The ads for the movie adaptation of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” emphasize that it’s “a show for all ages.”
At an early screening, that claim held up. The theater was filled with mothers and their middle-school-aged daughters, as well as younger and older women and a sprinkling of men. The book’s exploration of the bodily changes, spiritual searching and reevaluation of family and values at the onset of puberty resonates with generations of people.
The #MargaretMoments trailer that ran before the film captured the feeling of reverent anticipation. In short interview segments, women shared what the book meant to them as well as their memories of early puberty and the more recent challenges that left them feeling confused and alone.
When the trailer finished, my friend and I turned to each other with the same question: Where were we? Both of us are 54. Nearly all the women featured appeared to be at least 10 years younger. The adult moments they spoke of tended to focus on early motherhood.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” was published in 1970, and most of us who read it in its first decade are far from the new-parent years, if we ever had children at all. When I talked to Gen X women about their first encounters with Judy Blume, they noted striking parallels between puberty and where we find ourselves now, approaching or past menopause.
“‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’” was formative to me on a spiritual level,” said Angie Lieber, a career coach in New York. “I knew that Judy Blume was Jewish, and Margaret’s mixed. I grew up in a family that was Jewish, and we practiced, but God wasn’t part of it. It was an intellectual, ’70s, New York atheist mentality. That book let me know that I’m allowed to wonder about something else besides what’s here on this Earth. To this day, when I’m feeling a shame spiral, I will say ‘Are you there God? It’s me, Angie.’”
Women who weren’t as similar to Margaret in background or culture also recognized themselves in Blume’s book.
“I’m not Jewish. I wasn’t on the East Coast. But I was very curious about periods, and what was going to happen as my body changed,” said Martha Bayne, a writer and editor in Chicago. “One of the things that resonated about the book was the way it so openly acknowledged curiosity.”
Melissa Blount, a therapist and artist in Evanston, Illinois, said she remembers feeling relieved that someone named her “anxiety about not having a period or breasts yet.”
“I also remember having the additional challenge of not only wishing for my period and breasts but having ‘good’ hair too. My friend circle at the time [was] Black but lighter-skinned than me, and they had wavy, soft, curly hair. I’d put [Luster’s] Pink Lotion in my hair with a plastic cap and pray every night for soft, wavy, curly hair. I was lonely, and this book made me feel seen.”
“[Blume] presented changes and desires in the body in a straightforward and matter-of-fact manner. What I wouldn’t give, as my body goes through another similar upheaval, to have her guidance.”
For many “Margaret” fans, when the boobs and periods came, the reality didn’t always meet the expectation.
“Initially, I was excited to become a teenager,” says Bayne, who was a ballet dancer in her youth. “When I actually did enter puberty, I freaked out. Shortly after I developed breasts and got my period, I developed an eating disorder. I got very thin and my period stopped, but my boobs never went away. I felt conspicuous, and I tried to hide them.”
As Bayne matured and became involved in activities outside of dance, she accepted her breasts as a welcome part of her body. Then last year, at 54, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has been chronicling her experience on a Substack called “Bell, Whistle.”
“If you’re being considered for a mastectomy, when you go see the plastic surgeon, one of the things they ask is do you want to have a reconstruction with implants, or do you want to go flat,” Bayne said. “I had to ponder that question. What does it mean to maintain this signifier of my ‘normal body,’ even though it’s fake? At first, I thought I wanted to get implants. I ended up only needing a lumpectomy, but if the cancer comes back, God forbid, and I have to have surgery again, I think I would go flat. My relationship to my breasts has been changed by going through all of this treatment.”
Blount’s ideas of femininity also changed at midlife. She recalls that when she started menstruating, her mother called people on the phone and said, “Melissa got her period; she’s a woman now.”
Later, she struggled with feelings of inadequacy when her fertility waned.
“I was first told I wasn’t likely to get pregnant again at 41,” Blount said. “I mourned being able to fix all my first-time mothering mistakes and witnessing the blossoming of another human. Fast forward to 2022, when I had a hysterectomy due to fibroids. I was over the myth that my uterus and being a mother confirmed my womanhood. I was relieved to be rid of it.”
