Growing Up Fast: What Does Early Puberty Really Mean for Our Girls?

It seems that young white girls are reaching puberty younger and younger, according to a study in Pediatrics, a medical journal. This causes the news weeklies much concern. They seem considerably less concerned about the reality that over 37% of the eight year old African American girls in the study had grown enough breast tissue to be considered in puberty.

Perhaps this lack of alarm is in part because it has been previously established that young black girls develop sooner than young white girls. In fact, for the eight year old African American girls, the data found was comparable to that of the study done in 1997. Meaning this has been happening to black girls for at least a decade with little to no outcry.

In contrast, nearly 18% of Caucasian girls had developed breast tissue compared to 10% in the previous study. This is, admittedly, a big deal, and the source of the media’s concern. Hispanic girls had a significant increase as well, with 23% having breast tissue now versus 15% in 1997.

However, most outlets did not mention the increase in the number of seven year old black girls developing early, up to 23% from 15% in 1997’s study. These numbers increased for Caucasian girls as well, though Hispanic girls’ rates for 1997 were not mentioned.

It is clear that, despite what may be emphasized by the media, ALL of our girls are hitting puberty sooner. And of particular interest to this blog is that over a third of black girls in particular will have breasts of some size before they are even the oldest girls in their elementary schools. I have to wonder if accepting this as normal for our particular culture has something to do with historical perceptions of black (and Latina) promiscuity as opposed to white virtue.

I know I’m getting a little radical, but follow me please. If, like me, this “early bloomer” phenomenon is not new to you, then you are familiar with some of its social repercussions. Teasing, unexpected and unwanted sexual advances, body image issues and low self-esteem are the ones I saw firsthand growing up, and now with young women I’ve worked with. Girls who look like women sooner also are likely to engage in sexual activity at earlier ages. We feminists can say what we will about sexual agency and women’s right to control their bodies. But I think we can all agree that in elementary school, only a minute number of girls (if that number exists) are prepared to make responsible, informed and thought out decisions about their sexuality and sexual health.

The findings of this study have huge implications for the needs of our girls around sexual education and reproductive healthcare access. And the way that they are being presented speaks volumes about how we view black girls’ bodies. Still, more troubling are the linkages (still being investigated) between early puberty, obesity, diabetes and cancer. That’s right, cancer.

This link has been well-documented, although it was news to me. But it stands to reason that the longer your breast tissue and reproductive organs are active, the more likely they will act up within the course of your lifetime. Cancer is simply cells growing rogue, and longer term exposure to the estrogen that helps jumpstart puberty seems to make this more likely. Thus, breast cancer and endometrial cancer are associated with the early onset of puberty. I can’t help but wonder how strong the link is between this early development and the consistently higher rates of breast cancer in African American and Hispanic women. The study was conducted by researchers concerned with environmental influences on breast cancer, so it should provide fruitful information in this area.

I am very interested to see what further research comes out of this field. Next up, the study is testing blood and urine samples hoping to find the cause of for investigation is the cause of this trend. Many factors seem to be at play, from the rise in childhood obesity, to the increased use of hormones and pesticides in our food, to environmental and genetic factors.

I hope that someone continues to investigate the link between the higher BMIs of black girls and women and cancer. This may help us gather steam to fight childhood obesity with our first lady, and change the food we provide in our households and that we demand be available in our communities. It may make us pause before simply dismissing a child with a grown-up body as fast, and take action: Get her onto a sports team, an activity known to lower body mass, boost self-esteem and delay teen pregnancy. Or take a look at what we as her big sisters and mamas are doing to encourage poor health habits and how we can live better together.

And with a push, perhaps we can get attention paid to the meanings of these studies for minority communities, instead of just ringing alarmist bells about the virtue of young (white) girls.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Samantha Griffin is a lover of life and the amazing and amusing observations it offers. She is an activist both behind her computer screen and in the real world, where she is a non-profit professional working towards a more progressive and positive America. She's a womanist and a yoga, as well as an enthusiast of pop culture, politics, clothing and food. Every once in a while, she manages to be witty. Follow her on twitter ( and be on the lookout for blogging projects she has in the works.

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