Biology still isn’t destiny: on creating safe childhoods in an age of ever-earlier puberty

I’m easing back in from hiatus with a fresh post.

In 2006, I wrote about the historic drop in the onset of menstruation and the rising age of marriage. It’s a topic familiar to many of my women’s history students. The basic premise is that the average age of first menstruation (menarche) dropped by about five years (from about 16 to about 11) between 1900 and 2000 in America, while the average age that women first married increased from about 21 to about 27. Meanwhile, studies have shown that the average American girl (if there is such a thing) loses her virginity around age 16.

What’s the interesting point? Call it the “constancy of five”. Today, the “average” American girl first has heterosexual intercourse approximately five years after menarche. In 1900, if we can make the dangerous assumption that at least a fair percentage of American young women were virgins when they wed, they too were having their first intercourse approximately five years after they began menstruating. The five year gap is the one constant even as all the other variables have shifted.

This is statistically intriguing, but has huge implications for those who wish to foist nineteenth century morality onto twenty-first century minds and bodies. Parents who expect (as many parents from traditional cultures expect) their daughters to marry as virgins, but to only marry after finishing a degree and starting a career, are asking their girls to “wait” three times as long as women “waited” a century ago. When the old folks lament the “declining morality” of the younger generation, they miss the fact that what they’re asking their daughters to do is considerably more than was expected of their great-grandmothers.

I thought of all this when the study came out last week showing that girls are continuing to enter puberty earlier and earlier. Since 1997, when Joan Brumberg’s indispensable Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls was published, the percentage of girls aged 6-8 who exhibited early breast development has doubled among whites and gone up 50% among African-Americans. (Thelarche is the term for the beginning of secondary breast development, btw.) There has been a corresponding increase, other studies report, in the percentage of girls who have their first period before their tenth birthday.

Whatever the reasons (obesity, a diet heavy in meat, etc.) there’s little question that the real challenge for feminists is to focus on the needs of this very vulnerable population. There’s no question that fifteen year-olds are better (if imperfectly) equipped to deal with the challenges of menstruation and changing bodies than are girls five years younger. There has been no concomitant rise in the rate of emotional maturation to go along with the declining age of menarche. As school nurses across the country can attest, adapting advice about menstruation to an ever younger group of girls presents special challenges, the anxieties of parents not least among them.

It’s important to remember that earlier maturation doesn’t need to lead inexorably to premature sexualization. We need to distinguish these as two separate issues. Physiological changes that cause preteens to develop breasts and hips do not cause adult men to leer. The fetishization of young women (pedophila chic, as some have dubbed it) is a cultural response to men’s anxiety about women’s increasing power. Part of the anti-feminist backlash is the sexualization of the very young. For those who fantasize about a pre-feminist world in which women are pliable and submissive, it makes perverse sense to focus desire increasingly on the very youngest girls whose capacity to set boundaries and to exercise agency is obviously limited. The growing physiological reality of early puberty serves as justification for sexualizing preteen and “tween” girls. The vulgar expression “Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed” dates back at least as far as the Second World War (and may be much older) — but read in the light of a dramatically falling age of menarche, it becomes more unconscionable to repeat with each passing decade.

We can start to carve out safe space for this vulnerable population of pubescent youngsters by committing ourselves individually and collectively to a zero-tolerance policy on their sexualization. This doesn’t mean forbidding your eleven year-old daughter from wearing a miniskirt. It means holding adults (parents, teachers, strangers on the street, Uncle Bert) responsible for seeing these girls in women’s bodies as children still. It means watching our language; for some, it may mean watching their eyes. It means sending a message to girls and to everyone who interacts with them that their bodies are theirs and theirs alone. It means redefining our notion of development so that ten year-olds who have already entered puberty continue to be allowed to be children safe for as long as possible from the harassment, the leers, and the judgment that is so much a part of female adolescence in our society.

The next time you hear an adult man make a sexualized remark about a teen girl –even a celebrity such as, say, Miley Cyrus — call him on it. Make it clear that a girl in what appears to be a woman’s body is still a girl, and that adult men are fully capable of distinguishing between eroticising a well-developed 13 year-old child and a woman twice her age. Men are not so weak, so stupid, or so blind that they cannot make these distinctions in their actions, in their words, and in their very thoughts. Now, more than ever, we need to commit ourselves to empowering a generation of girls who are confronting unprecedented challenges. And we empower them by giving them the safe space to mature emotionally at their own pace, regardless of the ever-increasing speed at which their bodies are developing.

0 thoughts on “Biology still isn’t destiny: on creating safe childhoods in an age of ever-earlier puberty

  1. Pingback: What We Missed: ABA rocks, NOM turnout fail and early puberty

  2. As the mother of a 9 year old girl, who has observed today’s society put responsibility for the sexualization of her body on her young shoulders, I thank you deeply for this post!

