If you think early puberty is just a concern for families with young girls, think again. The fact that many 7- and 8-year-olds now have breasts should matter to everyone, particularly reproductive health and rights activists.
For several decades, researchers have noticed that the onset of puberty, typically signaled by breast buds and pubic hair, is starting earlier. This trend disproportionately impacts girls of color—studies have shown that almost 25 percent of African-American girls and 15 percent of Latina girls had breast development by age 7, compared to just 10 percent of white girls. Though girls don’t necessarily get their first period much sooner than they did in the 1970s, for all groups, the number of girls starting puberty early has doubled since then.
Early puberty isn’t just about the inconvenience of getting breasts or pubic hair sooner. A whole cascade of reactions happens when an 8-year-old girl looks like a 15-year-old. First and foremost, she is treated like a teenage girl. As a society, our teenage girls are highly sexualized through media and other cultural messages. Research demonstrates that girls internalize observer’s perspectives of their physical appearance, which is especially true for younger girls. So if people view them, too, as sexual beings, then they start viewing themselves that way.
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In this kind of environment, it’s perhaps no surprise that, according to leading experts Drs. Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff in their book The New Puberty, girls who experience early puberty have a higher likelihood of engaging in a host of risky behaviors including relationships with older boys or men, early sexual activity, and drug and alcohol abuse. These factors also contribute to high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancy. Early puberty can also lead to anxiety, depression, eating orders, and poor academic outcomes. At the very least, early puberty is a serious problem affecting women’s and girls’ reproductive health and healthy sexuality—making it highly relevant to activists in the reproductive rights movement.
The effects of early puberty are not limited to adolescence, either. Girls who experience early puberty have a higher risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer compared to those who don’t, as well as heart disease and diabetes later in life. Thus, early puberty can impact a woman’s health throughout her life.
Combating the Chemical Component
As Greenspan and Deardorff document, exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals is one major factor that seems to be contributing to early puberty, along with obesity and social-psychological stressors. All of these factors may be intertwined, and none may be under families’ control. Not even a “perfect” parent, for example, can prevent her child from being exposed to harmful chemicals that may impact early puberty. First of all, chemical exposure starts even before a woman becomes pregnant and is intensified in utero. Second, chemicals are ubiquitous. There are more than 84,000 chemical substances on the market today—the vast majority of which haven’t been tested for safety. Under our dysfunctional regulatory system, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can’t even remove the worst chemicals from commerce.
Low-income communities and communities of color are much more likely to be directly exposed to toxic chemicals—including endocrine-disrupting ones—at work, at home, and through consumer products. And this extends beyond early puberty, too: Exposure to these chemicals means women in these communities are also more likely to experience infertility, uterine fibroids, and other reproductive health problems that have been linked to toxic chemicals.
A bill to reform TSCA is likely to be introduced in Congress in the next week. It is unclear whether this bill will help or hurt efforts to improve the regulatory system. RHTP will be monitoring the process and encourages advocates of every stripe to contact members of Congress to ensure that TSCA reform will remove harmful chemicals from the market, including endocrine disruptors that contribute to early puberty.
Coming of Age
Coming of age can be stressful for kids and parents—whatever the gender or timing. And while there is a lot parents can do to prevent and ameliorate the effects of early puberty, as advocates for women’s reproductive health, we need to demand better chemical policy reform as a way to address these issues before they begin.