A friend of mine took her 5-year-old to see the doctor last summer. She was concerned because she noticed that when her daughter came home from camp at the end of the day, she smelled . . . like a grown-up. "It's the weirdest thing," she confided to me. "She's only 5, but I think she has body odor."
The doctor was reassuring but told her to keep an eye on her daughter. Apparently, among a handful of other symptoms -- early breast development, pubic and underarm hair, and a growth spurt -- body odor can be a sign of early-onset puberty.
"But she's only 5!" my friend protested.
"You'd be surprised," the doctor said. "Just be sure that you monitor her development carefully."
At the time, my friend's story struck me as bizarre. But a new study released this week in the Journal Pediatrics
shows that her experience wasn't so unusual. More and more girls are reaching puberty at a younger age, sometimes as early as 7 or 8.
The study, led by a team of researchers at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, found that at the age of 7, 23.4 percent of African- American girls, 14.9 percent of Hispanics and 10.4 percent of white girls had developed breasts. By 8, those proportions had risen to 42.9 percent, 30.9 percent and 18.3 percent, respectively. The percentages for blacks and whites were even higher than those found by a 1997 study that was one of the first to suggest that puberty was occurring earlier in girls.
While the causes of this trend are unknown, one chief culprit is thought to be obesity
. Body fat produces estrogen, which in turn triggers breast development and menstruation. Another possibility are endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment -- such as bisphenol-A (BPA) -- which is found in many hard plastic products, including water bottles and baby bottles.
There are plenty of reasons to worry about the adverse consequences of early-onset puberty for the girls themselves. For starters, the risk of breast cancer
may be increased by longer exposure to estrogen. Early development has also been shown to cause low self-esteem and doubts about body image in girls
, as well as greater rates of eating disorders depression and attempted suicide. And in a society where there's already quite a bit of anxiety about the over-sexualization of girls
, early onset puberty can only make matters worse, as girls are prematurely forced to confront their sexuality.
But as this trend unfolds, I can't help but also wonder about its broader social consequences.
For starters, what about boys? Boys can also experience "precocious puberty" (as it's known in the trade), although reliable estimates of the frequency of early puberty in boys
have not been published. Several medical centers have reported that they evaluate between one-fifth and one-tenth as many boys as girls for sexual precocity. Whether early puberty in boys is becoming more common over time, as is the case in girls, is also unclear. But if it's true that early puberty is more prevalent in girls than in boys, then that's likely to create an odd gender dynamic between the sexes from an early age.
I also wonder what will become of those girls who mature at a later age. If we begin to normalize puberty as something that happens in elementary school, what sorts of self-esteem and body image issues will crop up for that dwindling majority of girls who don't hit puberty until 12 or 13?
Earlier puberty in girls will also necessitate (yet another) rethink of sex ed in schools -- both how early to cover it
and what needs to be said. Parents will also need to recalibrate their children's reading lists to introduce them to this topic in an age-appropriate way. It's hard to imagine Judy Blume's classic, "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret,"
working for a 7-year-old.
Finally, I also suspect that the results of this study will end up getting dragged into the ongoing Mommy Wars over breastfeeding
. To the extent that the plastic chemical in baby bottles is in any way a contributor to the early puberty trend, it will provide further ammunition to those who've always maintained that "breast is best." And women who didn't breastfeed at all or fear that they didn't do it long enough will now over-analyze whether they should have done things differently.
In short, there are a host of social questions that get raised when girls hit puberty ever earlier that we've only begun to address.
In the meantime, my friend watches . . . and waits.
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