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March 09, 2005

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La Lubu

Hugo, what ethnic groups were covered in menarche studies? I ask because I was a very-early developer (by U.S. standards), and distinctly remember my frustration and anger at being treated differently and the assumptions that were made about me (btw, those who were treating me differently and making negative assumptions were adults, not fellow children). My grandmother assured me that everyone in the family developed that early, including her sisters and mother (who ate very little animal protein...they were poor and had a diet heavy in grains). Did everyone, worldwide, experience a change in the age of menarche, or just northern Europeans?

I've also heard the theory that it isn't animal protein per se that brought on earlier menarche, but steroid-enhanced animal protein that tilted the scales.

What do I remember about my changing body at the time? Well, it didn't change my attitudes towards boys at all...I still thought of boys as buddies, people to skateboard and talk about rock-and-roll with! I think regardless of when I "developed" I'd have still been on the same timeline regarding sexual feelings. But I instantly noticed how all of a sudden I was considered "fair game" by men, even though I was quite obviously physically still a child (short, scrawny-everywhere-else, coltish legs, child's face).

And it was scary, this attention from grown men. What was much scarier to me was the realization that the behavior of these grown men was considered socially acceptable. So, I can relate to your students who said "we could be innocent longer". It's not us that lose our innocence when we gain new bodies....it's that so damn many men turn into creeps about it.

And our mothers (well, mine anyway, LOL!) lose it completely. That really bothered me too, that my mother seemed to regard me differently. My father did not, interestingly enough. He had faith in my intelligence and fierceness. My mother had more fear; probably because she had endured the same treatment. In retrospect, I realize it wasn't anything about me that she was reacting to; it was how others were seeing me that fed her fear.

James

OK, first off, I am jealous that you are heading off the the US/Colombia match. It isn't even making it to TV on the right coast, so a match report would be greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, I also have to issue a yellow card for adding to the away atmosphere at what should be a home game (falls under the dissent rule, doesn't it?).

Despite this egregious foul, you are spot on about the need for a strong father-figure. But it seems to me that it isn't just a child's new sexuality that prompts some fathers to withdraw. At the same time, a number of emotional changes are happening. To be up front about this, I do not have any daughters of my own. As an uncle of 2 girls this age, though, it seems like the different emotional wants and needs of these girls (as opposed to, say, an 8 year old) is as unsettling and potentially intimidating to a father (or father-figure) as any physical change. I think a workshop on this topic is a great idea, but not offering advice on dealing with teenage daughters would leave a large hole.

As usual, a good and thought-promoting post.

Wear red tonight.
www.sams-army.com

Camassia

If I may be so bold as to answer for Hugo, the lower age of menarche is a Western phenomenon. Last I saw, no one was entirely sure of the cause, but it does seem to relate to the improvement in nutrition that has also made Western people taller. Genetics is also a factor, so certainly early or late puberty can run in families, but I don't think there's a big difference between larger ethnic groupings, given similar conditions.

I went through puberty early also, although oddly enough I didn't get menarche until I was 12 -- it was the last feature of puberty that I got. I got treated differently by both men and boys, and largely to negative effect. Our society's practice of age stratification, which I generally dislike for various reasons, seems especially problematic at that age. Boys don't know how to deal with girls who are going through puberty ahead of them, and men don't know how to deal with girls who are legally (and often emotionally) children but who look like adults. I agree with you, Hugo, that more intergenerational communication would help.

Ab_Normal

I'm so glad I was weird. I hit menarche at about 12, but didn't really develop as a sexual being until 17 or so, and didn't interact sexually until 19. I was one of those teenage girls who had to be pressured to drop the trappings of childhood. (I also developed peer relationships with the geek boys at school, which prepared me well for my career as a computer programmer. ;) )

My daughter is 11, and my husband just noticed that she's starting to get hips'n'butt. He's a little freaked about it, but I don't think he's going to disengage. I'll definitely remind him that he needs to be present in her life if need be. We've been particularly aware of (and resistant to) the sexualization of little girls -- I remember shopping for shoes for her first day of kindergarten, and having a hard time finding some that didn't have that "junior hooker" look.

