sisters laying down on the floor together

Pupa and Puberty: Understanding the Chrysalis Stage

Growing up sucks. There’s really no lighter way to put it. Take a typical girl for instance: as she moves into young adulthood, or the ‘pre-teen/teenage’ years, she not only deals with the development of breasts and hips, but also a suddenly-increased sexual drive (aka. noticing hot guys for the first time), a rush of emotions (bawling her eyes out over an 8/10 on a homework assignment), height and weight fluctuations (suddenly gaining excessive amounts of weight and not fitting into favorite jeans and/or sprouting ten-foot-long legs), pimples (don’t get me started with those)… and the list continues.

What’s fascinating about this stage of development, however, is that even with all the internal and external chaos, this girl will somehow become beautiful (or beautifully awkward in my case). She’ll be like a butterfly, for example. In the pupa stage, the insect is housed by a protected chrysalis that from the outside appears unmoving, but inside, is crazy with changes. There are shifts and growths that make the once-caterpillar into a completely different creature. And this isn’t an easy process by any means. But when the insect finally emerges, it’s fascinating. This is how us humans are—drastic hormonal, biological, physical, sexual, and emotional changes under the protected, yet vulnerable stage of adolescence that eventually leads to us becoming fascinating, individual adults.

The word ‘puberty,’ for me, is one of those turn-off words. When I read it on a page, it makes me squeamish. But that’s just because I know it has to do with the horrible time in my life—middle school and early high school. Yes, from sixth grade until ninth grade, I was a whopping 4’11”, one of the shortest girls in my class. I was at least a head or two underneath everyone else, and if that wasn’t bad enough, my height-challenged awkwardness, accompanied with my newly-budding curves and breasts, made me into a stout, lumpy, square-shaped box. In not-so-nice-words: fat. It wasn’t until my freshman year that I actually grew (or at least saw the positive results of a growth spurt). I gained a few inches to get to my adult height of an impressive 5’5” and my body sort of molded itself into something a little less rectangular. This was my puberty experience—obviously loads of fun.

The first thing to understand about human development is that there’s a difference between puberty and adolescence. Puberty is the age of sexual maturity, whereas adolescence defines the time period—often years long—between puberty and adulthood.[1] The stage of adolescence is often referred to as the ‘chaotic stage’ of human development just because there’s so much going on in the body at once. Puberty, then, is the first phase of the chaos. It deals with the sexual development of the teenager—organs, hormones, and other rapid changes.

One of the first changes for females is the menarche, or a girl’s first period. Then there are physical changes, like the growing and widening of the forehead, mouth, hips, and lips. There is also the influx of hormones and opening of sweat glands on a girl’s face—thus causing the dreaded acne. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, there’s the lengthening and expansion of the stomach…which explains why teenagers eat so much and tend to put on some extra pounds. It also explains my chubby waistline—a totally unfair addition of hormones to an already short thirteen-year-old.

There are also changes in energy, heart rate, and glands. Energy increases, sweat glands get excessive (explaining nerves and sweaty movie-theater-date hands), and the heart grows rapidly, to the point where it is bigger than the blood vessels that pump blood in and out.[2] The increase in energy and the enlarged heart supposedly work to counterbalance the increase in puberal fat and the enlarged appetite—too bad that didn’t work in my favor. But all in all, one of the craziest and most noticeable changes of puberty, (and for me, the change that took forever) is the growth spurt. A teenager gains height through bones growing and hardening—a process called ossification. During ossification, or mineralization as it is also called, “mineral salts…are deposited in the cartilage” which causes the bones to harden and increase in size and shape, forming into mature, adult bones.2  It’s ossification that allows a teenager to grow out of weaker childhood bones and have an increase in mobility and strength; its ossification in my early high school years that finally allowed me to be a decent athlete.

Though this growth spurt occurs over a longer period of time and doesn’t appear to be as ‘chaotic,’ it is the most altering change, and strangely, happens almost invisibly. It isn’t apparent to the human eye; it is noticed only after, not during. In this way, the adolescent stage of development is similar to the butterfly pupa, or chrysalis stage of a butterfly in how the changes occur within the protected cocoon—unable to be directly observed.

During the chrysalis stage, a butterfly pupa appears to be unmoving. The insect will enter into what seems to be a safe area and will fasten itself to the branch, leaf, etc. for support. Then, once attached to a branch, wrapped up all mummy-like to restrict physical movement, it begins its internal growth process, which starts with the larval skin. A new larval skin replaces the old, along with an entirely new arrangement of cells.  The larval structures will also break down and disappear, creating new adult-like organs in their place.  Butterfly sex organs will grow, thoracic tissue buds form into wings, and in place of leaf-nibbling jaws, adult mouthparts form.3 The pupa will also develop unique characteristics. Some pupae are plain or dull-colored while others “have elaborately sculptured shapes or long spiny or knobby projections.”[3]  This is much like a human in adolescence—a human develops sexual organs, hormones, unique facial features, limbs of an adult, etc.  And, just like a human, despite the fact that the insect doesn’t appear to be growing to the naked eye, internally, it is drastically changing.

The word ‘pupa’ is a Latin word that means ‘doll’, which, when I think of the word ‘doll,’ I think of vulnerability. 3 In the chrysalis stage, a butterfly is protected by its cocoon, yet it is still subject to the weather, the environment, and predators. In this same way, an adolescent is vulnerable. Because of the influx of hormones, physical changes, social changes, and emotional changes, the teenager is more susceptible to peer conflict, self-image issues, peer influence, and risky behavior, just to name a few. However, in the way that a butterfly is protected by the chrysalis, a teenager is protected by parents, school systems, or justice systems.

Pupa and puberty. It is easy to see how they are interrelated. The pupa is the sheltered state of the butterfly in which rapid internal growth occurs. Puberty is the beginning of adolescence, a protected stage of human development that involves many drastic hormonal, physical, biological, sexual, and emotional changes. In these developmental stages, both the insect and the human are obtaining the organs for reproduction and appendages for mobility and survival as adults—limbs and wings. The butterfly gains beautifully colored patterns; the human gets birthmarks, curly hair, curves. I might have been more of a late-bloomer, but I survived. I went through my adolescence, my chrysalis stage. I was protected. I was vulnerable. But I grew into the mold of an adult, ready for the end of adolescence, where I could finally (don’t mind the cliché) shed my preteen skin for new wings.



To read the pdf version and see a complete list of sources, click here.

– Back to Research