Precocious Puberty & Body Image
Early onset, or “precocious” puberty is becoming an increasingly common condition in industrialized societies. Although early physical maturation can occur in both sexes, girls are ten times more likely to undergo precocious puberty than boys. In such cases, children under 8 years of age must struggle with young bodies that begin to undergo significant physical changes well before they are emotionally and cognitively mature enough to deal with the implications of adolescence. Young girls, especially, are subject to psychological turmoil as a result of an early sexualized body and identity confusion, often resulting in lasting negative effects to their concepts of body image and self-worth.
Understanding Precocious Puberty
Puberty is the natural process of hormones signaling the growth of estrogen and female sexual characteristics in girls or testosterone and male sexual characteristics in boys. It usually begins between the ages of 10 and 14. However, “precocious puberty” is defined as the beginning of this physical transformation before the age of 8 (Chopack-Foss 2008).
Precocious puberty may be diagnosed in girls under 8 years old who experience menstruation, breast development, the growth of pubic or underarm hair, acne and/or a rapid growth in height. It may be the diagnosis in boys under 9 years old who experience the growth of pubic or underarm hair, enlargement of the genitalia, a deepening voice, acne and/or a rapid growth in height.
The precise causes of early physical maturation are still a matter of debate in the medical world. Most research has focused on changes in the brain and the endocrine system. Some of these changes may be triggered by environmental factors. Certainly research has shown that in populations with a higher caloric intake and fewer disease stressors, children tend to reach puberty earlier (Talpade, 2006; Tremblay, 2005).
Stigmatizing Early Bloomers
While both boys and girls can experience precocious puberty, the negative consequences tend to be more acute for girls who are “early bloomers.”
Girls who develop early face a difficult choice: whether to associate with their cognitive age group or with the age group that their bodies more closely resemble. An unexpected physical growth spurt into womanhood thrusts girls into a world in which their appearance is judged on a daily basis, often attracting sexual attention or unwanted advances. As Diamond (2009) reports:
- The shape of a woman’s body, such as large breasts and round hips, is explicitly sexualized in our society; and young girls are not mature enough to shoulder this societal burden.
- Girls who develop physically faster are assumed to be more sexually active than their peers, and must struggle with that social stigma.
- Adults tend to feel uncomfortable with precocious girls with shapely bodies, often associating them with social deviance.
- Early developers are also more likely to engage in relationships of a sexual nature before they are emotionally prepared to do so.
The lasting impact of excessive body consciousness, as well as a premature exposure to sexual exploitation, affects precocious girls into their adolescence and adulthood. According to Diamond (2009):
- Early exposure to excessive body-consciousness has a tendency to stick with premature developers, even years after their peers catch up with their physical development.
- Early bloomers learn that they are agents of male erotic desire, which causes feelings of sexual exploitation and shame.
- For early developers body esteem is often damaged well into adulthood. Some women actively cover their bodies in order to avoid attracting unwanted sexual attention.
- Early bloomers face an increased likelihood of developing an eating disorder due to low body esteem.
Boys, on the other hand, appear to suffer fewer negative effects from precocious puberty (although this is an area that is under-researched in the medical and social scientific literature). This may be, in part, because the physical maturation of young males is considered a socially positive and rewarding endeavor, while the development of the mature female shape is associated with provocative or deviant behavior. Thus, a boy can look forward to the prospect of becoming more masculine, while a girl must prepare herself for the negative stigma attached to shapely, mature female bodies.
However, there is one aspect of precocious puberty that does appear to negatively affect the body image of precocious boys later in life: stunted height. While an early growth spurt may make precocious boys initially taller than their peers, their skeletons mature earlier and their bone growth stops earlier than average, often leaving them with a shorter-than-average height. In a society that attaches particular importance to male height, this may result in long-lasting feelings of inadequacy, fears that they are not masculine enough and a sense that they are not physically attractive.
Empowering Early Bloomers
Precocious puberty, or more precisely society’s reactions to early maturation, has the potential to harm the self-esteem and body image of girls and boys alike. Fortunately, researchers in the social sciences and medicine are helping to raise awareness of both the causes and the physical, emotional and social consequences of precocious puberty. For more information, consult the resources listed below.
In our society, why do we tend to regard girls’ early physical maturation as more problematic than boys’ early maturation?
Researchers have described an increasing tendency in our culture to sexualize young girls. (See Levin & Kilbourne’s So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, 2009.) How might provocative images of children in the media affect the self-esteem and body image of young people—both early bloomers and those who develop at the average age?