Are You There, God? It’s Me, Rebecca: Early Puberty a New Normal

shutterstock_232153369Judy Blume’s 1970 classic, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, guided my generation through puberty.

The book chronicles an almost-12-year-old girl’s struggle as she prays that her mom will get her a bra, and then deals with her nervous excitement and embarrassment when she starts having periods.

Today, Blume would have to write about the travails of a Margaret who is just seven or eight—nowhere near the cusp of womanhood, with an immature brain and ill-equipped to understand her changing body. According to researcher Marcia E. Herman-Giddens of the University of North Carolina, in 1860, the average onset of menarche was 16 or 17. Now it’s around 12 and a half. Puberty begins much earlier than menarche, with complex, subtle hormonal shifts in the brain and then the development of breasts.

In The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls, published last year, authors Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff explore the findings of a long-term nationwide study that has been evaluating more than 1,200 girls in three cities. It was launched in 2005 when the girls were six to eight years old.

By age seven, they tell us, 10 percent of the Caucasian girls, 15 percent of the Hispanic girls and 25 percent of the African American girls have breasts. By age eight, those numbers grow to 18 percent of the white girls, 31 percent of the Hispanics and, shockingly, 43 percent of the African Americans. At age 7, 10 percent of girls in the study had pubic hair; by age eight, that number rose to 19 percent.

As Greenspan and Deardorff explain, the intricate hormonal signals and mechanisms of puberty make the child’s body especially susceptible to environmental contaminants. Exposure to chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system may be a significant contributing factor to the early onset of puberty, also known as “precocious” puberty.

These hormone-mimicking chemicals pollute our bodies—even the bodies of newborn babies. Bisphenol A, one endocrine-disrupting chemical, is a potent synthetic estrogen that has been used for years to stiffen polycarbonate plastic and make epoxy paints. BPA has also been used to coat some store receipts and the linings of food cans.

Other endocrine disruptors detected in the bodies of most Americans are phthalates, found in shower curtains, plastic bottles, car interiors, nail polish, fragrances and shampoos, and parabens, added to some cosmetics and foods as preservatives and to help lotions soak into skin.

In a 2011 study published in the journal Annals of Epidemiology, researcher Tamarra James-Todd of Harvard University found that girls of color are especially at risk for early-onset puberty. Her survey of 300 African American, African Caribbean, Hispanic and white women between 18 and 77 years old found a high degree of correlation between phthalates in hair products and early puberty.

Let’s take “Rebecca,” featured in a recent article in Newsweek about early puberty. She started growing hair under her arms at age six. Her doctors don’t know what caused her to begin puberty so early, but experts agree that endocrine disruptors could be responsible for this trend. One thing was certain: Rebecca was confused and sad. And she’s not alone in feeling that way. Studies have found that the most serious effects of early puberty are often on girls’ mental health: increased danger of depression, eating disorders and risky behaviors like drug abuse have all been linked to early puberty. Girls who go through early puberty also produce more estrogen over their lifetimes and experience dramatically heightened risks of breast cancer and reproductive cancers.

What are parents, caregivers and family members to do? Greenspan and Deardorff offer some solid advice: Learn what’s normal and when to consult a medical professional. Although scientists still don’t know exactly what triggers early puberty, you can err on the side of safety by limiting your child’s exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in food and personal care products.

Use EWG’s Skin Deep database to find phthalate-free cosmetics, skip fragrances, which often contain hormone-mimicking phthalates, and choose fresh or frozen foods instead of canned varieties to avoid BPA contamination.

You can also press for an overhaul of federal cosmetics law to ensure safe, non-toxic ingredients in cosmetics. Learn more at www.ewg.org/takeaction.

Elizabeth Weil reported in a 2012 issue of New York Times Magazine that one of the best strategies for parents with daughters experiencing early puberty is to “treat them the age they are, not the age they look. [Parents] can defend against a culture that sells push-up bikinis for 7 year olds and otherwise sexualizes young girls.” Weil wrote that “[e]arly breast growth may be just that—early breast growth: disconcerting, poorly understood, but not a guarantee of our worst fears.”

Even though the age of puberty is changing, there are some universal constants. Just as Margaret’s parents talked to her about her changing body in Blume’s classic novel, talk to the important young girl in your life and let her know that she is not alone.

Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. newsletter.

