Why are more girls starting puberty early?

Kamilah Osman and Mary Pujeh

Puberty refers to the process where adolescents undergo physical changes and maturity into a body that is capable of reproduction. Today, it is not uncommon for a girl to begin this process at as early as eight years old. While there isn’t a single reason as to why girls are hitting puberty so early, Dr. Herman-Giddens, a professor at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, began studying this topic in the 1980s. She found that in a study of more than 17,000 girls who underwent physical examinations at pediatrician’s offices around the country in the mid-1990s, many of them started showing signs of puberty at 10 years old, a year younger than what she had previously recorded in her 1980 study. Since Dr. Herman-Giddens began her research, she has found that the age of puberty drops about three months per decade since the 1970s. Understanding this, it may be worth rethinking how we view puberty. It shouldn’t be viewed as an entrance to adulthood, but more like a continuation of childhood.

While the research on this is still developing, the possibilities for why girls are going through puberty so young can be caused by various reasons. For one, the rise in childhood obesity may be a contributing factor since girls who are overweight or obese tend to develop breasts and begin their menstrual cycle earlier than those of a healthy weight. Another reason may be the different chemical exposures in everyday products like plastic food packaging, air pollution, and hormones in food can disrupt a child’s growth. Researchers also speculate that life stressors can play a significant role in starting puberty. Black girls, in particular, may begin showing signs of puberty at as early as 9 years old because of a lifestyle impact called “adultification”. The Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) refers to “adultification” as a form of dehumanization, robbing black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from all other developmental periods: innocence”. When Black girls are viewed and treated older, their mindset of themselves change and can physically prompt their bodies to develop early. Kaylah Masuta, a freshman at South who started experiencing puberty at nine years old says, “I definitely hit puberty really early. For any girl who does, you are still a child. It’s okay to grow up, but don’t allow these changes [to your body] make you feel like you have to grow up too fast. Puberty does not mean you’re an immediate adult.” This societal pressure that Black girls are “fast” may actually be contributing to their rapid development.

Early puberty may be the new normal. Pediatricians have a cutoff, usually around 8 or 9 years old, for when puberty should typically occur. If a child shows that they are going through puberty earlier than this age, doctors may request for children to be screened for disorders. These examinations are not only expensive, but it can also be physically exhausting with various medications, scans, and procedures to slow down their sexual development. This puberty cutoff would likely misdiagnose and negatively impact girls who are women of color, overweight, or low-income. While doctors should pay close attention to girls who are experiencing puberty younger than their cutoff, research reminds us that the age of puberty is getting younger for girls all over the country so there may not be a reason to panic.