V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Premature puberty and womanhood


Final in a 3-part series.

Published in Sun Media papers, March, 2008.

Throughout her adolescence, Kathy led the life of a tomboy.  She wore baggy sweats to conceal the volume of her chest, hiding behind clothes that suppressed her sexuality.

But after school, in the privacy of her own room, she would play dress up and experiment with makeup by herself.

“I was the girliest of girls on the inside, but no one knew.”

In retrospect, Kathy (not her real name) acknowledges it was a subconscious decision to play the role of the overly gregarious, asexual teen.

It was her way of deflecting unwanted sexual attention that had plagued her since she was nine years old.

Kathy got her period at the age of nine and by the time she in Grade 6, had already developed into a C-cup bra.

“It put the ball back in my court,” she said, her dark eyes widening and her voice suddenly assertive. “I can’t control the way my body looks, but I do have control over how to display it.”

By the time she was in high school, Kathy’s breasts had grown to fill an F-cup.

“I was off the charts.”

She had to get her bras custom-made because of her proportions: Though she had a formidable chest, she describes her adolescent body as “stick-like.”

At the age of 30, Kathy says she’s fuller than she’s ever been - but for her that means wearing size 4 pants.

Kathy’s story seems to defy many of the predicted outcomes of precocious or early puberty.

According to the medical literature, there’s a long and grim list of outcomes among girls who sexually develop early, a pattern that some medical camps say is on the rise.

“I was an early bloomer physically, but a late bloomer all around,” she said.

Girls who mature earlier are more vulnerable to sexual promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, obesity, depression, low self-esteem, less education and anxiety.

Contrary to what the studies hypothesize, Kathy didn’t lose her virginity until she was in her early 20s.

Sex wasn’t a priority.

But for girls who come from less stable family units and develop early, the tendency is to seek out older social circles, which can get them in trouble, said Dr. Susan Bradley, a child psychiatrist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

“They’re more vulnerable to getting involved with older kids,” she said.

“They relate more to the interests of the older crowd ... but they may be catapulted into things that they don’t have the maturity to deal with.”

It makes biological sense: Puberty is a rite of passage that readies the body for sexual reproduction. Logic follows that since the female body is producing more testosterone during puberty — the agent responsible for sex drive — the more likely their thoughts become sexually oriented.

A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health points out, for example, that early maturing girls tend to be more popular with the boys.

“Girls who look more mature will be more likely to perceived by others, and to see themselves, as attractive and appropriate romantic and sexual partners, opening doors to dating and sexual activity.”

That’s especially true of girls who come from families which don’t lend affection and support, Bradley said, as they’re likely to seek out the nurturing from the opposite sex.

But while premature sexual development may have early disadvantages, they also level off once the other girls catch up, said Dr. Elizabeth Levin, child psychologist and chair of psychology at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont.

“Developing early may not be the best thing, but it doesn’t have long-term consequences,” she said.

Meanwhile, it’s a different story with boys.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” Bradley said. “Boys who develop early appear to have psychosocial advantages. They’re regarded by their peers to be cool. They’re more likely to have more muscle strength and are more athletic, which all boys value.”

Boys with precocious puberty - defined as having testicular enlargement before the age of nine - are far less common. It’s also more likely the condition is pathologic, explicable by a malignant source such as a tumour.

Maria speaks about her son Kevin’s stature with the unmistakable tone of a mother proud to have a son who can already protect her small frame as a son should.

At 13, Kevin is already 5-foot-8 and wears size 14 shoes. Last year alone he grew seven inches. He’s exhibited the markings of a grown man since he was 10 years old, outgrowing kids clothes in the fifth grade.

“He’s always had the shoulders of a football player,” she says beaming.

Meanwhile, sexual promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and lesser education don’t scare mothers Denise, Sandi and Nicole.

It’s the things they can’t control, such as breast cancer which has been linked to earlier development, that has them worried.

They are fierce protectors of their sexually precocious daughters who entered puberty at ages four, two, and five respectively.

“None of those are of much concern to me because I’m a hands-on parent,” Sandi said from her home in Nova Scotia.

She homeschools all three of her children — a decision she acknowledges was based in large part after her first child, Teigen, developed precocious puberty at 18 months.

“School is a home environment, an open environment. I know my kids inside out.”

