So Puberty is Starting Younger. A Lot Younger.

Photo of The Queen via Flickr

Now I know why I’ve been watching “Veronica Mars” reruns instead of reading the newspaper in the morning: Creepy stories like “First Signs of Puberty Seen in Younger Girls,” from Monday’s New York Times, which reports on a new Pediatrics study showing that girls are more likely to start developing breasts by age 7 or 8 than they were in the past.

The researchers looked at 1,239 girls aged 6 to 8 recruited in New York, San Francisco, and Cincinnati. The findings:

At 7 years, 10.4 percent of white, 23.4 percent of black and 14.9 percent of Hispanic girls had enough breast development to be considered at the onset of puberty.

At age 8, the figures were 18.3 percent in whites, 42.9 percent in blacks and 30.9 percent in Hispanics.

Yeah. Awesome.

Standard caveat about how nobody seems to have a real clue about why this is happening (and by “this” I mean, an average of 30 percent of 8 year olds growing boobs). Obesity may or may not be a factor. Race and related differences in socioeconomic experiences may or may not be a factor. A historic misreporting in medical textbooks about the onset of puberty may or may not be a factor.

And guess what else may or may not be a factor? Environmental chemicals. Like the hormone disruptors found in lots of our cosmetics and personal care products. That we use, and studies show, enter our bodies and pass over the placenta barrier to our developing babies. And that we slather on our kids. I don’t just mean playing dress-up. We’re also talking about baby lotion, sunscreen, shampoo, you get it. (And also chemicals found in plastics, furniture, cleaning supplies… again, you’re smart folk, you’re up on this.)

“Young girls are exposed to dozens of potentially toxic chemicals on a daily basis,” says Ted Schettler, M.D., M.P.H., Science Director for the Science and Environmental Health Network and a spokesperson for the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition. “Some of these can mimic the natural hormone, estrogen. Although individually their estrogenic activity may be relatively weak, their effects are additive. In the aggregate they could be having significant health effects, including contributing to the early onset of breast development.”

Whenever scientists do zero in on a clear explanation for this, I’m thinking it’s going to be an intersection of all of these race/weight/chemical exposure factors. Which makes me mad, because there’s a lot about that situation that we can’t control. Over at Beauty U, Campbell mentioned a few weeks ago how she was trying to budget for organic milk for her six-year-old daughter. “I don’t like this business about boobies on little girls,” she said. Campbell is black (and black girls had the highest rates of early breast development in this and other studies). She’s also a single mom patching together a living on babysitting after getting laid off from her waitress job. “It’s no joke,” she said to Meg, another single mom, with a two-year-old daughter. And Meg just shook her head. “Do you see what organic milk costs?”

Right. Especially when that’s only the beginning of usually-more-expensive safer product swaps that moms have to think about now.

And while I’m feeling frustrated and out of control about all of that, I’m thinking about all the tween and teen girls who have been coming into the spa lately because we just got a new line of glitter eye makeup and you know how tween and teen girls (and um, me) love glitter eye makeup. I’ve been digging it, because it’s rad to see a girl come in all shy and uncomfortable with herself and then get kinda glowy and excited when we sparkle her up. It’s makeup doing what makeup should do: Put a big ole smile on your face. After the clients leave, we play around ourselves, drawing glitter rainbows and cherries and fireworks on each other’s cheeks. (Or, in Campbell’s case, painting her lips in black glitter topped with rhinestones. Because she’s fierce like that.)

The glitter line we use features a product called “Liquid Sugar,” which you use to get the glitter to adhere to skin. So I checked the label, and of course, there’s nothing remotely related to sugar inside. Of the eight ingredients listed (water, SDA-40 alcohol, acrylates, octyacrylamide copolymer, triethanolamine, propylene glycol, imidazolidinyl urea, methylparaben, and propylparaben), the last five appear on The Ingredient Blacklist put together by the ladies of No More Dirty Looks and are cited in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database for being linked to a variety of health concerns, including — wait for it— hormone disruption.