Photo via Shutterstock

bio_white-1

 

Heather White is executive director of Environmental Working Group(EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

Comments

  1. It’s odd that you were name “chemicals” as the cause (which is a rather tenuous assertion that doesn’t have much data to back it up) but not mention nutrition and obesity. Good nutrition means puberty happens earlier than in children with poor nutrition (ie: not having enough calories and nutrition to support proper growth and development), and obesity is associated with precocious puberty (likely because of excess nutrition.

    I am very size positive, but these are the biggest links found in studies.

    • … And where are the links to back up your argument about the nutrition?

      • Nutrition is a huge part of the young girls puberty. Think about the chemicals, GMOs and the other transfats in processed food. You can do the research yourself it’s all there. I mean think about it … Back in the 1950’s, 60′ and even 70s food was not as bad as it is today and girls were not in puberty as early as 6, 7 and 8…. Normal for a gal to get her period was around 12 to 15… It’s a different story today.

    • I agree. I’ve also read that this trend is related to childhood obesity rates. But chemicals definitely play a role. My impression is it’s both, plus a dose of “we don’t know”. It’s scary but the first step is for parents to be informed and to make the healthiest choices possible for their children, for both food and chemicals in their environment.

    • I guess the question there would be is that causation or merely correlation? Could these chemicals that are mimicking estrogen be causing these levels of obesity as another symptom? Also, when you talking about nutrition, are you referring to calorie intake or actual micro-nutrient and vitamin intake? I ask that because often the foods that promote obesity are very high in calories but extremely low in vitamins and micro-nutrients which really is more of a nutrient deficiency state even those it’s a state of caloric excess.

      • What maybe could be added to this discussion is the fact that most of these ‘hormone mimetic’ and possible genotoxic compounds are highly hydrophobic, and thus would concentrate in fat tissues. Therefore, the more obese the person is, the more fat there is to collect and potentially concentrate these chemicals in the body. So, the fat person may indeed ultimately be getting exposed to greater concentrations of these environmental (and personal choice) pollutants… The combination could have the synergistic effect. Dioxins also concentrate in fat, and this is one possible reason for the increased risk of cancer in overweight people.

    • I doubt you could say our children are better nourished today than in the past with their diets of fast and processed foods, sodas and sugar. I know girls starting menstruation at 8 and 10 who aren’t even close to being overweight, let alone obese. I’m sure you can find statistics to prove whatever position you prefer.

      • My mom started at 18 she is 100 lbs and Danish, I started at 15 and was also small at the time and lived most of my life over seas (Danish/ American parents) My only daughter, raised in the usa started last month at the age of 11 and she weighs 89 lbs and is 5’1. Our food source and chemicals play a huge part. I wish she could have been raised overseas.

    • I would argue that it’s not “excess nutrition” that causes obesity but rather the food choices the individual makes. Food can also have many “chemicals” in it as well as growth hormones and steroids. Do I think chemical laden food is contributing to precocious puberty, absolutely. Do I also agree that hormone mimicking chemicals in personal care products are culprits, definitely.

    • Elizabeth says:

      It’s thought that obese individuals may hit puberty earlier because of excess hormones produced by excess fat reserves. Further, obesity has been linked to the use of antibiotics in livestock.

    • Chemicals were not used as extensively as they are today as when we were growing up. There were no antibiotics and cheap plastics produced. It is full up now. This whole article makes sense. We are having to now put ourselves on progesterone creams to decrease the oestrogen in our bodies.

      • Excess estrogen and xenoestrogenes and chemicals in the food/water, environment, “health and beauty products” are the major factors….what goes in your skin and what you breath bypasses your liver and many many times more potent than if you’d ingested it. Soy inhibits the proper function of the thyroid….I learned a great deal here at womhoo.com (following his advice/instructions in his pamphlet saved me from suicide desire from pain caused by “estrogen dominance disease)

    • I was 17 before I started my period. I grew up on a farm and ate all fresh grown veggies and we raised our own beef and hogs. I ate very well and ate lots of veggies and meat and grains. Now I also ate tons and was one of those kids that was never full, but always starving. I was extremely thin, so much so people would chastise my mom about NOT getting help for my anorexia. However, like I said, I ate and didn’t throw It up either. The reason for my period being so late was I was so thin. And in fact, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties and my five foot nine inch frame went from a size two to a four that my periods became regular. So weight on both sides is a factor. Being too heavy can bring it on at an earlier age and being too thin can delay it as well. I am not sure about the chemicals, but am sure they are a factor, look what they do to plant life!