Hugo

You're right about the problem of adult men seeing adolescent girls as fair game -- at least for penetrating gazes and comments, if not far worse.  This is where male-to-male peer mentoring is vital.

Agreed, it is probably animal steroids.  Japan has recently experienced the same drop in menarche as the west, and this is often linked to meat consumption.

James, I might wear red tonight...  My Deportivo Medellin jersey is very nice and Red.  Will that do?

cmc

It sounds as though menarche (which I understand to be first menstruation) is not the issue so much as the outward manifestations of puberty, and how they affect the interactions girls have with their parents and others. I was confused when the topic came up in the last post, because I don't necessarily connect the two (I was almost 16 at menarche but was fully grown and developed and drawing male attention between 12 and 14.)

For me, I was raised to value being very smart and accomplished. My dad used to muse out loud in an affectionate way when I was a kid that I was either going to turn out to be a great beauty or an ugly duckling. The message I got from that was that it didn't really matter how I looked. In fact, I really expected to grow up like one of the homely but smart and plucky heroines of some of the books I read. When I realized in junior high that boys seemed to like me, it was like gravy-- not something I really needed to keep me going but nice nonetheless.

Of course, maybe I was lucky in that I didn't experience a full onslaught of adult male attention until I was 18-19-- at which time I was truly surprised and unprepared at the volume of often inappropriate attention I received from much older men. But I was able to cope with it (albeit awkwardly at times) because I had already developed the self-respect and self-confidence to not take any crap from anyone.

Hugo

Menarche is, of course, much easier to document scientifically over time. That it is related to the development of other characteristics is clear. Girls today develop in every sense earlier than they did in previous generations -- but it is more difficult to prove data about breast growth than it is about the onset of menstruation. Hence the emphasis on menarche.

Maureen

On the other hand, the increased incidence of obesity in children and adolescents could both decrease the age of menarche and guard against being perceived as a sexual being. I was obese as an adolescent (still struggling with my weight now), and although I developed at a normal-to-early rate, the fact that my fat obscured my curves, as well as my overall geekiness, kept me perceived as asexual until I was maybe a junior or senior in high school.

I also seeem to remember that some 19C middle- and upper-class parents actually tried to delay the onset of menarche in their daughters by feeding them less.

On the other hand, why are pubescent girls fetishized so much in our culture? Peak fertility occurs about 16-22 at an age of menarche of 12. Wait--is the renewed emphasis on virginity fetishizing inexperience? Abstinence-only teachers keep telling their students that virginity makes an eventual sexual experience better, and I'm not sure that they aren't just talking about spiritually/emotionally/mentally.

stanton

Hugo: Great topic. As I have said before, I am the father of daughters (and one son), and may also have mentioned that I have four granddaughters (and one grandson). It was tough for me dealing with my girls at puberty as a single Dad, even though only one of the girls lived with me through the process. I went overboard to stay close to her during this time, and encouraged her to discuss things by phone with her mother - with me out of the room. She was ten.

Of four daughters, none seemed to handle this time of life very well. I wish there were a manual for this sort of thing. I would give it to my two children who are now parents.

On a slight aside note, is it your experience as a youth counselor that adolescent girls have more serious self-esteem issues than adolescent boys? (And did you really use the words "well-documented" and "Mary Pipher" in the same sentence? I found her work to be 100% anecdote and 0% documentation.)

Hugo

Stanton, I don't like comparing self-esteem in boys and girls, as it tends to be used as a justification for devoting more resources to one sex or the other. When it comes to our kids, slighting the unique needs of either gender is inexcusable. I would say that boys and girls experience low self-esteem in different ways, often around different issues -- but I think they both tie for the gold medal in the suffering Olympics.

stanton

I fully agree with with you, Hugo. Does this mean that, in the areas where our government agencies (federal, state, and local - not private charities) are spending money to address these types of issues in adolescents, these monies should equally spent, assisting boys and girls? I have seen a great deal of feminist rhetoric (often referencing Pipher) attempting to justify the huge spending disparity in favor of young girls over boys.

Looking at what I wrote here, it seems sort of like entrapment - trying to trip you up. I apologize if it feels that way.

