When I first read the novel Little Women, it made me feel…reassured. The story of the March sisters’ journey from girls to women seemed much less intimidating than I thought the transition would be.The story’s central character, Jo, reflects on the experience of growing up saying,
I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them.
That was growing up for a girl then. Growing up now, the things a girl can’t explain include over developed breasts and the early onset of a menstrual cycle. According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, American girls are maturing physically earlier and earlier. Preteen girls who have not yet let go of their American Girl dolls are being fitted for their first bras, scrubbing away at acne, and carrying pads in their backpacks to deal with periods that are increasingly starting in fourth grade or earlier.
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With the body maturing faster than the mind, young girls are being exposed to a myriad of risks, both physical and psychological.
Causes of Precocious Puberty
when someone’s body begins changing from a child into an adult too soon. The process of changing from a child into an adult is known as puberty, and puberty that begins before age 8 for girls and before age 9 for boys is considered precocious puberty.
Girls of today are experiencing precocious puberty more often and are hitting puberty sooner than any generation in history. About 15% of American girls now begin puberty by age 7, according to a study of 1,239 girls published last year in Pediatrics. Over the last 30 years, we’ve shortened the childhood of girls by about a year and a half. (Early physical maturation is occurring in boys as well, though that won’t be the focus of this article.)
The early onset of puberty has consequences that continue to be an issue well into adulthood, thus, even if a woman has gone through the puberty phase, she will forever feel the effects of it starting early. There are many explanations as to why this process, known as precocious puberty, begins early.
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According to Dr. Frank Biro, director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the rise in the childhood obesity rate is partly to blame. Fatty tissue produces leptin, which stimulates the release of sex hormones. According to Biro,
The girls who are obese are clearly maturing earlier. BMI is, we found, the biggest single factor for the onset of puberty.
Additionally, there may be environmental factors involved. Dr. Biro goes onto say that some investigators are focusing on environmental contaminants like PBBs and more notoriously, BPA, common ingredients in plastic products that have endocrine-disrupting powers of their own. The Centers for Disease Control says that the blood of the average American carries traces of 212 different chemicals. All of these chemicals have the power to disrupt the endocrine system by either mimicking hormones, blocking them, or changing the way they’re metabolized and excreted. The longer we ignore these often times preventable causes, the more we will continue to upset the biological balance.
The Effects of Early Puberty
There is another kind of biological balance that is even harder to control. Young girls who fall into precocious puberty are forced to balance their rapidly changing bodies with the standard development of their minds. When pre-sexual minds find themselves in newly sexualized bodies, substantial emotional damage can be done. Dr. Michelle Klein, a pediatric endocrinologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center, treated a 6 ½ year old who was already developing breasts and pubic hair. Klein stated that,
She would get into a bathing suit at camp, and the other kids would tease her. She was already a good deal taller than her peers, and adults would talk to her as if she was older and more mature–and expect more-mature behavior out of her too.
This becomes problematic to a child because she is not receiving a message consistent with her actual age. She won’t understand the expectations on her because she is not mentally prepared to do so.
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People are judging girls based on what they can see, but as with everything, appearances are deceiving. According to Erin Diamond, author of “Big Feet, Training Bras,” and “Going All the Way”:
Girls who develop physically faster are assumed to be more sexually active than their peers…Early developers are also more likely to engage in relationships of a sexual nature before they are emotionally prepared to do so.
This leads to a myriad of psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, eating disorders…all due to a process that is beyond their control. Not only are young girls at an increased risk of emotional turmoil, they also have physical side effects to contend with. According to the Journal of Pediatrics, early sexual maturity means more estrogen exposure for breast tissue, thus, introducing a cancer risk. If a girl gets her first period before 12 years of age, the risk of breast cancer is 20% more than if she got it at 14. Additionally, breast cancer risk is increased by 5% for every year younger a woman is when she begins her periods. As you can see, growing up, more than ever before, is now hazardous to a girl’s health.
What Doctors and Parents are Doing to Help
In light of these hazards, it is now time to reset the puberty clock. Science is offering new options that will help to literally shut off puberty for a year or two so that a child’s chronological, psychological, and physical age all align. The new treatment involves monthly injections of Lupron, a medication that neutralizes the effect of the puberty inducing hormones, otherwise known as GnRH. It does this not by reducing the level of the hormone in the body, but by increasing it. GnRH is released by the hypothalamus in a pulsing pattern, and the injections are designed to fill in the gaps between the pulses. The body interprets the neutralized GnRH state as no GnRH at all, and the sped-up maturation stops.
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While drugs are effective, they can be expensive. For uninsured Americans, these drugs can cost $1000’s each month. Presently, the only drug available for precocious puberty is Lupron. But according to the Physicians’ Desk Reference, Lupron has 265 possible risks and side-effects, including cancer. Lupron can cause severe problems such as tremors, seizures and memory loss.
In light of these dangers, it is important to know that there are natural methods available to help prevent or mitigate the problem. They may seem small when compared to medicinal treatment, but if we all practice these small solutions regularly, we could help to create a change in a young girls life that she will carry with her as long as she lives.
First, throw out your plastic water bottles; microwave your food in glass containers as opposed to plastic. This can lower your exposure to the dangerous BPA chemical. Since obesity is a strong contributing factor to precocious puberty, keeping weight down can prevent the hormonal effects of carrying too much body fat. This is where a healthy diet and regular exercise become very important.
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In addition to all of this, the most effective strategy may simply be awareness; we need to be aware of the pressures faced by young girls in our society. It is the responsibility of parents, teachers, coaches and any other significant figure in a girl’s life to remind her that her worth is not tied to her outward appearance. Little girls need to be assured that they are loved no matter when changes to their body and mind may occur. It is important to remember that to any child, happiness is knowing you are loved.
And that is the most important thing; the happiness and contentment of little girls as they navigate their way through such an arduous journey. But for some, the journey is complicated in a way they may not be emotionally mature enough to handle. By discussing the causes, examining the effects, and identifying some solutions, we see more than ever that just because a little girl looks like a woman on the outside, that does not mean she is woman on the inside. While today’s little girls grow up much differently than the March sisters, they do still have one thing in common. As author Louisa May Alcott said,
The emerging woman will be strong-minded, strong-hearted, and strong-souled,
and that is true about a woman at any age.