COVER

GOODBYE GIRLHOOD

Entering puberty early brings heavy baggage

JENNIFER HUNTER March 22 1999
COVER

GOODBYE GIRLHOOD

Entering puberty early brings heavy baggage

JENNIFER HUNTER March 22 1999

GOODBYE GIRLHOOD

Entering puberty early brings heavy baggage

Sunday, around 11 a.m., a still sleepy Avery Nabata is over at her best friend's house in the University Hill neighbourhood of Vancouver. Avery, 12, was up early, for her that is, at 10:30. She has thrown on her usual assemblage of T-shirt, jeans and zippered sweater, but she left home without eating breakfast. So, her friend Elyse Newbert's mom, Marlie, is preparing some toast. The quiescent Avery and Elyse, her viva cious alter ego, are in Elyse's vividly mauve bedroom, sit ting on the bed-on the Winnie the Pooh coverlet to be exact-and tearing into bowls of strawberries. The room is strewn with the usu al pubescent passions: pho tos of the Backstreet Boys, toys from McDonald's, lots of glittery hair clips and plas tic jewelry, and the requisite menagerie of stuffed ani mals. Elyse's mother had warned her to pick up all the clothes flung across the wooden floor, and Elyse had Dbeyed-sort of. The shirts nd jeans have been shifted Irom the floor to a heap at the bottom of her cupboard.

Avery and Elyse, also 12, have known each other since kindergarten and are in Grade 7 at the same school. They read Y7VÍ, Seventeen and Teen People magazines. They drool over movie actor Freddie Prinze Jr. and cannot wait to see the film Cruel Intentions with Ryan Phillippe. “They are really hot guys, which is a plus,” says Elyse. “I know it’s my hormones talking, but it’s true.”

For Elyse and Avery and other girls these days, those hormones started yakking early. U.S. studies show girls now are entering puberty at a much younger age than their mothers did. That precocious admittance to womanhood brings heavy baggage: young girls are implored by marketers and the media to dress like adults—in nail polish, mascara and spaghetti-strapped tank tops—and to express sexual confidence like female rock icon Mariah Carey or teen movie actor Christina Ricci. Some lingerie makers offer entire lines aimed at nineto 12-year-olds. Cosmetics companies market strawberry perfumed lip gloss and chocolate-scented nail glaze. Yet few so-called tweens have the emotional tools to cope with these stressful expectations. “Girls are having more trouble now than they were 30 years ago,” writes U.S. psychologist Mary Pipher in her bestselling book Reviving Ophelia. “The protected place in space and time that we once called childhood has grown shorter.” Contemporary research supports that thesis. Dr. Marcia HermanGiddens, who did a study for the American Academy of Pediatrics in Chicago of more than 17,000 girls, found puberty, on average, begins by age 9 for African-American girls, and by 10 for Caucasians.

As girls metamorphose into teens, they are pressured even earlier to move away from their parents’ sphere and embrace the world of their peers. “They don’t have a lot of choice if they want to be accepted,” Daniluk claims. “Their influences are groups like the Spice Girls. It’s inyour-face kind of stuff, that this is the way you’re supposed to dress, this is the way you’re supposed to act.” Medical experts have not noted the same early physical changes in boys, but Dr. Ruth Wingerin, a pediatrician who specializes in eating disorders at British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, says growing numbers of boys are visiting the clinic. “My feeling is that the boys are being subjected to the same pressures as the girls. They are looking at magazines with waif-like male models and there is an increased emphasis on appearance.”

The implications are enormous, HermanGiddens says, since otherwise immature children must cope with maturing bodies much earlier. Judith Daniluk, a counselling psychologist specializing in women’s sexuality and reproductive health at the University of British Columbia, agrees. ‘Teenage girls may seem a lot more savvy than we were,” she says, “but they are pressured into expressing a sexual comfort that they probably don’t feel inside.”

Avery and Elyse, eating their strawberries, seem unconcerned about entering womanhood. “I don’t feel any pressure,” says Elyse. “I am confident about who I am.” The two girls remain close to their parents and, between lengthy sessions on the phone with their friends, shopping at Le Château, and watching Dawson’s Creek on TV, they get high marks in school, pursue cello and piano lessons, play on the school basketball team and devour science-fiction novels. Somehow, their parents have been able to keep the lines of communication open. “I do become concerned sometimes about their level of sophistication,” says Elyse’s mom, Marlie. “They feel such a need to rush into being adults. It gives me a lot of anxiety.” Psychologist Pipher offers a bleak warning. She says North America is a “girl-destroying place” where parents find they have limited power to protect their girls and their fragile psyches. Elyse’s mother does not completely concur. “I think Elyse has more power to protect herself than I ever did at that age,” she says. “She is much more aware, she has much more confidence and she is much more verbal.” But the poised Elyse herself says there is no doubt she’ll be relying on her mom’s help to make it through the turbulent teen years.

JENNIFER HUNTER