Elizabeth

In a book that I'm reading now, the author claims that girls living with their biological fathers hit menarche later than girls living without adult males or with non-related adult males in close proximity. Does anyone reading this know if these studies are decent? I'm somewhat suspicious since the author (Steven Rhoads) clearly has an ax to grind.

Amanda

The first time an older man ever hit on me, I was 11, though in all honesty I could have passed for 16. Not that it makes it any better. But I was such an early bloomer that I was always being hit on by older men throughout my adolescence, some who really did think that I was of age. So yeah, I see your point, Hugo.

My worry is that this is one more subject where we are asking that women's bodies change instead of the prevailing norms, much as we ask women to have bigger breasts and tighter thighs than nature grants.

Maureen

Amanda, I agree with you. Were grown men decent in their behavior, most girls would experience no psychological trauma with menarche at eleven or twelve. And I'm not going to trade in electric lighting, living at lower latitudes than my Celtic ancestors, or better nutrition just to increase a hypothetical daughter's age at menarche one year (although I would like for there to be more research on hormones used in cow farming and pseudoestrogenic substances deriving from plastics).

As for dealing with boys their own age--the twentieth century's made boys mature faster as well, although teenage boys don't seem to attract the level of adult purient interest that teenage girls do.

La Lubu

I started getting hit on by adult men in grade school, when I started getting breasts (I entered the sixth grade as a 36C, and I weighed a little over 100 pounds). By the time I entered actual adolescence at thirteen, those few years of really obnoxious behavior by adult men (who knew damn well I wasn't anywhere near of age), I was one angry girl, and pretty much looked on men outside my family (or well-known family friends) as potential perverts. I learned to carry a knife with me.

But really, what disturbed me even more than the behavior of the perverts, was the seeming acceptance by the general public of this behavior. Not once did any adult who overheard sexual commentary or requests speak up against it. Example: I would be skateboarding, minding my own business, and some guy would drive by and say something like, "nice tits. wanna give me a blow job?" And I would seethe, but ignore him...unless he'd circle back around, in which case I'd start cursing him. And some man or woman who was out sweeping their porch or whatever, would start lecturing me about "my mouth". Which left me thinking, "WTF?!! Why aren't you taking that guy's license plate down and calling the cops?! He's a child molester!!" (note: at the time, I couldn't see the license plates, because I was nearsighted and desperately trying to hide the fact so I wouldn't have to wear glasses; we didn't have cool frames or lightweight lenses in the seventies!).

It wasn't just men. Even some women would assume I was 'slutty' because of my body; the 'slut' tag was attached despite my disinterest in boys and general tomboy appearance and interests.

Damn! I hope things have gotten better, so my daughter doesn't have to endure that!

Hugo

Um, I said I was a Luddite in the post below, and now you all think I want to do away with refrigeration and vitamins and rocket us back to 1895.

Seriously, I am convinced that there is little point in trying to slow the onset of physical puberty. As I said in the post, the key thing is changing how we respond to puberty, and men in particular have a vital role to play in keeping our girls feeling loved and cared for -- while feeling safe at the same time.

Stanton, as long as we don't cut any of the excellent programs for girls, I wholeheartedly agree we need to spend more on reaching our boys.

La Lubu

Hugo, how would you address reaching the general public with messages that would say, raise consciousness about issues surrounding girls and puberty? Because, with all due respect, it's not the guys who are in groups like "Dads of Daughters" who are the problem! I hope things have gotten better since I was a kid (I do notice that there seems to be more awareness about sexual predators of children, and there are community and school classes given on how to avoid predators and such, so that's a help).

But here's the thing: you talked about girls not being prepared for the impact of puberty. Well, my parents thought they had prepared me, and if you had asked me at that age if I was prepared, I'd have said yes. I knew all about the changes my body would undergo. I knew all about reproduction. I knew about the various types of birth control. My parents thought they were doing their job by giving me a more in-depth version of sex ed than what I was likely to get at school; they even bragged to other relatives that I was better informed than most adults!

