The Rising Numbers of Precocious Puberty on Girls in the United States and its Psychosocial Effects
In the 20th century, drastic social, political and scientific changes have occurred in Western world. Due to various scientific advancements, nutrition has improved for everyone, which means better health, especially in children. With better health, children can develop to their full potential as adults, both mentally and physically. Due to better health overall in U.S. population, the average age of puberty has been decreasing, which widens the gap between mental and physical development rates. This has various negative psychological and social effects upon the girls who experience early onset or precocious puberty.
In America, the average age of puberty was 15 in 1900 (“Why the Voting Age Should Be Lowered to 16″). Now, it is around 12, although for girls, it is lower since they naturally begin puberty earlier than boys. Naturally, a large factor of the causation of this drop in the age of puberty is the huge improvement in nutrition. Since food is more available due advancements in mass productions and agricultural technology, children were better nourished. This allowed them to physically grow bigger, taller and stronger.
Since children were becoming larger than their predecessors, the age of puberty also dropped because the body needs a certain amount of fat in order for puberty to be triggered. In fact, “data clearly show that girls once matured much later, probably because poor diets and infectious diseases left them relatively thin” (Szabo). In a study published in 2010, “about fifteen percent of American girls begin puberty by age 7” (CBS). Puberty used to be something reserved for girls in the double-digits, but having it happen to a child barely in elementary school is almost mind-blowing to think about.
As a society, we are not ready to deal with such an early onset or precocious puberty. These girls often suffer from rejection from their peers in social settings because they look different from the norm. According to CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, “…all girls and children want to do is fit in and look like the person sitting next to them” (CBS). Since these girls do not “fit in,” they often have a hard time adjusting socially and suffer from low self-esteem. Also, they are often subjected to more peer pressure, having an increased risk of suffering from an eating disorder and even depression (CBS).
However, it is not just difficult for these girls. Their parents often have a difficult time adjusting as well. Puberty is a signal of not only sexual and physical maturation, but a sign of social maturation even if these girls still look like they are in elementary school. As a result, many parents wonder where their “little girl” has gone. Childhood is such an innocent and precious time that cannot be regained once it is over, so understandably, parents often oppose anything that would shorten that time. As children grow older, they become more independent, thereby wanting less of their parents’ influence. Having puberty begin at such a young age where girl is still mentally and psychologically dependent on her parents is jarring because it goes against societal norms and is ill-timed with mental development.
As these young girls enter into the further stages of puberty even at the young ages of ten, eleven or twelve, they often resemble teenagers in high school or even older. As a result, they get unwanted attention from older males since their true age is not obvious. Psychologically, that can be tough to deal with for anyone, regardless of age, but with the maturity of a young girl, the feeling of discomfort, humiliation and unfamiliarity can be deeply psychologically affecting.
“If an 11- or 12-year-old girl looks like she’s 16, people will interact with her as if she were 16,” said Dr. Frank Biro. “Early maturation increases the rate of risk-taking behaviors and lowers academic performance. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but it could” (Gardener). The relationship between the likelihood of risky, potentially self-destructive behavior to precocious puberty is often due to social pressures to “act like what they look like.”
In a study done by researchers from the University of Virginia (UVA) the statistics demonstrate that girls are often socially and biologically driven to act older than their age or begin risky behavior earlier than their late-maturing peers. For example, “early maturing girls tend to smoke and consume alcohol in greater quantities and at greater frequencies than less developed peers” (Mendle, Turkheimer and Emery).
One of the possible causes of this is the correlation between the higher depression rates among these girls. This implies that societal pressures indirectly cause substance abuse. Since peer pressure tends to be more of a problem with girls with precocious puberty, society could also have a direct cause because if their peers are experimenting with drugs, then they will be more likely to do so as well to “fit in.”
Due to earlier sexual maturation, girls with precocious puberty tend to date and engage in sexual activity before girls with “normal” or late puberty. There are biological, psychological and social reasons that cause such behavior, which can be very risky. Biologically, “rises in DHEA, testosterone, and estradiol are thought to trigger feelings of sexual attraction” (Mendle, Turkheimer and Emery), which would make sexual behavior more likely.
