My first memory of grappling with puberty is when mum was patting me down one evening after a bath.
I was 10, maybe younger, and beginning to sprout between my legs. I pointed to those hesitant yet conspicuous hairs and mum said something like, “well, it’s a waste because you don’t need them yet.” She meant that in unleashing puberty on a little girl Mother Nature was inefficiently allocating resources. Hard to argue with the economic logic, but what stayed with me was the concern and fleeting sadness in her voice.
To be fair: mum bequeathed to me a healthy joy in sexuality. Yet this bathroom conversation sullied early relations between me the child and this body bent on adulthood. For the next few years, I regarded the latter with uncomfortable suspicion.
These days I hear echoes of my mum's anxiety and regret in conversations with other parents about daughters hitting puberty early. (Male puberty barely registers in the collective consciousness.) And there’s more of those girls around - a US study two years ago found the average age of the onset of puberty in girls fell from 12.5 in 1980 to 10.5 in 2010. (In 1860, when conditions were tougher and nutrition poorer, the average was nearly 17.)
At school, I belonged to a small, self-conscious club of early developers. But scan the bodies of today’s 8 to 10 year olds at school pick-up and it’s immediately apparent the ranks of the pubescent have swelled. When my daughter was in Grade 5 the developed girls were the norm rather than the exception. She was the exception - and the fact this gives me sweet relief, indicates a wider problem.
“You see my daughter - she’s developing already,” one mother of an eight -year-old girl confided in the school yard, “and she told me, ‘It’s carbs, mum'.”
Well carbs or - more accurately - childhood obesity, is but one of a grab-bag of theories about the triggers for early puberty, each rich with possibilities for parental self-flagellation: more households with stepfathers, girls’ exposure to sexualised images, industrial hormones in chickens.
Another mother in the schoolyard told me about a discussion she’d had recently with her husband about their womanly nine year old. “We were saying, ‘What’s happened to childhood?’ Why does she get no time to be a kid?’’’