I seem to recall that fifth grade was about the time the ultimate insult implied a girl still played with Barbie. It was totally uncool. It was the year we suddenly started navigating cliques at school and really started noticing boys. We were all reading Judy Blume and wondering when we would go shopping for our first bras and of course, when our mysterious periods would start. Today, girls are ditching their dolls by the time they're barely out of kindergarten.
I bring this up because The Los Angeles Times this week reported that the new "normal" age for the onset of puberty in the US is now a stunning 8-years-old.
We're talking second graders! Ten maybe twenty years ago, they still would have been playing with my old friends, Barbie & Ken.
"Eight- and 9-year olds are learning to make change for a dollar. These are children who are learning the most fundamental facts in school. Imagine trying to teach that child the fundamentals of sex. They're not even playing Monopoly yet. They're still playing Candyland," Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families tells the Times.
It's no secret that adolescence is starting earlier and earlier, especially among African American girls. The obesity epidemic in the US continues to bear some of the blame and there is speculation that pollutants in the environment have an impact. But this is the first time scientists agree that eight is a new common starting point, the average age when girls start developing breasts.
Whatever the reasons for it, our daughters are going to have it so much harder than we did when it comes to entering that confusing and awkward stage of life.
Not only are they physically getting older younger, girls are inundated by more sexualized images than ever before thanks to a celebrity culture that glorifies skanky-ness. As if all of those hormones and new curves weren't confusing enough. Today's girls barely have time to comprehend or accept the fact they're maturing before they are told that in order to be popular, they have to dress like full-grown women -- and suggestively at that. Call it the Britney, Lindsey, Paris effect. As a mother, I'm worried. And my daughter is still in diapers!
The good news is that armed with this new information, we can do something about it. We can do our best to instill self-esteem from the moment our daughters are born by emphasizing their minds, their hearts and being strong and healthy rather than focusing on physical beauty (or what society deems beautiful). We can take control of what they watch on television and their time on the Internet. We can applaud achievements that celebrate who they are, not what they are wearing.
I know it will be a huge challenge and that we can't shield our daughters from everything. But I just feel it is so unfair to face the pressures they'll be dealing with the rest of their lives at such a tender age. I'm not talking about the pressure to have sex - although that is happening younger and younger. I'm talking about the challenges of developing confidence in their intelligence, ideas and aspirations in the face gender stereotyping that still prevails despite landmark changes for women including, the first viable female Presidential candidate, a woman Speaker of the House and countless CEO's, doctors, attorneys, professors, artists, athletes, writers and musicians. Girls have so many role models today and yet, when it comes to the influences of pop culture, sometimes it feels like we're so far behind the times.
Perhaps I am most disturbed by this news because I recall how difficult my own adolescence was way back in the early 1980's. Although I was excited to be "growing up," when the time finally came, puberty itself was awkward and embarrassing. I remember returning to school after the summer between 7th and 8th grade with my new chest and being mortified by all of the attention. I spent most of middle school and high school hiding my body in oversized clothes. I cannot imagine how a child who hasn't even learned multiplication tables or mastered reading skills can begin to process the full weight of what it means to be a woman today. This new biological reality challenges moms (and dads) to figure out ways to make sure we don't let Barbie (or other remnants of girlhood) slip away so fast. I'm up for it. Are you?