Since the frontal cortex of the brain is not completely developed until the mid-twenties, teenagers tend to be more impulsive with their actions because the frontal cortex is primarily for decision-making and reasoning. With the combination of an underdeveloped brain, raging hormones and developing sexual organs, teenagers, let alone girls, often have a hard time controlling themselves.
Naturally, one consequence of a sexually mature appearance is that girls become more attractive to older males and are consequently more likely to become involved with older boyfriends. Coupled with the rise in social status of “dating a high-schooler” (if the girl is in middle school) or “dating a college guy,” the likelihood of involvement with older males increases for girls with precocious puberty (Mendle, Turkheimer and Emery).
Having an older boyfriend is only one of the social reasons that girls with early-onset puberty tend to engage in more sexual behavior. Since girls often do not find acceptance with their similar-age peers, especially with the emotional distancing that occurs after menarche, or the first menstrual cycle, they often hang out with older girls who look more like them. As a result, they find acceptance, but often do not have the strength, willpower or confidence to resist peer pressure, especially if the older girls that they hang out with thinks of having sex as “normal.”
Even though not all older girls are sexually active or even plan to be sexually active for awhile, the ones that are often talk about it. As children and teenagers often mimic group behavior or feel the desire to “fit in” even without direct persuasion, girls with precocious puberty will often have sex “just because everyone else is” or use another excuse before they are emotionally prepared to do so (Precocious Puberty and Body Image).
Unfortunately, our society is not ready to deal with girls with precocious puberty. In America, “the shape of a woman’s body, such as large breasts and round hips, is explicitly sexualized in our society; and young girls are not mature enough to shoulder this societal burden” (Precocious Puberty and Body Image). Then again, a shapely body is pretty much universally sexually by all cultures. From an evolutionary standpoint, men are instinctively attracted to such features because it usually indicates fertility, which is advantageous for human reproduction. From a cultural perspective, this reverence of fertility can be found in the ancient societies of Mesopotamia, and it might have been passed down through generations.
Nowadays, the word “slut” is often used to describe a girl who is sexually active or presumed sexually active. Girls with a higher rate of physical development are assumed to be more sexually active than their peers, and must struggle with that social stigma. Not only is that social stigma present in their immediate society, usually school, but in the eyes of adults as well.
Our society is judgmental, but hasn’t it always been that way? Although children are taught to “not judge a book by its cover,” they judge anyways because it is a natural reaction due to another evolutionary advantage: the ability to make judgments quickly. This has saved many a caveman’s life, but now that we are not being chased by saber-tooth tigers, the snap judgments remain, no matter how incorrect they are.
Stemming from the stigma of being presumed as a “slut” or “whore,” adults tend to feel uncomfortable associating and interacting with girls with shapely bodies, especially younger girls. This is due to the assumption that these girls are socially deviant, and adults do not want to be near anyone like that, let alone a child. Moreover, various forms of media sexualize young girls, often fueling the disgusting fantasy of having sex with someone who looks like a child.
An example of this is the famous Calvin Klein ad featuring Brooke Shields. Throughout her childhood, there was a lot of controversy surrounding Brooke’s roles in film and in modeling. She was only fourteen when she did the photo shoot for that ad, but in no way did she look fourteen. Her body was objectified to show off the jeans, but that in turn implies that she is also being objectified. Although this ad was done in 1980, when the average age of puberty was higher than it is now, what kind of message does it send to girls?
Like many of the advertisements featuring models, the implication is that beauty can only be attained if they were thinner, sexier or put into an objectified position. This is psychologically unhealthy, as teenagers, especially young girls, often look up to celebrities as role models.
