Tuesday, May 02, 2000

Are Black Girls Growing Up Too Fast? Article for Africana.com

When Nicole Turner (not her real name), then an eight-year-old second-grader, got her period, developed breasts and grew pubic hair all in the same year, she was the first in her class to hit puberty.

That was 15 years ago. Now, early puberty is more common than ever; and some are worried about its possible impact on black girls.

The Chicago resident, now 23, remembers being embarrassed at the time because she had to wear a bra to school.

“Starting puberty sooner does make you grow up faster. You’re not a kid anymore,” Turner said. “My mom was shocked when I first got my period. I’ll never forget the look on her face.”

The trend overall for American girls is that they’re reaching puberty sooner and developing at an early age – some feel too early. But research shows the early onset of puberty is particularly salient among black girls, who, according to some studies, start menstruating and developing as much as two to three years sooner than white girls.

On average, black girls get their periods before age nine. White girls typically start their periods a little later, at around 10. Just 10 years ago, researchers measured the average age of menarche, or first menstrual period, at 12.5 years of age.

In a 1997 University of North Carolina study headed by Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens, more than 17,000 girls ages 3 through 12 were surveyed during routine doctor’s visits for signs of sexual development.

About 27 percent of black girls started developing by age eight, while only seven percent of white girls had started puberty by that age. About ten percent of the girls in the sample were black, while the rest were white.

In the North Carolina survey, the results of which were published in the medical journal Pediatrics in 1997, researchers reported they found 48 percent of black girls and slightly less than 15 percent of white girls had begun breast or “secondary” hair development — pubic and armpit hair — or both, by age nine.

Surprisingly, Herman-Giddens and her research team also found three percent of the 1,700 black girls in the study showed some sexual development by age three, while just one percent of the 15,300 white girls showed the similar development at that age.

Herman-Giddens, who is now an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, said she and others she worked with noticed five- and six-year-old girls were coming into the clinic with developing breasts or pubic hair when she was working as a physician’s assistant years ago.

Girls who started puberty any time before the average age had previously been considered “abnormal,” and sent to a specialist for evaluation and possible hormone treatment, Herman-Giddens said. But the study’s results saw the incidence of puberty among younger girls as less an anomaly or abnormality than a trend, with the exception of girls under five.

What’s behind this trend? And if it does seem to affect black girls more than whites, why? Although researchers have raised a number of possible causes – from birthweight to diet to stress levels – none has been proven.

Among the general population, and the parents and educators of girls in particular, the riddle of early puberty is especially alarming within the American context of ever-younger exposure to sex in the media. Girls in our society, many fear, are being forced into maturity before they are ready to deal with it.

Turner said that when she first got her period, as the oldest daughter growing up in a rural Illinois community, she didn’t know what was happening at first. Turner’s mother, who was still in her twenties at the time, took her daughter aside and showed her how to make a mini-pad using toilet paper.

But Turner didn’t actually start using sanitary napkins for some time, because she didn’t know about them or where to get them. “I don’t know why my mother didn’t buy pads for me.”
Turner knew the family’s finances were tight at the time — she had several young siblings — but looking back, she still doesn’t think the family’s tight purse strings was the only reason. Her mother may have been embarrassed, and may not have wanted to believe her eight-year-old daughter was menstruating.

“I feel sorry for all these young girls growing up before they have to,” Turner says.
Dina White, a 28-year-old Maryland resident, remembers growing pubic hair around the age of seven or eight, and getting her period at age eight or nine.

“My body was developing much quicker than the other girls in my neighborhood,” White said.
White thinks a high-fat diet may have something to do with the fact that black girls seem to have a tendency to start puberty sooner.

“I think one difference [between us] is our eating habits. We eat more fried foods, we eat larger portions — but not always a balanced diet,” White said.

Growing up in an all-black neighborhood in the Orlando area, White says she and her friends would always eat a lot of junk food. “I was always a thick little girl,” White says.