Some women never viewed their reproductive capacities as important to their sense of self.
“I was never really interested in having children and never associated my femininity with the ability to get pregnant or give birth, so I don’t have sentimental feelings toward either transition,” author Kristi Coulter said. “For me, they’re just hormonal storms to be ridden out as painlessly as possible until things stabilize again.”
The hormonal shifts at the beginning and toward the end of women’s reproductive lives can wreak havoc no matter how a person perceives fertility.
“My childhood was chaotic and stressful. I was a mixed brown girl in a little white town in the corner of Minnesota,” said Stacey Parshall Jensen, a filmmaker who lives in California and Minnesota. “I was constantly searching to belong, to be seen, to be heard and protected. When menopause came crashing through the door, showing up with a ton of luggage because she was planning to stay for a while, all those feelings flooded back. I felt crazy, mad, dizzy, confused, angry and so hurt.”
None of the women I spoke with felt prepared for the effects of hormonal changes at this life stage.
“My education about puberty may have been limited to a few filmstrips and awkward conversations, but at least I got something,” Coulter said. “The only perimenopause symptom I ever heard much about was hot flashes, and I certainly had no clue that perimenopause could last up to a decade, or that loss of estrogen could have long-term effects on my bone density and cognition.”
Lieber, the career coach in New York, was similarly unprepared for the effects of menopause.
“Five years ago, when I stopped my periods, I had no idea what was happening,” Lieber said. “I was asking, does anyone else have pain during intercourse? I had no information at all.”
But people raised on Blume during a time when feminism was affecting political and cultural change have not been content to remain in the dark or to communicate about this midlife passage only in whispers.
“I was constantly searching to belong, to be seen, to be heard and protected. When menopause came crashing through the door, showing up with a ton of luggage because she was planning to stay for a while, all those feelings flooded back. I felt crazy, mad, dizzy, confused, angry and so hurt.”
Lieber has seen a huge change in the amount of information available since she first experienced symptoms.
“Now, I’m going to a menopause symposium and we’re learning about all this,” she said. “There’s a perimenopause TikTok. I’m walking the streets and there are ads that are like, ‘Do you have a healthy vagina?’”
Coulter attributes the increase in knowledge to Gen X women insisting on better care for themselves.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s more information now. We’re the first Title IX generation to hit menopause,” Coulter said. “I’m in a Facebook group for athletic menopausal women, and believe me, when someone’s triathlon performance is suddenly slumping because she’s sleepless and exhausted all the time, she’s not likely to say, ‘Oh well, I guess I’m just old now and should quit!’ She’s going to want answers. I also think Gen X’s skepticism toward pat answers leads us to keep digging and asking questions when we sense we’re being brushed off.”
Lieber directly credits Blume with this shift.
“‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’ helped us talk about menstruation. As Gen Xers, we had that book, and later we had ‘Our Bodies Ourselves,’” Lieber said. “Because we were talking about sexual health all along; now that we’re going through menopause, we are the people saying, this, too, is part of sexual health.”
It’s also part of mental and physical health.
“I was surprised by the intense shifts in my spiritual base,” Jensen said. “The wrecking of my identity. And then, of course, finding my way. I read a lot, whatever I could get my hands on. I found an incredible therapist. I found a Facebook group of writers who were my age who were sassy, beautiful and gave love without question. I learned to be a better friend. I learned the beauty of communication. I honored my creative spirit and reconnected with my Indigenous roots. These were my saving graces.”
Reading, communicating with friends, and acknowledging spiritual questions as well as physical needs are all things Blume encouraged readers to do.
“Blume’s books served as my cheat sheet for adolescence,” said Anjali Enjeti, an author from the Atlanta area. “She presented changes and desires in the body in a straightforward and matter-of-fact manner. What I wouldn’t give, as my body goes through another similar upheaval, to have her guidance.”
Blume is retired now, but her legacy has equipped generations of women — including members of Gen X — to help each other through life’s passages.