In the case of Brooke Shields, her mother was often at the center of the controversy surrounding her film choices. Recently, her mother passed away, and The New York Times did a piece about that, beginning the article by saying that “Terri Shields… allowed her [Brooke] to be cast as a child prostitute in the 1978 film “Pretty Baby” (Yardley). Brooke was only twelve years old at the time. Even more shocking was that Shields had taken nude photographs at the tender age of ten. Most girls are not in such a public position, nor do they have mother who know how to use and exploit sexuality. However, the visible products send the message that it is okay to behave sexually at such a young age.
The reason that there is any controversy at all is due to the permeation of religion in the U.S. culture. Even though the number of those who practice religion, with the most notable example being Christianity, is declining, religion is what America was founded upon. It is everywhere, even as the Constitution states that there should be a separation between church and state. It is on our currency, part of our Pledge of Allegiance, mentioned extensively in politics and often used as a reason to do or not do something.
However, while religion does not seem to present too much of a challenge in terms of inhibiting sexual activity in teenagers, it does seem to establish an aspect of conservatism in the United States culture. Many people will claim to be religious and even attend church services and functions, they often separate it as a “spiritual thing” or a basis for some of their values, but as one girl puts it “…so many kids have sex…so it’s not necessarily like…you’re always gonna go by what the Bible says…” (52 Regnerus). However, these are young girls in middle school or younger, not high school kids or adults. Because religion is often the basis of morals in society, it draws the line of controversy at kids being sexualized. It is also the cause of the backlash against the prevalence of sexuality in the media, the perception that our culture is becoming more and more sexualized and the general distaste for overt sensuality.
Due to the religion-based morals of the U.S. society, young girls with precocious puberty often suffer from negative psychosocial consequences. Society assumes that they are “sluts” before they can prove themselves because people are judgmental by nature. These girls are shunned by their age group due to their incongruity of physical appearance with the rest of the group. As a result, they often suffer from depression and engage in risky, self-destructive behavior which includes substance abuse, involvement with older males, and engaging in sexual activity earlier. Early puberty makes life so much harder on these girls and yet the number of girls who suffer from this is increasing.
Studies have shown that there is a huge genetic component of the inheritance of precocious puberty. If there is a family history or even if the mother had puberty early, the daughter will be more likely to also have it early, since the daughter usually begins puberty at the same age as her mother. If there is a rise in the numbers of girls with precocious puberty, perhaps it will one day become more acceptable. Of course, it could just also lower the mean age of puberty onset, which would always leave girls with precocious puberty at a disadvantage. Meanwhile, our society should try to be more accepting and less judgmental. It should actually take those childhood lessons of not “judging a book by its cover” to heart. No girl is her physical appearance; she is far more than that, and should be treated as such.
CBS. “Puberty Starting Earlier for Many Girls: Study.” CBS News. CBS Interactive Inc., 12 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500172_162-20053084.html>.
Gardener, Amanda. “Study: More U.S. Girls Starting Puberty Early.” CNN Health. CNN, 10 Aug. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/08/09/girls.starting.puberty.early/index.html>.
Mendle, Jane, Eric Turkheimer, and Robert E. Emery. “Detrimental Psychological Outcomes Associated with Early Pubertal Timing in Adolescent Girls.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 7 Nov. 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2927128/>.
“Precocious Puberty and Body Image.” The Body Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2012. <http://thebodyproject.bradley.edu/sex/puberty.shtml>.
Szabo, Liz. “Girls Hit Puberty Earlier than Ever, and Doctors Aren’t Sure Why.” USAToday. USAToday, 4 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2012. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/wellness/story/2011/04/Girls-hit-puberty-earlier-than-ever-and-doctors-arent-sure-why/45989054/1>.
“Why the Voting Age Should Be Lowered to 16.” National Youth Rights Association – Voting Age Talking Points. National Youth Rights Association, 2005. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. <http://www.youthrights.org/votetalkingpoints.php>.
Yardley, William. “Teri Shields, Mother and Manager of Brooke Shields, Dies at 79.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 5 Nov. 2012. Web. 7 Nov. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/06/arts/teri-shields-brookes-mother-and-manager-dies-at-79.html?_r=0>.