News from the Tennessee Valley Current

Early puberty hard for girls

Jessica Schneider
DAILY Intern

Puberty is a confusing time for a teenager. But while boys start dealing with the embarrassment of their voices breaking around age 13 as they always have, girls buy bras and tampons earlier than they did a few decades ago.

"Sometimes it is hard to tell how old a girl is," said Julie Hall of Decatur, whose daughter is a sophomore in high school. "With their bodies starting to develop, it tends to confuse people, especially if they dress older and put on makeup."

Decatur gynecologist Dr. Cara Hoffman has noticed girls maturing earlier than they did when she was a young girl, but she said parents don't necessarily need to be concerned.

"The average age for a girl to start puberty is at (age) 11 or 12," she said. "But we consider it normal for a girl as young as 8 years old to have her period. Only if it happens at a really young age like (age) 4 or 5 is there reason to worry. In those cases, there could be some serious problems, like a tumor in the brain or the ovaries."

The landmark Herman-Giddens study, published in 1997 by professors at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, found that more girls start their physical development earlier than the medical norm. The study was important because for the first time it showed that about 15 percent of white girls started to grow breasts and pubic hair as young as 8 years old, the percentage for black girls was three times as high. Before the publication, many doctors had thought the number of girls developing at age 8 to be under 2 percent.

Girls becoming women

The challenge of adjusting to their new role as "women" can be problematic for these girls who have the mindset of children. While most of their teenager counterparts expect the change, the onset of puberty usually comes as a shock for girls under age 10.

An article entitled "When Little Girls Become Women" published in The Ribbon, a Cornell University newsletter, mentions studies which indicate that girls who develop early are more prone to cigarettes, alcohol and drugs and are more likely to have problems in school and to engage in sexual behavior. They also suffer from depression or anxiety because of their confusion about the physical and psychological changes for which they are not yet prepared.

"The earlier physical maturation, coupled with our culture's emphasis on youth and sex, places young girls in a position of being pressured to behave more in accordance with their body's maturation than their chronological age," said Virginia E. O'Leary, professor of psychology at Auburn University.

As a result, these girls lose part of their childhood. Experimenting with makeup replaces playing with dolls and puppies. Playing catch with boys gives way to flirting. Children try to look like women.

"I think the fashion industry is giving young girls more options to dress older," says Hall. "When I was that age, the clothes were something that moms would buy for their children. Now it's more what the kids would buy."

Particularly, men might not realize that they are still dealing with children and behave in inappropriate ways toward girls.

"The response of older males to their development might place young girls in situations to which they are unprepared to respond," said professor Denise Davis-Maye of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Auburn University.

Causes of early puberty

Scientists have not figured out the exact causes of early puberty in girls for those cases in which no medical conditions are present.

Obesity due to wrong diet and lack of exercise top the list. Body fat converts hormones into the female sex hormone estrogen which makes the body believe that the girl is ready for maturation.

"If a girl has a lot of body fat, it basically tells her body that it can get pregnant now," said Dr. Hoffman. Breast development and menstruation begin earlier. Fat cells also produce the protein Leptin which scientists believe influences puberty.

Other possibilities include chemicals that can be found in pesticides, plastic and even cosmetics. Bisphenol-A and Phthalates are used to make plastic and are almost impossible to avoid. DDT is a pesticide that is banned in the United States today, but its breakdown product DDE is still in the environment. PBC was once used as a flame retardant in electrical equipment. All of these chemicals mimic hormones and are suspected to influence the maturation process.

Scientists also blame growth hormones that farmers give to animals and that leave traces in milk, beef and eggs. Some researchers even hold an earlier access to sexual content via the media responsible. Even though possible explanations are plentiful, further study is needed to pin down the reasons behind this trend.

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