Teigen is now 15. Denise’s daughter Emily is now 10 and Alexa, from Kingston, Ont., nine. They are maternal to their siblings and well-adjusted.

Teigen is bound for university, where she has already mapped out her future in equaline genetics. Alexa, too, loves horses and considers herself an animal-lover, while Emily plays tennis, soccer and violin.

But these girls share another quality that brings a tinge of sadness to the mothers — a wisdom beyond their years.

“I can tell you that at a younger age, Emily was definitely more socially and emotionally mature,” Denise said from her home in Long Island. “The younger girls would run around the playground giggling at nothing and she would look at them and say, 'what’s so funny?’ That part saddens me. She missed out on some of her childhood.”

In her adult life, Kathy is bubbly, good-humoured and well-liked among her peers. It’s a persona that took the time span of a childhood and adolescence to create.

“I always overcompensated by being outgoing,” she said.

Before going out, she gave herself pep talks telling herself to be the life of the party. It was a self-defence mechanism that aimed to detract attention from her sexuality to her personality.

But even after a breast reduction, a successful career and marrying a loving husband, she admits her lifelong insecurities still plague her. They are memories of being teased mercilessly during dodgeball, the dead panic of having to go swimming, or of crying with her mother in a changeroom while trying on dresses for her Grade 8 graduation because none would fit.

“I have the confidence of a 12-year-old, but no one knows. You learn to cover up.”

It’s generally accepted that girls are developing breasts earlier.

And while different camps within the medical community may dispute the nuances of journal studies exploring earlier pubertal development, the woman who kickstarted the controversy sums it up in a follow-up article defending her findings.

“The age of pubertal events is important individually, socially, culturally, and as a public health indicator,” writes Marcia Herman-Giddens, who published a controversial report in 1997 suggesting that the age of precocious puberty be lowered reflect growing norms.

Current pubertal timing serves as a “canary in the mine” for environmental problems, much like growth data which are sensitive to times of war, famine and prosperity, she says in a Pediatrics journal in 2004.

But it could also serve as a sign of the times, added Dr. Mark Palmert, a pediatric endocrinologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

“My bias is I don’t think this is something people should be concerned about. It could just be a sign of better health.”

Sidebar:

The longterm effects of puberty suppressants

She was Sandi’s first child. It didn’t occur to Sandi that her toddler’s breast nubs were more than just baby fat. But when she sent out a photo of Teigen playing in the bath, she received a concerned phone call from her sister-in-law who pointed out the oddity.

“I hadn’t realized it because her growth was so gradual. She was my first child. I had no idea,” Sandi said in a phone interview from Nova Scotia.

Bloodwork confirmed unusually high levels of estrogen in Teigen’s blood.

Doctors were concerned the toddler had a brain tumour, as malignant causes are more likely the younger the child.

But a battery of tests revealed nothing to explain Teigen’s condition, a term doctors call idiopathic.

“I found that the most difficult portion of her diagnosis,” Sandi said. “We had no idea what was causing this.”

To suppress premature puberty, which can stunt adult height, Teigen was put on the drug Lupron. For the first three years, she and her mom would see the doctor every three weeks and get a deep muscle injection in her buttock.

From the ages of five to 11, her mom administered the needle in her thigh.

As a child, Teigen was strong-willed, had mood swings and seemed to exhibit symptoms of PMS. She began to grow hair on her legs and arms around the age of eight and developed body odour.

Teigen’s now 15 and 5-foot-4. She got her first period about nine months after she stopped Lupron.

Her periods are infrequent - once every three months - long and painful.

She’s polycystic, meaning her ovaries won’t release eggs, keeping her bedridden for days at a time. But it’s also a genetic condition as it afflicts 60% of her father’s side of the family, Sandi said.

“Putting her on Lupron and not knowing what the long-term effects would be was difficult. When we put her on this she was two. She’s now 15. I still don’t know if it was the right decision.”

All three of Sandi’s children are home-schooled. Teigen is in Grade 10, but has never been in a classroom — a move Sandi recognizes was initially meant to protect her daughter.

“I didn’t want her to be teased at school in gym class ... Her precocious puberty had a big part in bringing all three children up at home.”

While mothers may shudder at Sandi’s ordeal, Teigen is easily reconciled to her condition.

“It was always part of my life. I didn’t know differently,” she said. The only longstanding issue: “Now, she can’t stand doctors,” Sandi said.

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