“My friends and I ate cookies, chips, Hostess cakes and all that. Then in the summers, when I went to the country to visit my grandma, we ate full breakfasts every day with grits, bacon and eggs, biscuits and sometimes even cornbread,” White recalled.

Researchers like Dr. Frank Biro, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati, have conducted research that backs up White’s hunch.

The pediatrician found that heavier black girls are more likely to get their periods and develop faster than other girls, including skinnier black girls. Black girls who were “early maturing” were 1.61 times more likely to be overweight at age 15, while less overweight black girls started menstruating at 12.2 years, more or less in the “normal” time frame.

According to the three-year-old study, black girls who were late in maturing were 0.71 times, or much less likely, to be overweight at that same age. The study also pointed out that “early maturing” girls are overweight at an early age, and they may be less likely to lose that weight later on.

But overall, researchers and scientists agree that more puberty-oriented research needs to be done not only on blacks, but also on Latina, Native Americans and Asian girls.

Average age figures for puberty were reached by studying exclusive samples of white girls several decades ago. Now researchers aren’t sure why there is a “puberty age gap” between black and white girls. Researchers say it’s possible that black girls have been developing and getting their periods earlier than white girls for decades, or even centuries.

On the other hand, data from some African countries, like Kenya, show the average age of menstruation falling from 14.4 years in the 1970s down to 12.9 in the 1980s, according to the Population Information Center at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.

No matter the cause, the effects of early maturation may be profound.

An Oregon puberty study surveyed a community sample of boys and girls, including blacks, and found early-maturing girls and late-maturing boys were more likely to have adjustment and behavioral problems than other teens. The implications of the Oregon study for blacks, if the results are duplicated in future research, are significant: poor urban black girls, who live more stressful lives, may menstruate sooner than their wealthier, suburban counterparts. If proven, this could have significant implications on social issues such as teen pregnancy.

Irene Johnson, 31, a Virginia resident, works regularly with elementary to middle-school children on a volunteer basis. Johnson says she feels black girls overall are definitely developing earlier than they did a generation ago, when she was growing up in a town 90 minutes away from Cleveland, Ohio.

Johnson said she is “concerned” that girls are developing as early as they do. Johnson credits today’s parents for telling their kids more about puberty than they did a generation ago, but popular culture still gets in the way. Developed kids, she says, act older than they really are.
“I think girls today are developing a little quicker,” Simmons says.

“I was an exception, but today, I see middle-school girls at the bus stop who look like grown women with hips and butt and breasts.”

Although Nicole Turner says people are more open to talking about sex today, she still doesn’t feel black girls get the information they need on puberty as early as they should.
Puberty101.com, an informational Web site for adolescents, posts an open letter to parents: “Do you think your child is too young to view this Web site? According to recent research, one out of six girls start puberty by age eight.”

D. Sands, a 25-year-old Maryland resident and mother of a two-year-old girl, says she plans on talking to her daughter when she thinks the time is right. Sands says she wishes now her mother had told her more about puberty before it actually happened.

Sands said she got her period at age 11, roughly around the same time as most of her peers. But Sands quickly grew into a D-cup by seventh-grade. An aunt who was a nurse at Howard University Hospitals told Sands at age 16 to seriously consider a breast reduction after the teen reached size 42DD. Later, Sands’ mother counseled her daughter “not to worry about the unsolicited advice,” and the issue was dropped.

Sands says that if her daughter develops in the same way in a couple of years, she will try and give her the information she needs.

White, who now has an 11-year-old daughter, said it’s hard to know all the answers.
“The next generation of black girls — and their parents — will not be as prepared for puberty, especially if they’re getting younger and younger.”

She worries that girls will get their information not from parents and professionals but from their friends. “We have unknowledgeable kids teaching our kids about puberty. And that’s a shame.”

Article originally published on Africana.com, May 2, 2000.