  3. The basic premise is that the average age of first menstruation (menarche) dropped by about five years (from about 16 to about 11) between 1900 and 2000 in America

    Where does that stat come from? I ask because I know my grandmothers started their periods at 11, and they were scrawny kids who had carb-heavy diets, not much meat! I just wonder if that isn’t what is skewing the stats lower—the influx of ethnicities other than northern European into the U.S. between 1900 and 2000. (every woman in my family as far back as anyone can remember started menstruating at 11, except for one of my aunts—she was the late-bloomer at 13)

  4. Lots of good longitudinal studies cited in Brumberg, and you can also check out Sandra Steingraber’s 2007 report for the Breast Cancer project that established a conclusive link between early menarche and breast cancer.

    Interesting, though the rate of first menstruation continues a steady decline (about two months on average per decade, and as always, lower for Hispanic and blacks), the age of “thelarche” (breast development) is falling even faster.

  5. Taking into account how unnatural and unhealthy the food in the US is, it’s a miracle we haven’t grown beaks and tails yet.

    A fantastic post, as usual!

  6. Thank you! I am a white 20-year old who started hitting puberty when I was 6. By the time I was 8 my parents finally let me start shaving my legs and underarms so I wouldn’t get teased at swimming lessons. By the time I was 12 I had already out-grown a C-cup, and at no point was I obese or even significantly overweight.

    And yes, I did get some inappropriate attention from men, but thanks to my innocent obliviousness and my parents “I will soooo kill you if you go near her” stares, they mostly stayed away. But even without that it was still confusing as heck starting to experience the usual emotional upheaval and starting to experience sexual feelings before I could really comprehend what I was going through.

    Not to mention the tests the doctor ran on me to make sure there was nothing seriously wrong with me…I hated blood tests.

  7. Lots of good longitudinal studies cited in Brumberg…

    Guess I’ll have to check it out, then. There’s just something about this post that’s bugging me…it seems there’s a subtle tone of “there’s something wrong with girls who mature early!!”….which didn’t exactly make things pleasant for me when I went through puberty (it was also combined with a lot of ugly ethnic stuff too…don’t miss that shit, either). I mean, the emphasis on racial differences in the age of puberty just seem to emphasize a “white” norm that despite being of European background, I didn’t fit, either (age of breast development, age of menarche, age of pubic and underarm hair, color of body hair, color of nipples and labia)….yeah, all the hyperfocus on how NOT!! NORMAL!! I was made me extremely self-conscious as a pre-teen.

    Maybe it’s just my perception, but I think people have gotten more mature about puberty; less likely to freak out, more accepting of differences. I know my daughter is having a different experience than I did, and I think that’s great. My experience was basically—I went from being regarded (by the general public) as a kid to being regarded as….a slut. My body is what signalled “sluttiness”, not my clothes or behavior (which spelled out “tomboy”, had it not been for my body). And I’m not just talking about random men on the street; I’m talking elementary school teachers who should have known better. (or maybe that was classism speaking…the “oh, now she’s gonna get knocked up and ruin her life” stereotype…..at the ripe old age of eleven. Seriously. The perception of my IQ dropped as my cup size rose.)

    Anyway. That’s not happening to my daughter; people seem to realize that puberty happens, and it’s no big deal.

  8. La Lubu, I’m sorry that it came across as critical of early developers. That wasn’t my intent at all.

    Yes, ethnicity has a bearing on when puberty starts. The point of the study is that it is accelerating relatively dramatically (thelarche and menarche) across all ethnic groups in the industrialized world. Of course, averages are just that — averages. They don’t describe everyone’s experience, or even necessarily the experience of the majority.

    I wish that it were “no big deal” in every household when a girl of whatever age hits puberty. In many places, it still is, alas.

  9. I am not sure if you are aware of this, but many in the rural south and many branches of Christian Right blame the declining age of menarche on maternal immorality. They use the racial statistics you just cited as evidence in of a treasured loop in a circular logic relating female immorality and racism.

    Explaining the logic loop is difficult, and it has two sources: rural folklore and “new science.” In folklore, girls develop early when they are exposed to lots of female sexuality in their families (read: their mothers are sexually immoral). The Christian Right assert that “science” has shown that living with unrelated men causes early menarche (read: mom is either a slut or chose an entirely unsuitable man and wouldn’t maintain celibacy after he left. T bottom line is that regardless of how a child came to be raised in a home without his or her biological father, conservatives always fault the mother’s poor sexual choices.) Non-white women are thought to be less moral, and therefore expose their daughter’s to more sexuality or to “strange” men and therefore their daughters enter menarche earlier than the daughters of the nice white ladies Therefore, the higher rates of early menarche in non-white girls is taken to be proof of their race’s inferior morality.

