Too young for puberty


image from Kotex has a new line of menstrual pads for tweens—girls 8 to 12—that feature stars, hearts and bright kid colors. But since when has menstruation been typical kid stuff?

The product, U by Kotex Tween Pads, is filling an upsetting need: the falling age of puberty in our daughters. According to a New York Times article last week, "15 percent of American girls begin puberty by age 7."

What's disturbing to us is not the weirdness factor of second-graders toting pads to school along with their art projects, but the connection between early puberty in girls and increased breast cancer risk in adulthood.

Even beyond the consequences of early puberty (of which there are many, social, psychological, health and otherwise), what's causing this trend toward shorter childhoods? We know that some of the chemicals the Breast Cancer Fund has targeted because of their connection to breast cancer are also linked to early puberty; BPA is among them.

A report written by Dr. Sandra Steingraber and published by the Breast Cancer Fund in 2007, The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls, foreshadowed this public health problem the media started talking about it and companies seized it as a marketing opportunity.

What Dr. Steingraber found in her research—and what we see in feminine care products for girls who are likely still playing with dolls—is normalization. In the U.S. in 1999, for example, the age limits for precocious puberty were dropped from 8 years to 7 (for white girls) and 6 (for black girls). Younger was now "normal" again.

For the 8-year-old who has to navigate the elementary school bathroom while on her period, normalization and support is appropriate. But on a societal scale we owe our kids an examination of why the age of puberty has fallen—and what we can do to reverse the trend and improve their lifelong health.


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