"The age of puberty has dropped at least 5 years since Elizabethan times."
I remember very little of my sheltered childhood, but I do remember the moment it was over. I was one of those little girls who spent the entire summer running around in cossie bottoms and little else. One night I was jumping on the bed with my little brother when he pointed at my chest and shrieked “mozzie bite nipples”. I looked down to see I’d sprouted tiny breast buds. My heart sunk and I took a last leap off the bed to get my pyjamas. The moment is so defining I can even recall the top was yellow, nylon and spotted with bees. I had been stung by my body’s betrayal and it took me years to go topless again.
I was about 11 at the time, but chances are such moments are taking place at a younger age for my daughter’s generation. Girls are budding so much earlier that mothers aren’t always prepared. I know one who took her 9 year-old-daughter to a doctor worried about a lump the girl had behind her nipple. She gasped when the Dr laughed “it’s a breast bud’. I know another who wept against the washing machine when she smelt her girl’s first pong of BO in year 4. I’ve heard mothers joke about putting their kids in ballet or starving them to slow down the inevitable march towards the first period.
It’s long been known that the age of puberty has dropped at least 5 years since Elizabethan times. It’s not clear if the age of the first period is still dropping, but a recent European study found breast development begins at an average age of 9 years and 10 months; a year earlier than the average in 1991. A report called The Falling Age Of Puberty In U.S Girls, found about half have breast buds by the time they turn 10, and 14% have them between ages 8 and 9. There’s no equivalent Australian study, but while the U.S results are somewhat skewed by the fact that African American girls enter puberty earlier than Caucasian, I suspect we may have a similar trend.
Many researchers point to the role of higher body fat in bringing earlier puberty. Research is also looking at oestrogen mimicking chemicals in plastics, insecticides and cosmetics.
Whatever the reason, I feel for little girls having to cope with hormones when they are still playing dollies and writing letters to Santa, fairies and the Easter bunny. Psychologists believe children should experience certain social, cognitive and emotional milestones before they endure adolescence. I’m not sure young brains that can’t remember their lunch order are ready for the confusion and swirl of puberty.
Then there’s the practical stuff. The loss of freedom when bodies start changing; the inhibition, the pain that baby boobs bring on the bogey board, followed a few years later by PMT, period pain and the fact that sport becomes a hassle (how young is too young for a tampon?)
There are also social factors. I remember both toughness and vulnerability in those girls who became women early. Some were the rebels who got interested in older boys; others lost confidence if they felt too tall or bulky.
I know puberty shouldn’t be seen as a curse. I love the idea of a celebration about becoming a woman; but I want my children to be old enough to enjoy the party.
And what of boys? It’s harder to assess the average onset of puberty, but European studies have found a similar trend. A German study found boys of 18 are about as mature as 22 year olds 200 years ago. A study of choirs found the average male voice broke at 18 in the 1700s and 13 today, and Bulgarian research found boys mature about a year earlier than their fathers. I do find it incongruous when I see huge muscly men with deep voices and shaving cuts wearing the shorts and long socks of a school uniform.
But while boys may go through similar difficulties in terms of early puberty, I’ve thought of a reason why it may be of more concern in young girls. Women are delaying having children till later in life. We may be coming to the stage where it’s common for a mother to go through menopause as her daughter goes through puberty.
That’ll make for interesting times in many a household!