    I am not sure if I explained that logic-loop well. Let me know if I was unclear. It may also be helpful to understand the doctrinal logic behind it. There is an expression in conservative Christianity taken from scripture: “The sins of the parents are visited on the children, even until the seventh generation.” This is taken to mean that the sinful proclivities of the parent can be passed to children, skipping some and hitting others. Children cursed by a visitation of their parent’s sin can fight those sinful urges and still live virtuous lives, but they will always have the temptation as their chief “stumbling block.” Early menarche is thought to be a sign that the mother’s sin has been visited on the child. In other words, it is assumed that apple falling from the slutty tree, may not yet be slutty. But if she hopes to maintain her purity, she will always have to “guard herself” and other people will probably have to help her with that.

    So Hugo, you are treading in emotionally dangerous territory. Women can be very sensitive about “developing” early. For some, their world became a much more hostile place when that happened to them. I am lucky that I did not and neither did my daughter, but I saw how much life changed for those poor girls who did.

  10. One last piece of the logic-loop: the trend towards early menarche is seen as evidence that in our culture, women are becoming increasingly immoral as a consequence of feminism. See, its all the fault of you damned feminists!

  11. I was well aware of the religious right’s assumptions about “maternal immorality” and absent fathers leading to earlier menarche; I hadn’t realized how overtly racist some of that thinking was. (I thought it was more obliquely bigoted!)

    Yes, this is emotionally dangerous territory, which is why I go there early and often in my classes. The point is that the suffering that so many young girls endure is unnecessary, rooted in culture rather than physiology. And we need to work on changing our homes, our schools, and our whole approach to children to make this ever-earlier transition into puberty a positive experience.

  12. Hugo — You strike me as a self loathing male who’s consumed with guilt because he’s been manipulated in believing his gender is nothing more then a collection of barbaric predators.

  13. Regarding the idea that early puberty is caused by maternal immorality — my mom always told me that girls who hit puberty early came from “unstable” homes, or homes with no father, because, when you’re father (or step-father) hugs you, he transfers tiny amounts of testosterone to you. So if you don’t have a male father figure, you’ll reach puberty too early.

    Just thought I’d share.

  14. Cabaret, you seem awfully judgemental to me. Why do you think Hugo is as you put it “a self loathing male” simply because he is a feminist? Or is something more deeply rooted than that? Nothing I have ever read here makes me think that of Huog. To the contrary, I have always been struck by just how well he understands the issues women, young women and girls face in this world.

    I suggest you have a lot to learn-

  15. Hugo — Agreed, preying on young girls is reprehensible, just be careful with communal blame. I don’t adhere to collectivism and have been highly critical of the feminist movement for employing ‘cherry picked’ statistics as a method of chastising an entire gender. I’ve always thought male feminists are the ultimate form of chivalry. Because the very core of the feminist movement is based on victimization, some men who adhere to that ideology essentially believes women are weak.

    Mary Provence — How do you equate my criticism of Hugo’s commentary with a lack of understanding? Not everyone’s going to agree with you and its arrogant to right them off as misinformed, misguided, or ignorant. Difference of opinion is not always a matter of right and wrong.

    I will say this — at the very least, feminism and feminists are very interesting. In fact, I was thinking of taking a women’s studies coarse as an elective this spring.

  16. La Lubu, this is the gardener in me talking, but it may be the causative factor is stress as much as a meat-heavy diet. Gardeners know the way to get something bloom if it won’t, or set fruit if all it’s doing is blooming, is to water-stress the plant. You withold water. The organism speeds into reproduction. I thnk that even with all the improved hygeine and better access to protein we have, we also have a huge stress on all of us from over-crowding and pover-population.

    I have also heard somewhere that growth hormones in meat can trigger early puberty. There are different hormonal disuptions being observed in boys too. Somethng systemic is wrong.

  17. Where does that stat come from? I ask because I know my grandmothers started their periods at 11, and they were scrawny kids who had carb-heavy diets, not much meat!

    The suggestion about it being meat is probably rubbish; it’s probably (very probably) the pseudo estrogens being released in the manufacturing of plastics and whatnot that’s driving it (sometimes you’ll see dipshits try to blame it on peeing out the pill, but that’s rubbish) – racial effects are probably the result of race-economic status correlations and the economic status – how much people care if you’re exposed to pollutants correlation.

    Of course, individuals are always going to show a lot of variation; I wouldn’t think much of it at all – there’s a tendency for all of us to think of ourselves as typical of our class, and we’re often (usually?) not. At least, I do it, so I’ll assume it’s true of everyone. ;) Of course, now I’m sure it’ll turn out you lived next door to a plastic molding plant and drank nothing but well water.