  2. Um, “normal?” I went through a fairly early puberty, and got my period in grade 6, and I cringed so hard in reading the word “normal” in this article. Early puberty might not be average, but it is normal for the girl who is experiencing it – something about the way this is written comes off as body-shaming.

    • It isn’t normal for the girl experiencing it, normal in this instance is the average. I think you’re getting hung up on protecting people and not realizing that it’s not body shaming to awknoledge that this isn’t normal, but perhaps becoming the new (unfortunate) nomal. Additioally if it were normal we wouldn’t be discusssing the phenomea of early onset menarche and what we can do to slow this down.

    • I think 6th grade is normal, but at the route my daughter is going, I’m afraid we (my daughter) may hit it at 3-4th grade. I don’t think this is body shaming, the kids are part of this conversation, I may be hormone shaming!

  3. Patty Davis says:

    I work with grandparents raising grandchildren and they have spoken many times about the grands having early puberty- boys and girls. They are all African American. I don’t have a smart phone and was unable to access the data base base of product reviews. I would like to share this info with them. Is there another way to access it?

  4. Jennifer McKinnis says:

    From estrogen analogues in mico toxins, http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/mycotoxins-hidden-hormone-danger-our-food-supply

    To phathlates, known endocrine system disruptors
    http://www.greenmedinfo.com/article/phthalates-adversely-affect-reproductive-outcomes-and-childrens-health

    To phyto estrogens like soy and flax, growth hormones in CAFO raised meat, rBGH in milk, xeno estrogens in laundry products, personal care products, plastics, pesticides and pharmaceuticals all are endocrine system disruptors and can, among other things, lead to precocious puberty, obesity and many other hormone dependent diseases.

    “Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism
    March 2002, Vol.16(1):105–121, doi:10.1053/beem.2002.0184
    Regular Article
    Putative effects of endocrine disrupters on pubertal development in the human
    Grete Teilmann MD (Research Assistant)Anders Juul MD, PhD (Senior Research Fellow)Niels E. Skakkebæk MD, PhD (Professor of Growth and Reproduction)Jorma Toppari MD, PhD (Academy Scientist)”

    Obesity itself is not the cause of early onset menses. Its a symptom of endocrine system disruption, and Toxic Injury.

  5. Jennifer McKinnis says:

    For those of you offended by my inclusion of soy,

    “Soy formula is bad news for girls as well. Natural estrogen levels approximately double during the first month of life, then decline and remain at low levels until puberty. With increased estrogens in the environment in the diet, an alarming number of girls are entering puberty much earlier than normal. [80-82] One percent of girls now show signs of puberty, such as breast development or pubic hair, before the age of three. By the age of eight, 14.7 percent of Caucasian girls and 48.3 percent of African American girls had one or both of these characteristics. [83] The fact that blacks experience earlier puberties than whites is not a racial difference but a recent phenomenon. [84, 85]
    Most experts blame this epidemic of “precocious puberty” on environmental estrogens from plastics, pesticides, commercial meats, etc., but some pediatric endocrinologists believe that soy is a contributor. [86] Of all the estrogens found in the environment, soy is the likeliest explanation of why African American girls reach puberty so quickly. Since its establishment in 1974, the federal government’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program has provided free infant formula to teenage and other low-income mothers while failing to encourage breastfeeding. Because of perceived or real lactose intolerance, black babies are much more likely to receive soy formula than Caucasian babies.
    Early maturation in girls heralds reproductive problems later in life, including amenorrhea (failure to menstruate), anovulatory cycles (cycles in which no egg is released), impaired follicular development (follicles failing to mature and develop into healthy eggs), erratic hormonal surges, and other problems associated with infertility. Because the mammary glands depend on estrogen for their development and functioning, the presence of soy estrogens at a susceptible time might predispose girls to breast cancer, another condition that is on the rise and definitively linked to early puberty. [87]
    Recently, a team of researchers headed by Brian L. Strom, MD, studied the use of soy formula and its long-term impact on reproductive health. They announced only one adverse finding: longer, more painful menstrual periods among women who’d been fed soy formula in infancy. [88] Dr. Strom’s conclusion that the results were “reassuring” made newspaper headlines all over the world, though the data in the body of the report were anything but. Indeed, data left out of the headlines and buried in the report revealed higher incidences of allergies and asthma, and higher rates of cervical cancer, polycystic ovarian syndrome, blocked fallopian tubes, and pelvic inflammatory disease. [89] Although thyroid damage from soy formula has been the principal concern of critics for decades, the researchers excluded thyroid function as a subject for study. Not surprisingly, this study was funded in part by the infant-formula industry.
    Most of the fears concerning soy formula have focused on estrogens. There are other problems as well, notably much higher levels of aluminum, fluoride, and manganese than are found in either breastmilk or dairy formulas. [90-96] All three metals have the potential to adversely affect brain development. Although trace amounts of manganese are vital to the development of the brain, toxic levels accrued from ingestion of soy formula during infancy have been found in children suffering from attention-deficit disorders, dyslexia, and other learning problems. [97, 98]”
    http://www.spiritofhealthkc.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/SOY3-MOTHERING-Magazine-Whole-Soy-Story.pdf

