littlegirls

Early Puberty is a Justice Issue

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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.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam Lindsay-Levine

    I think people of all ages and genders should be able to be carefree, create imaginary worlds with their buddies, ride bikes, draw, play with dolls and giggle lots!

  • brianna-g

    I strongly suspect both improved nutrition, specifically easy access to fat, and hormones in meat, dairy, and water (from agricultural runoff) are the major factors in this. However, I do doubt that infant formula in general is to blame. While it’s possible Synutra did include hormones that caused breast growth, in the United States the breastfeeding rate has been slowly rising while the puberty age is dropping for those same children (ie, we should see a gradual rise in the age if formula was a significant factor, because 8+ years ago the breastfeeding rate was rising).

    As for the boys, the problem is that the most commonly used agricultural hormones aren’t male hormones, they’re female hormones, and androgens aren’t stored in fat so obesity is less of a factor. So the Cristen Conger article makes a mountain out of nothing but ignores the REAL concern– why aren’t people looking at how LATE boys are having puberty? Boys shouldn’t be suffering from early puberty, they should have late-onset puberty and breast growth. Also, I HATE that they always suggest tofu– minimally fermented or unfermented soy eaten in abundance causes the same problems as meat, because it contains phytoestrogens.

    And actually I think that difference will be even more dangerous. You’ll have girls who are sexually curious and physically mature by 12 and not only will their male peers not be, the boys closest in age who are at a similar physical stage will be five, six, seven years older than them. Suddenly instead of worrying about our daughters playing doctor with 8 year olds, we have to consider the possibility of them doing it with 13 and 14 year olds.

    I intend to get hormone-free meats and dairy for my children, and NO SOY, at all, except imported Asian heavily fermented soy (it’s not as appealing to American palates, but phytoestrogens are destroyed by the fermentation process). Of course, then the kids who aren’t getting artificial and plant-based hormones will develop at 12 or 13 while their peers are long since mature, so they have to deal with being the late bloomer… *sigh*

    • http://feministing.com/members/tino/ tino

      good point BG. I think it’s odd that people point out plant estrogens as being the cause of all this because they have different configurations than mammalian estrogens (read: those in milk, for example), and therefore don’t attach to mammalian estrogen receptors as strongly as our estrogen does.

      Besides soy, tons of other foods contain phytoestrogens – most plant foods, in fact (“phyto” = “plant”). I googled a bit and found this interesting article which has some charts about foods with estrogens in them: http://www.dietaryfiberfood.com/phytoestrogen.php

      As well, everyone naturally has estrogen in their bodies, regardless of sex, including male- bodied people; androgen feedback loops require estrogens, because hormones like testosterone can’t enter the brain to tell it how much more androgen it needs to secrete. It gets converted to estrogen, which the brain has receptors for, in order to complete the loop. To me these points seem to say that the “female” hormones in our food are probably less of an issue than we suspect.

      Growth hormone, on the other hand, could be more of one. IGFs are present in some animal “foods”, and cattle raised for meat are implanted with growth hormone releasers in Canada (it’s legal and standard practice). Both of these are substances naturally found in the human body, so I can imagine they would be easy to uptake from our food (especially since mammalian steroid hormones are pretty much identical in structure across the board).

      As well, I think it’s important when researching any food related health issues to consider how the food was produced – what kinds of chemicals were used, for example, and how the human body processes them. Many pesticides are endocrine (hormone) disruptors (here’s an article, although not unbiased – but then, it’s nearly impossible to find an unbiased article anywhere: http://www.leas.ca/Pesticides.htm)

      There are so many factors to this that we need to look into if we’re going to solve these mysteries. This post really got me thinking. love the discussion going on

  • http://feministing.com/members/athenia/ athenia

    Thank you for this article. It really pisses me off that the chemicals and hormones in our food are bringing on unnecessary puberty.

    You bring up a lot of issues that pertain to this change–early sex ed, nutrition etc. However, one thing I want to stress as we talk about this topic, can we please, please refrain from talking about early puberty as somehow the loss of innocence? As someone who went through early puberty, in my experience, I didn’t magically stop playing with barbies. You slap on a pad and go about your business. My biggest worry was other girls finding out and being teased because no one else was going through the same thing.

    Getting boobs and pubic hair in 4th grade wasn’t horrible for me, but it is true that those who have bigger breasts may have a different experience. I think it would be prudent for those who have had this experience to speak out so that we can solve these issues practically.

  • http://feministing.com/members/goddessjaz/ goddessjaz

    @Sam: Agreed!
    @Athenia: Your point is well taken. I realize that I may have come off that way…that’s eye-opening and not my intention. To your points, I don’t think puberty means a loss of innocence but it’s that awareness you mention and the shame we feel in our bodies that’s problematic. It’s the unwanted attention and fear that someone will “know” you’re menstruating just by looking at you. I think part of that is about us creating more open and loving spaces for girls to love their bodies and not fear them. A friend on Twitter shared this with me and I think it speaks to your point: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/09/stop-this-slut-shaming

    • http://feministing.com/members/polkadotpeony/ Jen Henry

      While I definitely agree puberty does not immediately eliminate all innocence, I do think society in general assumes maturity. I hit puberty earlier, and by the age of 12, I was a C-cup. Men in their late 30s/early 40s (I sincerely hope) assumed I was older and ogled me or even made lewd comments to me. I still played with Barbies! Despite US laws against child marriage, etc., I think the culture still has a residual belief that puberty = availability.

  • http://feministing.com/members/avtorres/ Amarinthia Torres

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I remember friends of mine starting puberty very young too (9 and 10) and being sort of grateful that I was a very late bloomer.

    I just wanted to also add that not only is it pregnancy and STD’s that come with early puberty, but also sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and often sexual assault. I think for young women in particular, that increase in male attention can be confusing…and not just from the boys in class with you, but what about the guys on the subway, in the street as you walk home, or even attention from male family members/friends of family that may say or do things that are inappropriate and make her feel uncomfortable. So often the burden of this development is placed on her “you’re getting older, you need to cover up” or “cross your legs” or whatever other crappy messages she learns about her body and men. Anyway, just thought that the aspect of violence and trauma that many young women (in general, but also those that develop early) face needed to be mentioned alongside the reproductive consequences of early puberty as well.

  • http://feministing.com/members/redpine/ Redpine

    Some researchers have correlated early puberty with the absent father. (see guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/mar/28/early-puberty-absent-fathers ). If this is causal then that would suggest the importance of promoting more equally shared parenting especially after divorce to assist in more normal maturation.

    Thanks goddessjaz for the link Cristen Conger’s article about boys. That was the first information I’ve seen on that issue.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/goddessjaz/ goddessjaz

    Good point, Amarinthia. I know when I developed breasts around 13, I wanted to hide them in big sweatshirts b/c I hated the attention. It certainly does open the door for sexual assaults as well. Multi-layered…

    Thanks for the link, Redpine. Fascinating stuff.

    I appreciate the feedback and discussion!

  • http://feministing.com/members/tino/ tino

    This reminded me – I would love to see some more posts done regarding food access and related issues, as well as animal advocacy here. It might be a leap for some, but viewing and using other sentient beings as commodities is, I think, a feminist issue. I’m sure other feministing visitors would be interested too. just a thought

    • http://feministing.com/members/tino/ tino

      PS if anyone has come across other sites that discuss these issues and want to point me in their direction, I would appreciate it!