Good Morning America recently discussed a New York Times piece about the trend of increasingly early puberty among American girls. Studies show that while girls are still getting their first period around the same age as in the past (11-12), secondary sex characteristics such as breasts, body hair, and all of the emotions that come along with a menstrual cycle are beginning much earlier — for some as early as 5 years old.
The author of the piece, Elizabeth Weil, explains that puberty before the age of 10 is becoming “the new normal,” and doctors have no idea why. Theories cite obesity, stress, and environmental factors (such as the dreaded BPA and other estrogen-mimicking chemicals) as causes, but these are just theories. Troublingly, experts warn that depression, increased risk of breast cancer, and other long-term health problems are some potential dangers of early development. But what about the social problems?
Research also claims that this increase in early puberty has a racial component, with 23% of black girls, 15% of Hispanic girls, 10% of caucasian girls, and 2% of Asian girls showing breast growth by age 7. Like most “studies” that attempt to include analysis by race, one has to be skeptical of the findings — such studies often confuse socioeconomic factors with race and have an underlying cultural bias. But there is a clear social impact that all girls will have to face: those who develop early will likely attract a type of attention, especially in the form of ogling and street harassment, that they are way to young to handle and may not even understand.
I’m sure I’m not alone in having noticed grown men with no shame checking out girls who look as young as twelve. I also remember being that age and watching older men, with what I now realize was lust in their eyes, try to talk to my more-developed girlfriends in seventh and eighth grade. This is a long-established and serious problem, and of course the first step is addressing the behavior of the aggressors. But how can we proactively prepare our daughters to deal with unwanted and dangerous attention at earlier and earlier ages?