I'm no Heidi

I felt happy rather than traumatized when I was told that my breasts were beginning to develop.

Published February 20, 2001 8:14PM (EST)

Recently I emptied a box of my childhood belongings and found a garish pink paperback entitled "The Sexually Responsive Female." It was sitting right on top of "Heidi," the Victorian-era children's classic by Johanna Spyri. Heidi was a Swiss orphan whose childhood was very different from mine. For one thing, I may have been technically pubescent when I first discovered her.

The current uproar over early puberty strikes a personal nerve because I remember that I felt happy rather than traumatized when I was told that my breasts were beginning to develop. I wasn't in the first grade, like some of the girls described in a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Lisa Belkin, "The Making of an Eight Year Old Woman. " I was 8, still reading storybooks about imaginary pre-sexual children -- but I was quietly excited to hear that I was on my way to becoming a woman. And I continued to enjoy those books -- "The Secret Garden," "What Katy Did" -- while waiting for my breasts to grow large enough for a training bra.

Unlike some women who remember early puberty as traumatic, I welcomed these changes. I remember hoping I would eventually be well-proportioned enough to grace the pages of Playboy magazine. Flat-chested and curious, I tried to understand the formula for womanly beauty by studying the exact measurements of Playboy models.

Researchers like Marcia Herman-Giddens, who began compiling her data at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina more than a decade ago, have asserted that the average age for onset of puberty is lower today than "nature intended." Researchers and reporters seem to believe that the little girl who is first in her class to grow breasts or menstruate is traumatized, unready, made to feel like a freak. Do adults really believe this is always the case? Where are the individuals behind these stories of a biological crisis in girlhood? And why do the alarmist reports ignore -- to an Orwellian degree -- the pride a young girl feels when she realizes she is not going to be a child forever?

My friend Cynthia, the oldest of five siblings, recalls "being somewhat pleased, and feeling rather smug as I traipsed down into the kitchen and asked as casually as I could where the sanitary supplies were. And I did get envious looks from younger children. I guess it is analogous to a little boy shaving for the first time." If 12 and a half is really the normal age to begin menstruating, she was "early" -- somewhere between 9 and 11.

By the time I was 10, I was frequently being told, "Oh, I thought you were 13." I didn't feel pretty, as I had at 5 and 6. I felt unusual and awkward, and I was beginning to have some adolescent skin problems. But a year later I assessed myself and took genuine pleasure in the appearance of my more developed breasts, deciding that I no longer looked quite so immature and boxlike. And I had outgrown my simplistic "Playboy philosophy" -- my flat-chested faith in body measurements and perfect proportions. I could see that life was going to be subtler than that.

I began to make friends with girls who were chronologically older than I was. The 12-year-old girl next door was womanly, Roman Catholic and blessed with a face that looked perpetually turned on. When her strict Calabrian parents weren't on her case, she was very free with her opinions and queries. She was surprised to learn that I was so young. When she asked whether I had yet begun to develop pubic hair, I acted reticent. Her curiosity seemed childish -- but so was the pleasure I took in telling her that I had. We discussed the trials and tribulations of early womanhood -- periods, pads and what happens to the innocent skin on your eyelids the first time you wear eye shadow. We belonged to an exclusive club from which "real" children were now barred.

It's hard to watch the news these days or read articles about "what causes early puberty" without feeling that there is some sort of backlash against puberty itself. I sense a culturewide panic brought on by alarmists who are in denial about the fact that sexual maturation is inevitable.

Haven't parents always been somewhat nervous about the onset of female puberty? This fear of the future or the unknown is not in itself what troubles me. What made me sit up and take notice was the latest trend in drug therapy -- to prevent "precocious puberty." On the Web and in the mainstream news media, lupron, a hormone that "slams the brakes on puberty" (as Time magazine so prettily puts it), is being marketed to parents as a "solution" to the so-called problem of early puberty. And I was shocked when friends told me that doctors increasingly offer it to the parents of pubescent girls.

Though I'm hardly pubescent today, I take this personally. What if I had been drugged at 8 when I first asked my mother about those odd sensations in my flat little chest? What if, instead of matter-of-factly explaining the biology and giving me a big encouraging smile, my mother had panicked and called the puberty police? I shudder in horror.

