A Chat with Dr. Whitehead–for Birmingham Girls!

Dr. Whitehead as a young girl with her family in Botswana
Dr. Whitehead as a young girl with her family in Botswana. Sarah is the oldest sister!

From my childhood in Botswana (my parents were missionaries), I am deeply aware of the difference reproductive-health information can make in the lives of women and girls. The HIV/AIDS epidemic devastated Botswana. Women, particularly young women ages 15 to 24, are still suffering in greater numbers than men, and progress has stalled. The fact of their limited opportunity, especially in education, makes them vulnerable. Nearly half of them cannot answer even basic questions about HIV. Recalling these grim facts, I am grateful when, in my practice, I can offer young women the information they need to make healthy choices for life.  

Many years since leaving Botswana, on a recent Saturday morning here in Birmingham, I met with a group of young girls and their mothers to discuss the journey from girlhood to adolescence and beyond. The moms shared a strong commitment to provide their daughters with reliable information that would guide them through the years ahead. As the mother of a daughter (still just a toddler) and an Ob-Gyn physician, I appreciated the chance to make their job a little easier.

The program, “Let’s Talk About Girl Things,” was sponsored by Brookwood Women’s Services. We planned to offer very simple, practical information about puberty and body changes, first periods, social relationships and sexuality, and general wellness on a level appropriate to ages 8 to 12 and guided by their questions. Too often girls are reaching out to friends or the Internet before they have the opportunity to attend school programs, and sometimes even before parents realize they are curious. Girls who find reliable information early, in situations where they feel secure, are less likely to look to these unreliable and risky forums.

When discussing puberty, mothers sometimes ask when a teen should have her first women’s health visit. The answer is very individual. Our professional organizations suggest a first visit sometime between 13 and 15. An early first visit opens the door for questions and discussion about healthy lifestyle choices.  It may include a general medical exam or just a conversation. It introduces young teens to the importance of regular preventive care. The visit would not include a pelvic exam unless a young woman was experiencing a specific gynecologic problem. A bonus from our “Let’s Talk” event—it offered the girls a non-threatening first chat with an Ob-Gyn physician. Several years from now, as they anticipate their first office visit, they may recall the Saturday morning when a doctor in blue jeans answered their questions without making them feel embarrassed at all.

The girls were amazing. Their questions were smart and showed their enthusiasm for our discussion. We had fun, food, and freebies with over 70 attendees from across greater Birmingham! In fact, the reviews were so positive that Brookwood will offer the program again in the spring, and I am very pleased to again be participating! We will post the announcement for that event on our Facebook page when Brookwood posts it.

For more information about teen care issues, visit the Especially for Teens section of our website.