too fast, too soon: the Girls Study Group’s Bulletin and the Difficulties of Early Puberty for Girls

According to the Sun Herald, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released its 5th bulletin from the Girls Study Group series, this one titled “Causes and Correlates of Girls’ Delinquency.” The bulletin provides the results of one team’s extensive review of studies on risk factors related to girls and delinquency.  Serving as a literature review, the bulletin assesses the common risk factors noted in the studies, and as a result, identifies “eight factors that are significantly correlated with girls’ delinquency.” According to the Sun Herald and the Education Research Report, these factors include: “negative and critical mothers, harsh discipline, inconsistent discipline, family conflict, frequent family moves, multiple caregivers, longer periods of time with a single parent, and growing up in socioeconomically disadvantaged families.”

Several newspapers, media outlets, and blogs are reporting on these 8 factors, but if you look at the study – which you can read in its entirety here – that list is pulled from an endnote and fails to convey the breadth of the bulletin’s results. By quoting an endnote, these articles and blog posts reduce the bulletin’s review  – and the countless studies and reports cited in the bulletin – to a mere sentence. For example though the endnote states that “harsh discipline” is one of the 8 factors, this phrase fails to convey the fact that many girls deemed delinquent are actually survivors of sexual violence and child sexual abuse, and that in some cases their crimes – such as running away – are actually survival strategies.

The bulletin acknowledges that several studies cited within the literature review rely on arrest data, adult observational data, and self-reports to assess the causes and correlates of girls’ delinquency. The bulletin takes it one step further, acknowledging that these research methods and statistics may overstate or understate the frequency of girls’ delinquency as well as provide nonrepresentative samples. When articles and posts summarize the bulletin by citing an endnote they obscure these limitations expressed in the study itself.

One of the factors associated with girls’ delinquency that the bulletin spends considerable time on – but is not mentioned in the endnote, and as a result, is not mentioned anywhere else – is the early onset of puberty. The Girls Study Group notes that the “onset of puberty is traditionally associated with increased conflict between parents and teens around issues such as dating, selecting friends, and changing behavioral expectations” and that “early puberty in girls has been associated with family dysfunction.” Not to say that dysfunctional families cause early puberty, but that early puberty for girls may exacerbate the dynamics of a dysfunctional family, especially families with strict  rules and regulations governing a girl’s (maturing) body.

As with family dynamics, girls who experience early puberty may struggle in school and have a harder time within their communities. The bulletin notes that “early-maturing girls in mixed-gender school settings were at greater risk for delinquency than early-maturing girls in same-gender school settings.” Moreover, the Girls Study Group states that “girls who experience early-onset puberty and live in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods— characterized by poverty, high unemployment, and a high percentage of single-parent households—are at significantly greater risk for exhibiting violent behaviors than are those who live in less disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

What’s difficult in identifying early puberty as a factor – and why it doesn’t fit so nice and neat into an endnote – is that it illustrates a combination of  biological and sociological factors at play in girls’ delinquency. Early puberty is a biological factor, but as girls mature people ascribe sexual meanings to their bodies. This is not to say that girls do not already have sexual desires and urges – but that as girls’ bodies mature, people treat girls differently. It’s as though people suddenly recognize girls as sexual beings and as a result these same people panic and consequently police girls’ bodies. For any ladiez reading this blog, you might remember this time period. This is around that time that your mom tells you that you really should wear a bra. Or when school officials show you the video about proper hygiene regarding deodorant and feminine products. It’s when girls are told to sit up straight and keep their legs crossed.

Adults aren’t the only ones who assign values and meanings to girls’ maturing bodies, girls’ peers do this as well. I remember being the second girl in my class to wear a bra to school and I hated it. Not because wearing a bra in and of itself was bad – it just felt awkward – but because girls who wore bras  in the 4th grade at my elementary school were considered dirty or slutty by other students. Mind you I didn’t hang out with boys at this time and I didn’t have any boyfriends (too busy with others things and too shy/awkward for that nonsense). But my body – and the presence of a bra – signaled (sexual) maturation and that maturation was viewed negatively (and ascribed a negative meaning). And I had it easy during puberty as a white girl from a lower middle-class family. Girls who undergo early puberty and are of color or come from poor, working-class families are often viewed as sexually promiscuous, and their developing bodies are read as affirmations of (a supposedly already existing) hyper-sexuality.

There’s more to the bulletin’s findings in “Causes and Correlates of Girls’ Delinquency” than this one factor, and to be fair I may be spending more time on early puberty than the bulletin does. This factor happened to jump out at me because I’m reading Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss, in which she narrates the story of her incestuous relationship she had with her father when she was 20. In her memoir Harrison discusses what it was like going through puberty while living with her grandparents. In particular she describes how her and her grandfather had a close relationship, until she went through puberty. It was during this time in her life that her grandfather pulled away from her, wouldn’t allow her to sit on his lap anymore, and gave her awkward hugs and embraces. In this respect Harrison’s maturing body ruptures her relationship with her grandfather. Harrison describes being hurt by her grandfather’s reaction to her body, especially since she had little control over what was happening to her body at that time.

The bulletin also reminded me of The Wire. I’m in the middle of Disc 2 from Season 4 and recently watched the episodes “Alliances” and “Margin of Error.” In the first episode Randy – one of the 8th grade boys followed throughout season 4 of the show – is asked to stand guard while two 8th grade boys (Monnell and Paul) engage in sexual acts with an 8th grade girl named Tiff in the school restroom. In the following episode (and what I read as the next day within the show) Tiff is ridiculed in the hallways and called a slut for supposedly taking money in exchange for sexual favors (another 8th grade boy tells Tiff he’ll offer her 50 cents in exchange for sex). Tiff reports the incident as a rape to school officials, and Randy is pulled from class to discuss his involvement in the incident. In watching this C plot develop over these two episodes, I couldn’t help but notice that in a school where the students are predominantly black and come from impoverished neighborhoods, Tiff’s skin tone is darker than some of the other girls, and that she is a curvy 8th grader (in that her body reads are more mature and developed), factors which likely relate to how she is viewed and treated by her peers. Unfortunately, creator David Simon chooses to follow the daily lives of boys in Season 4, and so Tiff’s story isn’t a major focal point in the show. In fact we learn little about her except for how her actions relate to and affect Randy.

These texts and the bulletin point to the fact that we need to hear more from girls who experience early puberty (and puberty in general). Moreover, the bulletin suggests an area for future research in developing strategies to counteract negative views and reactions to girls maturing bodies. Self-help books, blogs, and magazines tell girls not to be ashamed of their bodies – but how effective is that advice if family members, peers, and adults react to girls’ biological development in such alarming and potentially harmful ways? Given that girls’ bodies – and the meanings people ascribe to them – can literally land them in trouble with the law, we can no longer afford to be silent or to silence girls.

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~ by actyourage09 on April 12, 2010.

2 Responses to “too fast, too soon: the Girls Study Group’s Bulletin and the Difficulties of Early Puberty for Girls”

  1. Excellent post!

  2. Once again, fantastic job providing nuance to a topical and relevant piece of government intervention toward girls.

    Also, I’m glad you brought up Tiff. She and Zenobia were the two girl characters I wanted to talk to you about regarding season four of The Wire.

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