And I guess it’s being up close to some angsty puberty-has-just-onset girls while I paint glitter on them that’s reminding me how stupid hard puberty can be. And how I wouldn’t wish it on the average seven year old. So add glitter eyeshadow to today’s list of frustrations. Because we’re talking about a product that, in theory, should serve no other purpose than to make girls smile — but of course, we’ve all watched enough Baby Beauty Pageants to see it’s also about promoting standards that don’t always lead to things like high self-esteem. And while those standards are messing with their heads, the chemicals inside the product are messing with their bodies.

So Campbell’s daughter. Meg’s daughter. My own two-year-old niece. And all of those little girls in that study.

That’s at least 1,242 good reasons for us to push for change. Like the Safe Chemicals Act and the Safe Cosmetics Act, both of which would require more research on how all the crap in our products impacts our kids and get the most dangerous chemicals off store shelves.

It’s just one factor. Just one piece of this whole vicious beauty cycle, where our society tells girls they have to look a certain sexy/young/thin way, pushes products on them to create that look, forgets to figure out if those products are safe… and then gets scared when they start to look sexy way before we’re ready for it.

But writing to my Congresspeople about those laws feels like one good thing I can control today.

So I’m on it.

[Photo: “The Queen” (aka a little girl I would so be best friends with) by Brittany Randolph, via Flickr. ]



Filed under Beauty Schooled, beauty standards, Government Watch, In Class, Ingredients, Makeup, products, week 37

12 responses to “So Puberty is Starting Younger. A Lot Younger.

  1. The hormones in our food are another factor that must be taken into account. I actually wrote about this issue late last year.

  2. Jodi

    My daughter had breast buds at age 7. I was really afraid those little lumps were cancer, because it never would have occurred to me that she was entering puberty at that age. I took her to the doctor the next day. She started her period at age 8. Luckily she took it all in stride.

  3. Katy

    Have you considered talking to adult women who have been through early puberty? Because yes, a lot of environmental factors are increasing the occurance of early puberty (and should obviously be eliminated), but puberty occurs during a range of ages.

    I lived a relatively average childhood, started developing breasts and pubic hair by eight, and got my first period by ten–it runs in my family.

    I wouldn’t wish the process on anyone, of any age or gender, but I think we as a society ought to be more supportive about the developmental process. Eliminating harmful substances is always a good thing, but it doesn’t take away the stigma of puberty at any age.

    • Katy, SO true. The environmental exposure piece is just one part of this whole puzzle. Supporting girls (especially if they’re hitting puberty younger) as they deal with that onslaught of changes is key. I’d love to hear from more women (like you!) about what it’s like to be in the trenches on that one and what kind of support early developers need to deal. Thanks for commenting!

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  5. I always feel a sense of sadness whenever I see my sister wearing as much makeup as she does. She’s 14 and owns enough makeup for three people. Though she doesn’t slog it on, and looks cute, she won’t go out without it. Recently she spent $140 on a hair straightener (she wakes up at 5am every day to get ready). She’s only 14! It worries me that for having just exited middle school she is already so concerned about her appearance. And yes, she has that glitter eye makeup.

    But if I say anything out of concern, she takes it as a criticism and shuts down. Very touchy subject…

    I hate how even our children aren’t safe from this onslaught of toxic products.

  6. neogramath

    I’m 22 years old. I developed breast buds and pubic hair when I was 8. I started menstruating a few months after my 11th birthday. Also, since the article mentions obesity as a possible factor I would like to say that I was indeed a chubby kid at the time.

    Also, you may be interested in the articles on this site:

  7. Sasha

    I started developing at the age of 8 or 9, but didn’t actually get my period until 12 and 1/2. My mom told me that she was the same. We can’t disregard family factors when considering health issues, especially reproductive ones.

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