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