It's always odd to read about a phenomenon defined as outrageous when the situation is a normal one in your life. At age 8 I knew I was a little early and I noticed that many other girls, over the next four years, looked younger than I did. But I had been early in other respects, like walking and talking, so why not this too? Despite what the conventional wisdom claims, looking more mature made it easier for me to socialize with classmates. In my case, they were a year to two years older than I was. I wonder what percentage of early developing girls might also be academically precocious and why this question isn't being heard more.

I'm puzzled by adults who freak out over the possibility that an early developer might, God forbid, be teased for being different from the other kids. Throughout elementary school, I was sometimes teased because only a few kids in my school were non-Caucasian. I survived the occasionally disturbing experience of being physically different -- looking older, looking nonwhite -- and grew into a happy adult. We are not talking "Lord of the Flies" here. Being teased by other children for being different is not the end of the world; it seems a lot less harmful to me than having megalomaniacal adults tinkering endlessly with your hormones to prevent your body from doing what it must.

Instead of asking what causes early puberty, we should ask why, at the dawn of the 21st century, we seem to be nostalgic for a time when girls were routinely made to feel sinful and dirty because they were fertile. Drugging girls so they can remain authentically childlike smacks of high-tech Victorianism.

Some who have asked what causes early puberty have come up with a theory that girls go into puberty earlier when the biological father is absent from the home. For what it's worth, my father was not an ambitious workaholic who stayed at the office until midnight -- he was home in the early evenings, playing the guitar and telling us bedtime stories. He was an extremely nurturing parent. In fact, my brother and I were living with him when my puberty began because my parents were going through a divorce. It was all rather "Kramer vs. Kramer." I'm not surprised that some researchers think emotional and marital circumstances can prompt puberty -- why not? I believe that studying puberty could teach us a lot about any number of things. But some of these theories about fathers have a convenient ideological quality that can be read as either feminist or Christian Right, depending on which social agenda makes you more paranoid.

Another theory, that higher body fat triggers early puberty, makes me think of a close childhood friend -- always a very chubby kid -- who was ahead of me in breast development. I was not a chubby 8-year-old when breast development kicked in -- though I remember feeling "fat" and ungainly around the age of 10, when menstruation began.

At 10 and 11, menstruation was a kind of compensation for the awkwardness of being a mere "tween." I couldn't control my oily skin or get the boy I liked to respond to me, but at least I was having periods -- and that felt like a major accomplishment. The puritanical puberty police may think this is a bad thing. They seem to want girls to aspire to more rugged accomplishments, like making the soccer team. God forbid that a young girl might smugly congratulate herself on some physical milestone that she neither worked for nor earned!

The backlash against puberty has spooky overtones of social control, a hatred of life's little pleasures and a "1984"-ish abuse of parental power. Danielle Crittenden, author of "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us," has argued that boys are being drugged with Ritalin to prevent them from behaving like boys. I don't know whether this is true, but her accusations deserve our attention. Is it now becoming medically fashionable to drug girls to prevent them from becoming women? And is female puberty supposed to occur only when parents are ready to deal with it? If so, we could end up with an entire nation of preadolescent grad students.

And what's going on in the minds of people who regard womanhood as a disease? Do they think of menstruation as the curse, evidence of original sin? As a kid I heard stories about young girls who were slapped by their mothers on the occasion of their first period, and others who were kept in the dark and therefore believed they were dying! The current panic is said to be based on science and solid research, with words like "public health epidemic" being thrown around. But there's a deeply negative attitude toward puberty that sounds moralistic and religiously inspired. I can't help wanting to know the religious background of every single person who raises the puberty alarm. I want to know what else they believe.

Because of my early maturation, I became the kind of kid most parents don't plan on having: By age 13, I looked 17 and my favorite social sport was to engage an articulate young man in conversation for a few hours (or afternoons) before revealing, after we struck up a rapport, that I was 13. Some 19-year-olds thought I was in my 20s; most thought I was about 17. On an ocean liner, three months before my 14th birthday, I met a 23-year-old in the bar who believed I was older than he was. This was a feather in my cap.

Had drugs been available to stunt my development, I am sure my mother would have been tempted to try them on me. But the idea that there is some normal age to be -- some mental, physical or emotional median that a child should conform to because he or she is 10 or 13 or 8 strikes me as the worst kind of biological fascism. It seemed that way to me at the time, too, and I remember feeling very impatient with adults who hectored me about being "deprived of my childhood." What they meant was that I had been deprived of their notion of a childhood. Their idea of childhood did not include reading up on STDs or contraception -- mine did.

