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Early Puberty in Girls: What Are the Social Consequences?

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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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Filed Under: Health Care, Woman Up

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145 Comments

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Penny Taylor

Look at all the truth about soy and soybeans that are in so many foods today.
You will see that studies have found that girls fed soy reached puberty sooner. Soy is in just about all food, so it is hard to avoid it.
Same with refined foods, High Fructose Corn Syrup, and genetically altered food, you can't get away from them.
There isn't any real food anymore unless you grow it yourself.
We all need to look at the labels, and learn about what we are eating.
Search in YouTube for "Food,Inc.", it will open your eyes.

August 14 2010 at 8:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
goldyoko

I don't know if chemicals and obesity are fully to blame (though I'm sure they don't help). I started going through puberty when I was around 9 and I was a pretty skinny kid, but that being said I have always believed it to my genetics to be the reason. My mother also hit puberty around that age and I believe it was the same for my grandmother.

August 13 2010 at 11:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bruce

Why are only girls mentioned? Evidently it isn't a problem with the boys. It can't be the food, if they're all eating the same foods. Maybe hair dye color?... certain Shampoo's?...Nail polish?...all that stuff that girls use that guys don't. I guess boys and girl are just different.

August 13 2010 at 6:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Charm City Inc.

This is the exact same reason why so many boys and men have breasts. Synthetic Estrogen that is released from these plastic bottles and containers. Clear plastic to be specific. I know of 11 boys and 9 men who have actual breast buds. Not just fatty man boobs. It is a disturbing issue and once the issue cahanges it will never change. Sad to think that we have done this to our children out of of our own laziness. Plastic is so convenient. Now our kids are suffering for our ignorance. Hormones in to make cows produce more milk and to make cows and chickens have bigger muscles so they weight more. Yet scientists constantly look for new ways to chemically make more out of less. This Alchemy has a price. We need to think about waht is going on and decide it we are willing to make future generations pay so terrible a price for our convenience.

August 13 2010 at 1:51 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Lucy

I am wondering whether hormone stimmulants in foods are at all a possible cause or contributor to early puberty. I am thinking for example, what chickens are fed in order to speed up their "maturity" and also the eggs they lay, all of which we consume, but chickens are only a start, of course. Does anyone know if there are any studies which might include this probability?

I can't help but make comparisons between what we are noticing now and my own experiences growing up.

Obesity was not the issue it is now and youngsters did not reach puberty at such an early age. Foods were of much higher quality than they are now. Now, those foods are labeled "organic" and are sold for a premium price which the average human being can not afford.

I remember we raised our own food,- beef, pork, poultry. We had an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, straight from the fields. I realize I was luckier than most, but still my statement stands. Foods in general, were of much higher quality and were untampered with for the most part, unlike they are now.

August 13 2010 at 12:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Bernadette

STOP THE HORMONES AND STEROIDS.............PERIOD!!!!!!!!!!

August 13 2010 at 11:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
TnVictoria

With early indications of this happening, my daughter moved to organic chicken, eggs, milk and other dairy products for her kids. There is a school of thought that believes organic (no hormones addeded) products forestall this early onset of puberty. "Can't hurt" ! While somewhat more expense to your food diet, it is a day in, day out solution, and much less expensive dollar wise and emotionally, than puberty at 7, 8 or even 10 years old.

August 13 2010 at 11:30 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Bernadette

I to believe it is in the cattle and poultry , steroids hormones all of that ! My ten year old grandaughter has boobs and just started her mensi....I cant believe this . I think the USDA should crack down and investigate this more serously .And that is a bunch of crap the feed these chickens all that bullcrap so they grow 5 x faster ......I've heard and also read about it too!! USDA are failing us all and its a crying shame..............

