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.