Little Women: Early puberty and what it means for girls

At age five, I was obsessed with my orange dress-up heels. They had turtles on them and made me feel quite grown-up. Still, as a ragamuff girl with baby-fat cheeks and a repertoire of popsicle stick jokes under my belt, I was still firmly in the “kid” realm, and would be until until around age 12, when most of my friends and I hit puberty—discovering the joy of boy bands and training bras simultaneously.

In recent years, the transition from girlhood to womanhood  has seemed to come faster, and has had everyone from gossip columnists to politicians abuzz. From sexualized kindergarteners on TLC’s “Toddlers and Tiaras” to horrific images and tragic stories of child brides in the news, the sexual maturity of young girls is in the spotlight. A new study out today complicates the issue: girls—at least in America—are hitting puberty earlier and earlier—some as young as seven years old. In the spirit of “protecting girlhood,” there’s been a lot of brouhaha over naming the culprit of early physical maturation of girls, with both obesity and environmental factors under scrutiny. But instead of pointing fingers, we need to face the facts and focus on the changing needs of girls in our lives and around the world. The New York Times briefly touched on this, saying, “Socially and emotionally, life can be difficult for a girl who has a child’s mind in a woman’s body and is not ready to deal with sexual advances from men and boys, or cope with her own hormone-spiked emotions and sexual impulses,” but neither the writer nor the experts interviewed suggested how we could prepare potentially confused girls to deal with these realities.

One of the most obvious things we need to offer to girls is early, age-appropriate, and comprehensive sexuality education. Regardless of when they hit puberty, children should know about their bodies and their rights. The urgency for such information is far greater when a girl is already menstruating and could be at risk for early pregnancy, or is having to negotiate sexual pressures, often from members of her family or community. The Netherlands is doing a fantastic job of educating youth on their bodies and sexual rights, and there are several other blueprints for how age-appropriate sexuality education can be achieved—but it’s becoming more apparent that the U.S. and countries around the world need to follow suit and make this an even greater priority.

Further, early puberty illuminates the crucial need to fight child marriage on a global scale. In Yemen, a man can legally have sex with a girl once she is “suitable for sexual intercourse” or—in other words—once she has reached puberty. While the latest study confirms that girls are hitting this benchmark earlier and earlier, it does not confirm their readiness to engage in sexual activity. IWHC’s fact sheet on child marriage explains how girls ages 14 and younger are especially vulnerable  to violations of their health and rights, rarely have capacity to give or withhold their consent, and are also more at-risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS. In light of this, I hope you’ll urge your Senator and State Representatives to support the Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act.

People might not like the idea that little girls are, physically speaking, growing up faster—but that doesn’t mean we can afford to simply stick our heads in the ground, or focus only on how to stop early maturation. Puberty is scary and confusing at any age—and as girls face it earlier and earlier, it’s our responsibility to offer them any help we can.

23 Responses to "Little Women: Early puberty and what it means for girls"
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  5. My reaction is mixed. I had read the NYT piece about the study. First, there seems to be a number of questions about the study itself. But let's say it's accurate. I don't agree that finding causation for why girls are maturing faster is "pointing fingers" or brouhaha. In fact, it strikes me as important to do. That being said we can also run a parallel course of educating young girls. One does not exclude the other.
    I'm also aware of my own internal struggle – that the thought of a 7 yr. old having breasts (although the study did say that didn't necessarily mean the onset of menstruation) and having to deal with older guys being attracted almost makes me want to revert to breast binding. It's not an easy issue and, of course, it's not just an issue, it's girls' lives.

  6. @Cherry Woodburn: Thanks for contributing your voice, I'm glad to hear your thoughts!
    I did not mean to say that an examination of the potential causes of this trend was uncalled for, but I do think that when we make too much of that examination and/or focus solely on it we are 1) ignoring the needs of girls who need information and support more than ever, and 2) potentially making them feel that something is “wrong” with them for maturing at an earlier age than previous generations. Puberty is an awkward time, and putting added stigma on girls who are experiencing it by chasing the culprit for early onset could make it even more so. Furthermore, there are numerous practices around the world that attempt to delay or hide the onset of puberty in girls, and these practices are damaging not only to the girls' psychological wellbeing, but to their physical wellbeing as well. I think we can all agree that girls should feel comfortable in their own skin.

