Girls who undergo early puberty are more likely to have symptoms of anxiety, higher levels of depression, and initiate sex earlier. (Photo: Getty Images)
Recently, my 9-year-old daughter asked what my most embarrassing moment was as a child. I told her my entire puberty.
By age 8, I was wearing a bra, and at 10, I began menstruating. It was hard to deal with the taunting of my peers — although I tried to hide my period from my classmates, our gym teacher unwittingly outed me one day by demanding I tell the class why I was late to P.E.; too freaked out to lie, I blurted out, “Because I was changing my maxi pad!” After that, the kids told me I smelled “like an old lady.” Still, the strangers on the street who sexualized me at such an early age did much more psychological damage. Since I looked like a young teenager, men ogled me overtly; some went further, telling me I was “sexy” or honking their car horns as I passed.
My body was sending a message that my brain wasn’t ready to process. By 13, I was sexually active with multiple partners, and I attribute that, in part, to the societal reaction to my early puberty. Much of the world seemed to be telling me that sex was what I was good for.
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Back when I was growing up in the ‘80s, my early puberty was an anomaly. However, these days, beginning puberty at age 8 is considered normal. Although the median age for a girl’s first period has held fast at age 12 for decades, girls as young as 7 are starting to grow breasts — and once the world notices, the sexualizing starts.
Julianna Deardorff, a licensed clinical psychologist and mother of a 12-year-old daughter, was so concerned about the implications of early puberty, she co-authored the 2014 book The New Puberty with pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan. “I was working with preteens and adolescents who were sexually active, and they were relating their own puberty experiences and complaining about not having a lot of information to navigate that well,” Deardorff tells Yahoo Parenting. “Typically, kids are learning about pubertal health in 5th or 6th grade, but that’s really late [considering] that 10 percent of white girls are showing breast development before age 8, Hispanic girls at 15 percent, and African-American girls at 25 percent. Right now there’s a lot of body shaming going on: boys snapping girls’ bras, that sort of thing. It’s been established that girls who enter puberty earlier are more likely to have symptoms of anxiety, higher levels of depression, and initiate sex earlier. If we start talking about puberty at a young age, we can help normalize it, and kids will understand what’s going on with their bodies.”
Although my daughter has yet to experience her first period, she’s clearly in the throes of puberty, and it’s already making her self-conscious. She constantly worries that her training bra strap might show or that her deodorant won’t do its job. She hasn’t been catcalled but I’ve seen men look at her in a way that makes me uncomfortable. And when she hears strangers call out to me — I’m a middle-aged mom but it does happen occasionally — she’s completely incensed (“Don’t they know you’re married to dad?!”) and a bit frightened.
According to The New Puberty, the three main causes of early puberty are obesity, psychosexual stressors, and exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (typically found in cleaning products and cosmetics)— as Deardorff puts it, “We live in a toxic soup right now."
"My daughter began having body odor at 6,” laments my friend Jeanne, who declined to disclose her last name. “Then came the acne — at 7! She’s now 9 and has yet to get her period but has underarm hair and wears a training bra. She’s had a hard time with it. I went out and purchased a few of the puberty books like The Care and Keeping of You books. She recently asked why she had hair 'on her vulva’ when other girls did not, so I used the books to show her the progression of hair growth. I think she found scientific facts comforting rather than just, 'This is what Mom says.’”
Deardorff agrees that open discussions about puberty are the key to demystifying the experience and also helps kids separate it from sexuality. “Parents used to have just two ‘Big Talks’ with their daughters: one about menstruation and the other about sex,” says Deardorff. “But this should be an ongoing conversation because kids’ questions will change over time.”
She adds, “Something that concerns me about girls who experience early puberty is how adults in their lives may sexualize what is normal physical development. It’s like we jump from breasts to sex, and honestly, that’s far from a 7- or 8-year-old’s mind. It’s hard to keep our girls young. They’re marketed makeup and heels and mature clothing at such an early age.”
A small bit of comfort is, once early signs of puberty start — like axillary hair and body odor — you don’t have to dive into intense topics like periods and catcalling. Puberty is a process that takes years, so there’s time to build up to the more complicated conversations. After seeing me catcalled a few times, my daughter asked when men might start "bothering” her. I replied that I couldn’t say for sure, but that if I were around, I’d put the kibosh on it right away. And if I weren’t, she had the power to do that, too.
“It’s important to teach girls how to be comfortable when they’re walking on their own,” Nancy Freeman-Carroll, a clinical psychologist-psychoanalyst and mother of tween twins, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Girls need to learn to feel secure in themselves and set clear boundaries.”
According to Freeman-Carroll, parents can empower their daughters by educating them about their bodies and helping them foster their personalities. “Girls need to know that they’re much more than what they look like,“ she says.
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