Last week, it was widely reported that American girls of this generation are starting puberty earlier than their counterparts in the early 90’s. There have been a variety of articles about this, mostly framed around the increase of young white girls who are reaching puberty as early as age 7. However, the disparate rates for young Black and Latina girls have always reflected a serious public health issue.
Based on the aforementioned study conducted in the mid-2000’s but recently published in the journal “Pediatrics,” more than 10% of white 7-year-old girls had reached a stage of breast development marking the start of puberty, compared to just 5 percent in a similar study conducted in the early 1990s. It is also noted in the article that nearly one-quarter (23%) of black girls (up from 15%) and 15% of Hispanic girls had entered puberty by age 7, but the researchers say that the trend is not statistically significant (in terms of methodology). While that offers an explanation why the press primarily focused on the rates for white girls, it is significant reproductive justice issue regarding girls of color.
The study found that among 8 year-olds 18% of Caucasian girls, 43% of African American girls and 31% of Hispanic girls had reached early puberty. So by age 8, almost half of Black girls and almost one-third of Hispanic girls are experiencing early puberty. It was also reported that on average Black and Hispanic girls continue to mature faster than white girls but there was little extrapolation or exploration of this finding.
Though it is not the researchers’ role to attribute a definite cause, it is suggested that BPAs in our plastic and childhood obesity as probable causes for this trend, according to mainstream media reports. Interestingly, there was no mention of the likely possibility of early puberty being linked to our food, specifically the hormones in our meat and dairy products, and whatever chemicals are in our overly processed foods. That seems like a fairly obvious leap but I only have seen this addressed by Christina Pirello here. Look at the recent reports about the babies in China developing breasts…they are drinking chemical formula instead of breastmilk. I know that the formula manufacturer has been cleared but it seems suspect to me. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than half of American babies are breastfed for six months or more, and the numbers are even less in communities of color.
Whether the cause is plastics or nutrition, it brings up significant environmental and food justice issues and it makes perfect sense why Black and Latina girls are hitting puberty faster. Children of color are overall more obese and communities of color are less likely to have affordable organic meat and dairy. Instead of grocery stores with fresh produce sections, poor neighborhoods (and/or where people of color live) are heavily populated by bodegas or corner stores that offer processed snacks, candy, soft drinks, etc.
So after being pissed about the state of young girls in America, I was left wondering about our young boys. The potential effects on boys were barely mentioned except for this thorough post by Cristen Conger at the Huffington Post. Young men are very often left out of the conversation when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and if girls are being affected by environmental and nutritional factors, the boys are too. We should understand both sides of the equation if we want to nurture sexually healthy adults.
The idea of girls in our society developing breasts at age 7 freaks me out. That means that periods are around the corner. With periods comes the ability to get pregnant, with breasts comes male attention and for little girls who don’t fully comprehend how their bodies work and are caught in between having a girl’s mind with a woman’s body, unintended pregnancies and STDs become a reality. The blog, Akimbo, posted a brilliant article using this study to make the case for age-appropriate comprehensive sex education and ending child marriage on an international level (it was also reposted here on Feministing). Perhaps I’m old-fashioned and maybe naïve but I want to see girls that age being carefree, creating imaginary worlds with their buddies, riding bikes, drawing, playing with dolls and giggling lots.