Daughters Who Grow Up Too Fast
What's Going On?
"In this culture, coming of age in a female body is a problem."
Joan Jacobs Brumberg, the best-selling author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (Vintage), makes this matter-of-fact declaration while thinking about the sexually precocious conduct of seven-year-olds who strut around living rooms, imitating the pelvic thrusts of Britney Spears.
What's going on?
How can women raised on the bible of Our Bodies, Our Selves now be rearing girls obsessed with fashion and makeup?
Is Britney or biology - or both - to blame?
Leaving pop stars aside for a moment, a look at the facts reveals that indeed, girls are maturing earlier. Dr. Marc Laufer, chief of gynecology at Children's Hospital in Boston, notes that while most girls still get their periods at age 12 or 13, the trend toward earlier menstruation has been occurring gradually over the last few generations. As of now, there are only theories, no scientific data, to explain why. According to Dr. Laufer, early but normal puberty (occurring after age eight) could be the result of improved diets or environmental factors.
For a normal girl, menstruation begins about two years after breasts begin to develop. Common sense, Dr. Laufer says, would suggest a link between the physiological changes a girl is experiencing and her behavior, which may become more provocative, at least in the eyes of a bewildered parent. But no one can say with certainty how much of the newfound preoccupation with appearance or hip-swaggering style is due to bodily changes or cultural messages.
The Wrong Wardrobe
Today, Brumberg and others believe, the change in young girls' behavior may also be the result of another cultural shift: the blurring of age distinctions. Clothing manufacturers now market directly to children, creating high-profit fashions and products that are smaller-sized versions of what adults or older teens wear. While it may be liberating for a 70 year-old woman to be able to wear jeans and sneakers, Brumberg says, it means something entirely different for a seven-year-old to be able to wear a midriff top. With the lines between childhood and adulthood evaporating, it's little wonder parents feel confused about how to set limits or respond to a girl's adult-like behavior.
Sandy A., mother of 14-year-old Haley, feels a sense of frustration as she watches her daughter flirt or change into skin-tight clothes. Yet she also feels an enormous sense of sympathy for her.
"When they reach sexual maturity, and my daughter did early on, they're shunned," she observes. "They belong nowhere because they're not yet women but society has told them they are women because of the way they look. So they keep the behavior up. And the benefits of being a woman, with all the attention they get, are a lot better than being a girl in transition."
When the issue is a young girl's seemingly sexy posturing, Dr. Laufer urges parents to find out first if a child actually knows about what she's doing.
"I think it's important for the parent to determine whether she's imitating behavior she doesn't understand, or whether she does understand the nature of sexual activity," he advises.
If the issue is looks or clothing, Brumberg suggests parents think long and hard about what's in their child's best interest.
"Sometimes Mom or Dad has to say, 'I think a one-piece bathing suit makes more sense for you right now.' But there's a difference between letting a little girl play dress-up and wearing a bikini to the beach. Dress-up in Mom's clothing or even a bikini is fantasy, and that should be encouraged because it helps kids understand the distinction between play and public displays of sexuality."
Such a clear message from parents, Brumberg believes, will help girls as they begin to navigate through puberty.