In an era when we are asked to look at physical difference with tolerance, it's surprising just how much intolerance is allowed to flourish around this question of early puberty. Go to any number of Web sites and you'll discover, as I did, that lupron is being promoted as a wonder drug -- to prevent a pubescent child who is taller than her peers from being shorter than other adults when she grows up. Has it occurred to these bio-fascists that being taller in childhood and smaller in adulthood provides a person with a more balanced perspective? At 5-foot-1, I feel I'm a living, breathing example of this. There are medical, social and other benefits to being petite, just as there are numerous benefits enjoyed by the tall. I'm skeptical when parents delay a girl's puberty to grow her taller. Height may simply be a convenient cover for much deeper anxieties about a child's sexual development.

I'll never be the poster kid for defending early puberty because what many parents really want to hear is that girls will be girls rather than wannabe women. Parents of early developers hope their daughters will stay virginal through high school, behave like model citizens in college and then begin lucrative careers as brain surgeons, perhaps. I, however, grew up to be a call girl (hence my disqualification from Poster Kid status). Was my sexual precocity responsible for a career in sex that began during my teens? I used to assume that all teen hookers had been early developers like me, but I didn't know for sure, because most of the hookers I've met began working during their 20s.

In recent years, I began meeting other women and men who once were underage hookers. I was surprised at how many were among the less developed of their peers! How did they get any business, I sincerely wondered. They told me about clients who prefer actual children -- devoid of pubic hair, inexperienced and sometimes willing to "consent" to things no child can really consent to: bondage, torture, "games" involving lit cigarettes. Those weren't my clients. The men who paid me for sex when I was a teenager did not know how old I was -- they were very average sexual beings, not sadists. So early puberty has clued me into the nuances of intergenerational sex. When a man (or woman) is accused of being a "child molester" I want to know if this adult was tempted by a sexy, precocious kid? Or was this an abuser seeking a helpless victim?

Besides my sexual precociousness, puberty made me politically precocious. At 10, I was preoccupied with women's rights. I no longer regard myself as a feminist, but I have fond memories of my political innocence -- feminism went with having acne, playing hooky and learning how to roll a cigarette.

I had a pen pal, Lizzy, who was the same age -- another 10-year-old feminist. When we exchanged our views on boys, I got the distinct impression -- though I didn't ask outright -- that she might be flat-chested and less physically developed than I was. Why, she asserted, couldn't boys and girls just be friends? What was all this fuss about boys as boys? I felt a gulf here. Boys and love had become an obsession -- I daydreamed about having a boyfriend and about kissing; I was occasionally moved by Top 40 love songs and couldn't stand the fact that the cute boy next door (whose voice had recently begun to change) regarded me as just another person. Why could he not see that we were clearly meant for one another? Lizzy did not identify with my anguish.

In one letter to Lizzy, I took up another issue that was annoying me -- marital rape. I had read that this was a widespread problem due to unjust laws that treated wives as the property of their husbands. Wasn't this an outrage, I asked her -- something must be done! When she wrote back that she had asked her mother about this, I was somewhat surprised -- she had treated our first sexual discussion as an adult topic, alien to her mental universe. We wrote to each other less after that, and I privately attributed this to physical differences  though I'd never even seen a picture of her. Maybe I was wrong but this was how I looked at life, through my body, and how I assessed other kids: How much did a friend understand of what I was going through physically? If another girl was not yet there -- going through it with me -- how close could we get? How much could we really talk about? So, while my obsessions and hobbies were offbeat, my emotional responses to puberty were a lot like everybody else's.

The puberty alarmists would have us believe that young girls are being deprived of an authentic childhood by the workings of their own bodies. But real childhood is a mixed bag of physical and emotional experience because puberty is always looming. Puberty isn't the end of childhood, it's part of it.

Though "Heidi" is still a popular children's book, we will never return to Heidi's era, or to a Utopian time of innocence when "children were really children." No matter how much lupron we pump into the pubescent female population, we can't preserve a form of innocence that was fictional to start with. Of course, this is probably obvious to the current generation of "Heidi" readers -- it's their parents and doctors who seem most willing to believe in fairy tales.

By Tracy Quan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Health Love And Sex Sex Sex Work