  18. Brian, the evidence that a vegetarian diet slows the onset of puberty among girls is well-established, though the results are less clear outside the States. (de Ridder CM, Thijssen JHH, Vant Veer P, et al. Dietary habits, sexual maturation, and plasma hormones in pubertal girls: a longitudinal study. Am J Clin Nutr 1991;54:805-13.)

    That said, this post was NOT about why puberty is happening earlier. It’s about what to do with the reality that it is, without scapegoating girls, their parents, or poverty. Folks would always rather talk about why it’s happening than about how to respond to the reality that we make the onset of puberty very difficult and often traumatic for young girls, regardless of when they start.

  19. I’m not buying the ‘slut Mom’ phenom. That is ‘westernized’ thinking.

    I am curious to know the onset of menstruation in third world countries. Has that gone up or down? I have seen the vile living conditions…how do the couples perform sex? They all live in one room! Where does sex take place? It must be taking place, as there are children! They don’t have the luxury of extra bedrooms. Are these children developing at an alarmingly fast pace? Western sexual mores are not the norm for most of the world.

    Is there, perhaps, a correlation between young people having access to sexually graphic media and maturation? Are there studies on that?

    Along with our early maturation, we are leading much longer lives. Is there a correlation to our ‘heavy meat diet’ that perhaps could lead to a longer life?

    I agree with Hugo’s premise. It isn’t the young girl’s fault, and creepy older men should be held accountable. But to demonize a group of Americans one feels as politically ‘incorrect’ does not solve the problem of cause and effect. A hypothesize based on ones political leanings is much too convenient.

  20. Girls in less well-developed countries tend to menstruate later, though the data varies widely (even wildly) from region to region. And the jury is still out on cause, though diet is more likely than media, as the studies establishing delayed menses for girls who are vegetarians have shown.

    That said, I’ve heard some folks speculate that we are actually approaching optimal puberty — suggesting that menarche and thelarche were artificially delayed by malnutrition and poverty in the past.

    But again, again, again: why is less important than what we’re going to do to keep our girls not only safe, but happy and self-confident through this ever-earlier transition.

  21. ok so first off i do agree that ya a 7 or 9 year old girl should not be held responsible if there starting puberty. but saying that an adult male should know that these 11 or 13 year old girls wearing mini skirts r that age is bullshit. i look at these girls and go wtf. if u let ur daughter leave the house in a tank top and mini skirt ya guys r going to look. because theses girls nolonger look 11 or 13 or even 9 they look 18 from far away. boobs, short skirt, tight tank who thinks 11 year old girl. no one. and these girls r not stupid they know dressing like that gets them attention and they like it. we all do. but trying to put the blame on the men i think is bs. what r the guys suppose to do, go up and ask for some identification. make sure they really are legal before checking them out. i dont get it.

  22. what r the guys suppose to do, go up and ask for some identification. make sure they really are legal before checking them out.

    Sure. Why not?

    The whole trope of elementary schoolgirls in provocative clothing, deliberately seducing full-grown men….when the hell can that tired stereotype be killed, hmm? I fully remember being in grade school and going through puberty; no one wore “provocative” clothes. We dressed the same as the boys, for the most part (meaning: shorts in the summer, jeans in the winter). The difference? Some of us had large breasts. Girls with small breasts were “the good girls”—regardless of clothing or behavior. Girls with large breasts were “the bad girls”—again, regardless of clothing or behavior.

    It wasn’t our clothing that was immodest. It was our bodies. Some of us had the misfortune to have what the larger society determined was an immoral body.

    Meanwhile, if you were male, you could rest assured that no matter what the size or shape of your body—it was not immoral. Male bodies were not immoral. Period. Even with no shirt on.

    There isn’t any difference in leg exposure between “mini-skirts” and running shorts. Why “mini-skirts”? Because it’s gender-specific, unlike running shorts? Frankly, there’s no disguising a C- or D- (or larger) cup size even in a baggy sweatshirt or oversized sweater. So, where does the body policing end?

    This thread was educational for me; I had no idea of the toxic ideas about female puberty held by fundamentalists. WOW.

  23. Dee, when I was eleven I got boobs. Older men hit on me. They also called me “little girl”, and often they asked how old I was. I can’t tell you how many disgusting older men hit on me and seemed to get turned on by how mature I looked for my age. And they knew my age and didn’t care.

    Read Hugo’s posts about the myth of male weakness (see his category list on the right side of this blog). Men can control their eyes and thoughts. And I’m lucky enough to have met men like Hugo and others who live this out every single day.

  24. Hugo, “some girls are showing alarming signs of early development” is not the same as “girls are starting puberty earlier and earlier”.

    The drop in the age of menarche you’re looking at occurred over a hundred years. Was it a straight drop? Has is plateaued at some point? The way you’re presenting it, in another decade or so girls will be menstruating before they’re out of diapers.

    I agree with all your points about sexualizing young girls. I don’t like Chicken Little narratives.