JUST AFTER MY DAUGHTER TURNED 7, she came to me and nervously announced that she had bumps on her chest. I felt beneath her nipples, and, indeed, there were prominent, hard lumps. A friend had gone through this with her 7-year-old, so my first fleeting panic about cancer was replaced by the alarming realization that my little girl was developing breasts. I made an appointment with our family doctor, but it was two weeks off.
In the meantime, I googled "premature puberty" and discovered the literature on environmental causes of early puberty. I also found that family history, prenatal and early postnatal exposures were key. I had adopted my daughter when she was 3 months old. While I knew she'd never been breastfed, I knew little else about her history or that of her birthmother. I set out to find out everything I could about early puberty in girls, trolling through the medical literature, gleaning library shelves, exploring the websites of environmental organizations and conversing with scientists who are grappling with this issue.
Why was I so alarmed about my Black daughter starting puberty at the age of 7? As a white mom who first menstruated at 13, I was afraid of the prospect of my child dealing with sexuality at such a young age. My fear increased as I found studies showing a litany of social risks for girls who mature early: poor self-esteem, increased depression, early sexual intercourse and increased drug and alcohol use and abuse. Most worrisome to me were the increased health risks associated with early puberty: breast cancer, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Early-maturing girls reach their adult height early, and …