WHEN DID YOU get your period? It might seem like young girls are starting to leave childhood behind earlier than ever, but in actual fact 12-years-old is the average age for menstruation to begin, and that’s not changed a whole lot in the last few decades. However, early puberty signs such as breast growth and the appearance of pubic hair are becoming prevalent, with girls as young as six or seven going through these changes.
The Breast Cancer Fund supported a study by Sandra Steingraber titled ‘The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls,’ which revealed that 50% of white girls begin to develop breasts before they are ten, some 14% before they are eight. Girls of African-American and Latina descent start even earlier than that. Although the average starting date of menstruation is only slowly rolling back (a century ago it was 17), puberty is otherwise pressing backwards past the pre-teen years. Steingraber pegged endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our environment and rising obesity as possible culprits; however, overall better-quality (possibly even just higher-quantity) food plus lower rates of illness and disease are also factors.
The most shocking result of the study is the impact this can have on young women socially. According to the study, Ggrls who enter puberty early are more likely to experience anxiety, poor self-esteem, and suicidal ideation. They are more likely to encounter sexual and physical violence. In comparison, boys who mature early on do not appear to come up against any of these issues.
What is the root of this series of events? The puberty itself? Or how we react to it? How we respond to puberty and periods severely impacts how we experience these biological phenomena.
Some have suggested that stress is not only a consequence but also a cause of early puberty, as it can provoke the production of higher levels of estrogen than would otherwise be normal. Breast cancer and cardiovascular problems have been connected in some research studies to earlier starts of menstruation.
When this occurs in four- or five-year-old girls, as it sometimes does (albeit rarely), hormone-stopping drugs are oftentimes recommended and prescribed. With those of older ages, that is not the protocol. Parents, schools, and the children themselves are left to cope with something they had not planned to address for some years. What there is of sex education in schools can begin far too late for some girls to benefit from the foresight. Some parents turn to an exercise regime to rid their child’s body of high levels of hormones, while others look to clean out their kitchens and bathrooms of chemicals.
While we may not know exactly why it happens, how to stop it, or what the physical health implications could be, we might be able to help young girls avoid the anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues that sadly go hand-in-hand with early puberty. While panic and concern is common when girls start their period, especially earlier than expected, we would be better off welcoming the event in a positive way if we are to combat the worst of the outcomes. Although the idea of a ‘First Moon Party’ has been widely mocked, even by those producing pads and tampons like tampon delivery service HelloFlo, celebrating its arrival seems vastly preferable to fearing its arrival.
With the recent ACOG (American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) recommendation to get more teens on hormonal IUDs and implants, it would appear that the response to early maturation is currently focused on avoiding teen pregnancy first and foremost. Getting rid of the period as soon as it starts gives out a particular kind of negative message to young girls about their changing bodies. Not to say that this always happens, since hormonal IUDs and implants have been documented causing continuous spotting and unpredictable bleeds instead of getting rid of the period altogether. What age will ACOG consider as too young for a contraceptive device? 5? 6? It wasn’t too long ago that menstrual cycles were seen as a sign of good health in a teenager and monitored for changes due to stress, diet, or hormone-based illnesses. It takes several years for a young girl’s body to fully mature, but now we are more likely to stop it as soon as it starts, and this practice clearly has physical and emotional effects.
There are alternatives to inculcating our young daughters and sisters with this fear of menstruation. Books like Cycle Savvy by Toni Weschler teach girls about their periods and the rest of their cycles, guiding them towards a more manageable and pleasant experience of puberty. Teaching body literacy has the potential to increase confidence and self-esteem in young girls and consequently make them feel more in control of their situation. It can also provide a way of helping girls make good choices for themselves. Once you learn how the menstrual cycle works fully, it’s hard not to have admiration for the process. Some mothers guide their daughters to be creative with their maturation and channel their energies into more age-appropriate outlets, like painting and music. Women’s health expert Dr Christine Northrup encourages the practice of celebrating puberty for young girls and suggests not waiting for the first period, but just the first step towards this change, for a “coming of age” party.
Of course, it’s not all about how those who love the girl treat her transition, but also the wider world, including the boys and men she meets. Yet, giving girls this important knowledge can also give them the strength to deal more successfully with what will come their way.
Check out feature documentary Little Big Girls by Hélène Choquette if you’re interested in learning more about early-onset puberty and the effects it can have on a new generation of young women.