anything nice to say or want to help me crush my peers and become the most feared assassin in a squad full of killers, I would appreciate that. But I’m not competitive or anything.
And finally, the best news: Humans Being has given away 16 free books from 16 essays so far, but this one will be special for me. This week’s giveaway is Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture, by … well, me. I can’t talk myself up like I do the other authors, so I’ll just say that I sincerely hope you enjoy it. You’ll get to read it before everyone else—just send me an email telling me if you’ve watched Disney’s Turning Red yet. I’ll send the book to three random people who hit my inbox—and I hope the rest of you choose to preorder my memoir and give it a read. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.