  6. I also wonder why diet isn’t mentioned, though I don’t discount environmental factors. It’s likely due to both. It’s widely known that vegetarians and vegans enter puberty later than those who eat a typical amount of meat and dairy. An example: My older daughter, raised vegetarian, hit puberty three years later than I did on the typical American diet, and my younger daughter, age 10 and a very healthy lifelong vegan, still shows no sign of puberty.

  7. Nicole, obesity is caused by endocrine disruptors. Obesity is a symptom of the problem, not the cause.

  8. So the concern is small amounts of chemicals that are largely used topically and often rinsed away. But no mention of the use of steroids and mass antibiotics (already demonstrated to raise estrogen levels) in the raising of farm animals for food? That is heavy use and fully ingested.

    • Our skin is our largest organ. Our body soaks in a lot of the chemicals in those personal care products. Not to say the items you mentioned aren’t a problem as well, but a little bit every day for a lifetime sure adds up!

  9. Actually, there is a good amount of research about certain endocrine disrupting chemicals. In 2012, The World Health Organization and United Nations concluded: “Exposure to E.D.C.s [endocrine disrupting chemicals] during fetal development and puberty plays a role in the increased incidences of reproductive diseases, endocrine-related cancers, behavioral and learning problems, including A.D.H.D., infections, asthma, and perhaps obesity and diabetes in humans.” Source: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/78102/1/WHO_HSE_PHE_IHE_2013.1_eng.pdf

    I mean think about it: our hormones play a VERY significant role in our health and body’s function. So if a chemical is an endocrine-disruptor, and therefore interfering with our hormones, nothing good is going to come from that.

  10. I hit puberty early, getting my period at 10. My mom was 14, not young, but my mother in law was young. My 8 yr old has a budding bosom, needs either an under shirt or training bra daily and she shows other signs as well including hair growth. My pediatrician said some of the same things mentioned above but also that genetics plays a role too. And we have always been pretty cateful about no BPA, eating mostly organic foods, until recently she refused red meat, my husband is a vegetarian and we all eat many meat free meals.
    Right now I’m less concerned about the why and more concerned about helping her deal with this. She hates the training bras, and states that she doesn’t like her body changing. She is also adhd and already feels different and has anxiety about school. I have not been able to find any books that discuss these changes without going into more detail than she needs right now, she is only just 8. Any suggestions?

    • The Care and Keeping of You, by Valeria Schaefer. It’s an awesome book, and one that got me through those….times….

    • I’m going through the same thing as you are with my almost 8 year old. At least your pediatrician recognizes it as a problem, mine largely ignores my concerns. My daughter is 46 inches and almost 80 pounds, but she’s not fat, just very muscular so trying to slow her weight won’t work.

      I’ve been very careful to limit her exposure to hormones and known endocrine interrupters etc.
      I feel that it’s out of my control at the point.

      Frustrating, especially considering how hard I’ve worked to give her the safest foods. And I don’t even let her wear nail polish or use bubble bath.

    • Please read my post below…it may still be reversible. I got the same ‘talk’ from my doctor, and did my own research after an intern brought phyto estrogens to my attention.

    • You might check out Mighty Girl website and Facebook page. They recommend books and other resources for girls. I bet they have some recommended for this.

  11. There was a study released last week that said sugary drinks (as opposed to higher body weight) were likely to blame.