  7. Kathleen O'Neal says:

    I am so glad to finally hear Ms. Melanie Abrams say what I think every time I see, hear, or read one of these types of stories. As a young person who believed I matured somewhat early, these stories served to make me feel that there was something wrong, deviant, or even immoral about my newfound natural maturation. The obsessive fixation our culture and many others have with when young girls begin to mature sexually is sexist in the extreme and does not translate to young boys. Suggesting breast binding because you personally are uncomfortable with girls’ physical maturation is dehumanizing and misogynistic in the extreme and I would expect better from someone who posts on a feminist site. If we truly care about all bodies being accepted (disabled bodies, trans bodies, intersexed bodies, fat bodies, thin bodies, male bodies, female bodies, etc.) we all have to work to create acceptance for those young girls like me that matured early. We don’t need to pathologize normal aspects of the female life cycle – puberty, childbirth, menopause, etc. We should support our young girls and teach them pride in their bodies no matter when they mature. Anything else is damaging to their physical and psychological health. I’m shocked people on a site on Feministing aren’t already more out in front on this, recognizing the pathologization of puberty as the tool of the patriarchy that it is.

    • Hi Kathleen! Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment. Making girls feel truly supported and cared for during the puberty transition is a tough one, but with people like you on our side, I think we can make real strides in that direction.

  8. Kate Wilhelm says:

    Thanks for writing this article! We really need to offer sex ed to girls so they can understand their bodies. I'm 17, and I didn't have sex ed in school until sixth grade. I hit puberty around the age of 9, and I didn't know what was happening. Frankly, I was terrified. In retrospect it might seem silly, but I thought I had some awful disease, since I had never learned what a period was, or that I would need to start wearing a bra, or that I would start to have acne. My peers didn't understand it either, and so stayed away from me. As girls are hitting puberty at earlier ages, we need to teach them about their bodies earlier. Puberty is already confusing enough. Why make it more confusing?

    • Hi Kate! You have no idea how happy I am that you're reading our blog–and that you like what we have to say! Your experience doesn't sound silly at all, in fact, sadly, it sounds far too common. I used to write health articles at Seventeen magazine and would get emails from girls like you all the time who felt terrible about their bodies when there was absolutely nothing wrong with them at all. Of course no two people experience things the same way, but I think it can be helpful to know that you're not alone–which age-appropriate, early comprehensive sex ed would help to get across to girls. I hope you'll keep reading our blog and learn more about the work we do! We'd love to hear from you again.

      • Susan says:

        I can't find anything on women who grew up with precocious puberty. My daughter (now 21) was diagnosed at age 5! she is under 5 feet tall & is very large breasted. Besides a possible link with breast cancer from early exposure to estrogen, is there any other medical concerns you know about that we should watch out for?

  9. fxgeorges says:

    Yet another reason to teach healthy eating habits to our young children. Interesting about the effect of fat cells on boys vs. girls. My daughter starts Kindergarten next year and Im looking forward to seeing what the cafeteria sells for food. Its scary as I havent seen a cafeteria in over 20 years.

  10. K.Woods says:

    I have a child who developed early and has faced sexualisation from external sources from a very young age. She is often faced with sexual requests from her male peers her own age and older. My response has been to educate her in what we accept as suitable sexual behaviours and explicitly teach the necessity of safe sex practices….all before the age of 13! I can not turn back the clock, even though I would love too, instead I have to accept the POSSIBILITY that she will become sexually active at an early age due to her experiences and hormaonal influences. I won't be the only mother facing this battle….I encourage all parents in this situation not to bury their heads in the sand and open up a truthful and non-judgemental discussion about sex with these lovely, if early maturing young women. For their sake as well as ours!

  11. I have a child who developed early and has faced sexualisation from external sources from a very young age. She is often faced with sexual requests from her male peers her own age and older. My response has been to educate her in what we accept as suitable sexual behaviours and explicitly teach the necessity of safe sex practices….all before the age of 13! I can not turn back the clock, even though I would love too, instead I have to accept the POSSIBILITY that she will become sexually active at an early age due to her experiences and hormaonal influences. I won't be the only mother facing this battle.

  12. There are certainly quite a lot of particulars like that to take into consideration. That is a great point to bring up. I supply the thoughts above as common inspiration but clearly there are questions just like the one you carry up the place the most important thing can be working in sincere good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around things like that, however I’m sure that your job is clearly recognized as a good game. Both boys and girls really feel the impression of just a second’s pleasure, for the rest of their lives.

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