Why Are Girls Starting Puberty as Young as Six?

There are theories that early-onset puberty is caused by chemicals in food, or light from TVs and computers. I don't know why it's happening, and I don't know what we can do about it.
Publish date:
November 7, 2012
parenting, children, science, puberty, sex education, chemicals

So I’ve written before about my Magical Puberty Adventures, which blessed/cursed me with boobs at a young age. Back then, not many girls went through puberty in the second, third or fourth grades, as evidenced by me being the first girl in my grade to get my period.

Every year, however, it seems like the average-age-of-puberty clock gets set back a little bit younger.

Our friends at the Daily Mail (gawd, I think I’m beginning to love it as much as Emily does) recently profiled a little girl who got her period at eight years old. EIGHT. YEARS. OLD.

From the Daily Mail:

“Every decade, according to German researchers, the average age for the onset of puberty falls by four to five months.”

When I was a kid, I was told that girls begin to “blossom into womanhood” with the onset of menses. And at 11, I was nowhere ready for “womanhood,” whatever the eff that was supposed to be. But I knew that having my period meant I could have babies, and if I didn’t want to have a baby, I had to either 1) abstain from sex (which turned out to be super easy for me from the ages of 11-19 years old because boys weren’t interested in me) or 2) use some form of contraception.

If I am at all anxious about having the sex talk someday with my son, I cannot imagine having a conversation with an eight-year-old girl who just got her period. Because really, what do you tell her about the blood and the cramping and whatnot? Do you lie, like with the Tooth Fairy? Make up some fantastical story involving clouds and glitter and magic? Give her a few dollars every month when she gets her period to make it a less scary experience.

I would like to think that if I had a girl, I would talk to her about why she menstruates, whether that starts at eight or 16, even though explaining to an eight-year-old that her body is now capable of growing a baby sounds like one of the worst conversations you could ever have with another human being. No wonder my mom just handed me a book. I have to be honest, this early puberty thing is frightening to me, and at times like these, I am glad I have a boy.

Even that carries some challenges. Kids seem to grow up very quickly. While we may limit their freedom to roam around the neighborhood, they are exposed (through TV, movies, the Internet, other kids at school) to concepts and ideas that until a few decades ago were reserved for teenagers. My son asked me recently if second graders can have girlfriends. He talks about “hot ladies.” And this is a kid whose TV time is limited (at least when he's at my house; I can't speak to what he watches at his dad's).

It’s nothing new for younger kids to want to emulate the behaviors they see in older kids. I did it, and I expect my son will do the same. He looks up to the teenagers at the skate park, mimics their speech, asks for certain types of clothes he sees them wearing. And little girls do it too: They see older kids or teenagers wearing and doing certain things, and they want to wear and do that, too.

Recently, as I was clicking around our sexy Halloween roundup, I came across this HuffPo article about the “sexification” of little girls’ Halloween costumes in the last 20 years. My mom noted that when she shops for regular, everyday clothes for my six-year-old niece, she often finds racks and racks of “sexy” clothes for little girls.

Add this to, say, pole dancing classes for kids, and Disney Princess everything from birth*, and I can’t help but wonder what message these girls are getting as they grow up. They are being presented with a very specific idea of femininity, one that goes something like, “Real women are sexy princesses to the exclusion of everything else.” And on top of that, they are menstruating at eight. If puberty was confusing for me, at 10, I can't imagine how confusing it is for these girls.

I don’t know the answer. And I don’t know the reason girls are going through puberty so young. Some theories include that it could be triggered by a toxic cocktail of exposure to plastics and other chemicals, pesticides and hormones in our water and food, and light from televisions/smartphones/computers. And who knows, maybe it’s all of those things.

The fact is, though, it’s happening. And I’m not sure what we can do about it.

Somer is not usually so serious on Twitter @somersherwood.