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Keeping up with the girls

Are girls growing up too fast? And will the trend toward precocious sexual development be the final nail in the coffin of male domination?

August 12, 2010|Meghan Daum

Remember the scene in "Annie Hall" in which a school-age, girl-kissing Alvy Singer is reminded by a classmate that "even Freud speaks of a latency period," and Alvy declares "I never had a latency period"? Some version of that may be happening in real life — to girls.

By that I don't mean that the Girl Scout motto "Be prepared" now refers to more than just wilderness or cookie-selling situations (or, for that matter, that we should believe everything Freud spoke of). But when it comes to prepubescent girls, it's safe to say that some don't always look so "pre" anymore. According to a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, girls as young as 7 or 8 had breast development that was significant enough to constitute the onset of puberty.

This is not the first time medical research has sounded an alarm about girls literally growing up too fast. Since the publication of another study in Pediatrics in 1997, the notion that girls are entering puberty at earlier ages than in the past has become almost conventional wisdom. And though researchers are quick to point out that further study is necessary before drawing firm conclusions (for instance, there is little evidence so far that the age of onset of menstruation has decreased precipitously), theories abound as to what's causing the breast development. Many experts point to skyrocketing rates of obesity, because body fat can produce estrogen. Others suspect environmental factors.

For all kinds of reasons, not least exposure to hormones that are thought to promote some types of cancers, this is a daunting prospect for girls. However, I would wager that it's not just the fairer sex that's at risk.

Let's consider for a moment the effect on boys. It can't possibly be good. As if boys in elementary and middle school didn't already have enough ways to compare themselves unfavorably to girls — scholastic achievement, verbal skills and social prowess, not to mention handwriting and knowledge about horses — this trend toward precocious sexual development just may be the final nail in the coffin of male domination.

Or so it may seem to an ordinary 8-year-old boy, who may view these girls not only in the way boys traditionally have — as bossy, slightly alien carriers of cooties — but as something even more terrifying: women. Or at least women-in-the-making.

In case you didn't know, the culture has found itself in the throes of a terrible scourge: the "masculinity crisis." Perhaps first identified a decade ago in Susan Faludi's book, "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man," and since then reinforced by writers such as David Brooks and Christina Hoff Sommers (who identified a sub-scourge she calls the war on boys), this "crisis" stems largely from changes brought on by the global economy. In the post-Industrial Age, traditionally male skills like operating heavy machinery have been all but usurped by traditionally female skills like communicating; hence, more men have lost jobs in the current recession. In a recent Atlantic magazine article called "The End of Men," Hanna Rosin noted that women now earn 60% of all bachelor's and master's degrees. There's even evidence, Rosin wrote, that U.S. couples seeking sex selection for their children show a preference for girls.

Will that change when would-be parents realize they might be contending with an unwieldy mix of hormones before their princess has grown out of "My Little Pony"? Probably not. It's probably also a stretch to draw too close a connection between premature sexual development in girls and what some people (generally using Judd Apatow movies as Exhibit A) maintain is an epidemic of arrested development in boys and men. After all, girls have always matured faster than boys, and until very recently, males were able to catch up quite nicely.

But as we go about the essential business of dealing with this situation for girls, and how to stop it, perhaps it's worth extending some sympathy toward boys. In a world in which it's already so easy to feel diminished by the achievements of girls, this widening gulf in physical maturity just might have the effect of kicking them while they're down.

Alvy Singer would sympathize.

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