August 13 2010 at 11:30 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Foxfiredesigns

MONEY - That's right. It's all about money and if it wasn't we would have a cure for Cancer, the "billion dollar industry." Steroids, growth hormones, antibiotics and secret ingredients added to our food supply, meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, this is what's causing premature puberty, in addition to many other forms of Cancer. If it's making the cows bigger for more beef, for more money, and if the cow is given antibiotics (which is what Chemo is) for Cancer, and it doesn't work, just as it doesn't work just like it doesn't with many of us, the the cow still has cancer, but it's still sold to us and we eat it. Our dogs get Cancer, so why not our animal food supply. Even if the animal has an infection, it's given antibiotics. If the steroids effect muscles, that would explain premature breast growth. Think about how devastating the affects are on a child who has an underdeveloped immune system and reproductive system. I feel thats what's responsible for over 200 children admitted to St. Judes Hospital every day. It's an outrage and our government has not assumed responsibly for permitting any idiot to produce a product even for a child, that contains cancer causing agents. In addition, baby bottles, school bags, sippy cups, binders even paper clips, anything with vinyl coating is Cancer causing. Why is this allowed. Are we so indebted to China that we have no choice but to accept deadly products from them. The toxic toys, steaks, tires, dog food,cosmetics, and those are just the ones we knew about. Think about that. The fast food burger places serve french fries in little boxes that are coated with deadly chemicals and you health sites advise you not let your kid eat out of them, rather immediately transfer the fries into another container. Point is I've seen the ready made and sitting there waiting to be given to the customer. So it's too late. In spite of this knowledge, they are still being served in the same toxic container. Schools know what's in soda and the cans and yet are permitted to have soda machines on the premises and make a fortune off them. Our school taxes pay for that school and their salaries. So we need to start take control and dictate to the school what the new menu will consist of, and organic should be optional. Have soda machines removed and any others that would come under the category of "junk food." The schools are making crucial dietary decisions for our kids, so that they can profit and parents don't know that according to federal law, the parents have the right to determine the school lunches. They make gym mandatory to graduate, know that child obesity is an epidemic, yet still push soda, chips, ice cream, fat ladened food, hot dogs, which are loaded with nitrates and known to cause childhood Leukemia and increase your childs risk of a brain tumor even if eating only one a week. They are forming their future eating patterns. Change that. Eat organic. Back to nature. Read labels. We need to vote for politicians who care about our kids and Cancer, and want manufacturers closely scrutinized and regulated, and severely prosecuted if necessary. In the meantime there is the Council for Safe Cosmetics, and google kids and organics to educate yourself. Also I would read what "Weiseracademy" wrote a few paragraphs up. I'm grateful for his/her input and issued covered that people absolutely need to be made aware of. What you don't know can kill you (and your kids), and ignorance is no longer bliss. Knowledge is power, even more, it's survival. Sadly we have to fight just to stay alive. So take care of your kids body. It's the only one they have to live in, and please don't nuke the baby bottles. Warm up in a pot and only use glass bottles. Getting cut from one is a lot less deadly then the chemicals in that plastic bottle that are leeching into your babys' food. Have you read that Monsanto (the carpet manufacturer) is genetically engineering our vegetables, and I'm not sure if anything else. Check into that. Also the wooden jungle gym, the wood is toxic and getting a splinter can be deadly. Painting it isn't an option. The government has a site about it. The old fashioned metal ones are safer. And I guess you all know about the hand sanitizer causing serious problem for kids. Not great for us either. Do make it a point to read a few paragraphs up "Weiseracademy." I want to thank that individual because what heshe
wrote was surely a public service for all of us. Petition anyone?

August 13 2010 at 11:22 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
michkami

Along with chemicals we also have pharmaceuticals that leach into our water system, lakes streams and so forth that are aparently extremley difficult to filter out of our water plants because of the in (Laymans terms),, "to small" to filter. Although this has been proven to be a proposed health issue, I beleive there is yet one that we all over look on a daily basis, Just think for a moment all of our children mostly in the US are exposed to one other common denominator , "TV" our youngsters watch shows that teach them how to feel, its my beleif that this also triggers off feelings such as feeling sexy, and these feelings also cause them to produce hormones aproparate to their feelings. i am a child care provider and i have noticed how especially the girls act after watching showes such as High School Musical change attitude, they tend to be more like the 80's 16-17yr acted after watching Flash Dance most of them have a crush on the main character and talk about them non stop they say he's so hot i love him and so forth, and ya gotta think, these little girls start to watch these shows from the time they ar 4- 5 years old. Not to mention some of these children watch the same show over and over again day after day and somtimes more then once a day. So in my house we try to watch more age appropriate shows with the childern.

August 13 2010 at 11:10 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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