By Mia Abrahams
When you’re a kid, being different and doing things first isn’t easy. Mostly, you’re just looking for a way to fit in and be like everybody else (which is why I spent the sixth grade playing kick ball even though I literally just wanted to be in the library reading books). That’s especially true when it comes to puberty and getting your period. For most of us, middle school (or primary school) was a looooong time ago, but the memory of feeling super-awkward in our bodies still lingers.
These days, the average age for a first period is 12.5 (down from the average of 12.8 in the 1970s). Most girls probably start their periods between 10-15, and at around age 16, if you still haven’t had your period, your doctor will probably wanna check things out to make sure everything is A-OK.
Now, let’s take a nice little trip down period memory lane (it’s a period piece): In the Renaissance, girls only got their periods around the age of 16 (mostly due to widespread malnutrition, the wealthier aristocracy got their periods earlier than the poorer townspeople). In the 1800s, Victorian women had their periods around 14, again with upper-class women starting their periods slighter earlier (13.5 years) — probably meaning that they were getting more to eat than their working-class counterparts.
The age you had your period is mostly due to genetics. (Fun thing for you to do today — call your mom and ask her about her first period!) But, you’ve probably heard people make offhand remarks or read splashy headlines about how girls today are getting their periods or hitting puberty younger — because of hormones in chicken nuggets or Snapchat or *something*. So, I wanted to investigate what was really going on.
Lemme refresh your memory (I know, it’s been a while, thank gawwwwd). For people with vaginas, puberty is usually made up of three parts: the growth of breasts, the growth of pubic hair, and a first period. Typically, the changes happen in this order, and the whole thing takes about two years. But, scientists have found that while the average age of first periods has remained pretty much the same since the 70s, the average age for puberty onset (eg. the other parts) has significantly dropped.
The first person to work this out was Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens, who in the 1980s was working at a pediatric clinic in North Carolina when she noticed that more and more girls aged 8 and 9 were coming in with breasts and pubic hair. At the time, doctors just didn’t accept that girls under the age of 11 could be going through puberty. Eventually, Dr H-G produced a study that found that the average age of breast budding for white girls was 9.9, and for African-American girls it was 8.8. Today, most doctors accept that the age of puberty (not first periods, but the onset of the factors of puberty) is dropping steadily. In 1920, it was 14.6; in 1950, 13.1; 1980, 12.5; and in 2010, it had dropped to 10.5.
Of course, statistics only tell one part of this story. As we know, being different is difficult when you are young, and anything that makes you stand out (like boobs or your body changing in ways you can’t really work out yet) can make being a 9 or 10-year-old pretty challenging, especially if you look 13 or 15. Some parents with daughters who are starting puberty early (like 6-years-old) are even choosing to use medications that slow down puberty’s progress.
So what are the reasons behind this trend in early puberty? Well, the medical community is still not really sure. Some think that it might be a diet that is higher in sugar and fat, coupled with less exercise. Obesity is a splashy headline, too, but a Danish study released last year found that puberty was occurring earlier in children despite BMI.
Scientists also think it could have something to do with all of the industrial and pharmaceutical pollutant chemical nasties that are in our environment — particularly endocrine disrupters (chemicals in the environment that act on hormones, like pesticides, DDT (insecticide), and chemicals that can be found in things like plastic bottles, detergents, and metals).
Another indicator of early puberty? Unhappy, stressful, or disruptive home lives. A professor at the University of Arizona found that girls whose parents divorced and whose fathers abused drugs or alcohol, were violent, attempted suicide, or did prison time were more likely to experience earlier puberty.
Early puberty brings with it a bunch of other stuff that can have potentially negative effects on health and wellbeing. Not only do social problems increase the risk for early puberty, early puberty can increase the risk for social problems — girls that hit puberty early tend to have lower self-esteem and higher instances of depression and eating disorders. Of course, some of this could come from the fact that it’s super-stressful to go through puberty, especially way before anyone else in your grade — but these effects can persist even once puberty wears off. One explanation might be that girls going through early puberty miss out on some of the developmental stages of childhood — because they’re dealing with the new things adolescence is already throwing at them. Girls who go through early puberty are more likely to become sexually active at an earlier age, too — for all kinds of reasons, plenty of which reflect our flawed sex education system and how we communicate with young women about their bodies.
The age of your first period might have an impact on your health in other ways — some studies have shown that if you had your period after the age of 12 and experience menopause after the age of 50, you are more likely to live to the age of 90 (the same study suggests you’re less likely to be a smoker, so, there you go!). Early and late periods have also been linked to heart disease and better brain power, but so has eating spinach. So, while your first period and when you hit puberty is important, it doesn’t define your health journey. But, there sure is a lot more to learn around this topic, and the more information and research, the better.
When did you first get your period? Did you hit puberty early or late? What was your experience like? Meet me in the library, I mean, the comments.