  12. My daughter started developing ‘ “normal”asymmetrical breast tissue’ when she was 2 1/2. She is extremely thin (just like I was when I was her age and until I was in college). I was able to get it to regress by changing our lifestyle. Back then, since I changed MANY things, it wasn’t definitive what the culprit was that was causing this issue. However, last year around Christmas time, I bought her a product that had an overwhelming amount of soy content. AGAIN, she started getting breast tissue under her normal completely flat breast. She had a lump the size of a grape under her areola. I took her to the doctors AGAIN, and they still claimed it was normal. I went home stopped her ingest of this single food, and the development regressed. After about a month, I let her start eating them again, the development started to come back. I stopped the food and it regressed. Don’t tell me that soy isn’t a HUGE contributing factor in this debate. My daughter is now 8, is completely flat chested again, and even she knows that she is not allowed to have soy (which is almost impossible to avoid) and will read the labels of food she is given, if I am not around. I don’t mind her having breasts, but not at 2 1/2, and not at 7. I would encourage all families to eliminate soy from their diets (and other products) and see what happens, before it is too late.

  13. As a mother of an 8.5 yr old who is growing breast buds I can tell you it is a difficult situation. My daughter started growing Breat buds at 6.5. She is not obese, we have only eaten organic food, no hormones in our meat no phalates, parabens or BPA I was crazy about this stuff since she was an infant. Now she does have asthma and is on a daily inhaler but a very small amount.. Our dr’s sent us to an endocrinologist for fear possible a tumor on her pituitary gland. Every test done with one of the best Dr’s in NYC came back negative. The dr did speak of Tea tree oil and lavender being estrogen mimics. I realized I was using tea tree conditioner for 2 years, I stopped using it and the breast buds disappeared.. I followed and obsessed with EWG site making sure nothing I use for cleaning or clothing has estrogen mimics in them, it took me an hour in the pharmacy to find a children’s product that did not contain tea tree or lavender. Low and behold practically at the same time 2 years later my now 8.5 yr old has Breat buds again.. I did not get breasts until 5th grade nobody in my husbands family or my own had early puberty. It’s hard for me and I feel bad, but she does not seem to care at all. I would never want to shame her and she is too scared to go through all the tests again. I am not sure if this is the new normal or what. I would love to know the truth, but I do feel that products are poisonous and we are hurting our children..

  14. Please look at laundry detergents and fabric softeners, together with those crappy plug-in air “fresheners”!!

  15. What about boys?

  16. You know my sisters just above me two years older were twins. They were born in 1977 and I in 1979. They both started their periods at the ripe ol age of 11. I didn’t start till I was almost 17. My mom fed us the same. None of us girls were obese. I felt different because I hadn’t started my period and everyone I knew had started close around 12. And my mom is a health nut and made everything from scratch. I really don’t think any of you know what you are talking about. It’s all guesses and not very educated. 6 years old? Maybe look into genetics or surroundings. I would like to know how many girls have actually started at 6 years old?? I am a mom of 6 kids. Two of my girls are 9 and 11. Neither have started and the 11 year old has had some hair under her arm pit start growing. But it is light and I am not going to have her shave till she wants to and feels the need to shave.

  17. Oh and I also feed my kids as healthy as I can. Grinding my own wheat. fruits and vegetables are fresh but cooked. I home make most meals.

  18. Thank you for posting this story. As a doctor, I can tell you environmental exposures are absolutely a cause and there is a ton of credible research to back that up (I hate it when people say “there’s no research” when literally, my medical journal feed on twitter this morning started with 10 different studies just from TODAY on health effects from food additives, pesticides and more). Our environment since the Industrial Revolution has significantly changed our health and now we just happen to be seeing the long-term effects of things that were once deemed “safe” or were in fact never tested, not just with early puberty, but with a host of health issues – autoimmune disease, cancer and other inflammatory diseases. The effects of these exposures are also proven clinically when we clean up their diets and homes from these exposures and see their health significantly improve. No, you can’t reverse early puberty, but if you start early, you may be able to prevent it, depending on your exposure history, genetics and medical history. There’s a TON we can do with our own homes and diets that can help to prevent disease – it’s just a matter of education. EWG is a great resource and I use it to educate my patients daily!

  19. Since I study the history of adolescence I just want to point out that the data from 1860 is not as reliable as more recent studies. The 19th century data comes largely from interviews with adult women while more recent data comes from clinical case records collected by pediatricians.
    In other words, the decline in age of menarche between the 19th century and today may not be as great as Herman-Giddens suggests.

    In reply to Rebecca’s question, the article says that the average age of first menstruation is 12 years, not 6. What appears to have changed is the average age at which girls first show signs of puberty — e.g. breast buds, pubic hair, etc, has gone down.

Speak Your Mind

*