But they neglected to mention the impact my puberty would have on others. I knew about vaginal discharge and menstruation, about breast tenderness and cramps. I was prepared for all that. When my period came, I knew where the maxi-pads were (hey, my mom was thinking ahead!), and even how to use a tampon (tho' mom said I'd probably be more comfortable using pads at first, and she was right). No one told me that adult men would proposition me. I was told that boys my age would act goofy, or say ignorant things, but no one said word number one about adult men.

And I think because it's an uncomfortable subject. I mean, it's a little more nuanced a talk than the lecture one gets when going to kindergarten, about not talking to strangers. But I think it's a talk that needs to be had. I never told my parents about adult men propositioning me when I was a kid, or even a teen. I was afraid my mother's reaction would have been to forbid me from leaving the house! (we had already been in an argument about my having boys for friends...oh yeah. it was that bad)

I pray that I'm strong enough to keep all this in perspective when my daughter gets to be that age. I want her to feel comfortable approaching me about any problems or potential problems, and not feel like I'm gonna come down hard on her about it.

Sally

This isn't something I've studied in depth, but I work on early-20th-century America, and my sense is that clothes, not bodies, were the real marker of female adulthood, at least among middle-class women. Unlike now, little girls dressed totally differently from grown-up women. The transition to grown-up clothes was a significant rite of passage for a young woman, and it signaled that she was potentially marriagable and therefore capable of adult sexuality. So a hundred years ago, an eleven-year-old with boobs would still have looked like a little girl, because she would have worn unmistakable little-girl clothes. I think your emphasis on biology is a bit ahistorical. What's changed, I suspect, is that we no longer have clear sartorial cues that tell you whether someone is a girl or a woman, so bodies are the only things we have to go by.

I hit puberty very young, I happen to have very big breasts, and it was hugely traumatic. But you know, I got enough messages that my body was monstrous and that my freakish body justified people treating me terribly. I persist in thinking that the problem was the culture, not my body, and I think it's kind of peculiar that a pro-feminist guy would participate in the general tendency to stigmitize female bodies. I promise you, we get enough of that already.

Hugo Schwyzer

Sally, I'm mystified as to how my words lead you to believe I am "stigmatizing" the female body. Can you point to precisely where it is that I have done this? Where on earth have I blamed girls? Where on earth have I said their bodies are at fault? I am concerned about the tremendous changes in girls' bodies from the standpoint of the girls themselves!

The culture is of course a huge part of the problem. But it is not all of the problem -- some of what we are struggling with is the result of this well-documented drop in menarche. But to point out that girls' bodies have changed is not the same as blaming girls.

Have you read the work of Joan Brumberg? The Body Project? Fasting Girls? Most of what I've offered here as evidence is lifted from her work -- she's the expert on American girlhood, fashion, and bodies, not I. But I borrow liberally from her.

Mychelline

I'm 38 now, but I was the last of my friends to hit menarche, at almost 14, and my body didn't start developing until I was 15-16. It never developed very far (I'm practically flat-chested, and had no hips until I got married). The only male attention I got as a teenager was boys teasing me about being flat-chested, which left emotional scars I still have. But at least I've never had to suffer through guys staring at my breasts instead of my face.

Sally
Sally, I'm mystified as to how my words lead you to believe I am "stigmatizing" the female body. Can you point to precisely where it is that I have done this?

Sure. Here:

Obviously, we can't undo the biological changes of the past century easily.  (Though if we fed our kids less animal protein, it might be a start.)  But I do think we have to be prepared to accept that the self-esteem crisis among adolescent girls (so well-documented by Mary Pipher and others) is not merely a function of crushing and conflicting cultural messages.  (Though Heaven knows those messages do their damage.)  It is also a result of increasingly early puberty for which our sisters and daughters are naturally ill-prepared.   Thus I think a feminist concern for girls must be marked by particular attention to the impact of early puberty on girls who are much younger at menarche than it seems that nature intended.

I have no idea how you think you know what nature intended my body to do, and I'm very skeptical of the idea that there was some golden age a hundred years ago when women's bodies were "as nature intended." My great-grandmothers' age of menarche was probably influenced by the fact that they were chronically malnourished. I don't know or care whether nature intended for little girls not to have enough to eat. To me, it's a pretty good thing that I had plenty of food and got to go to school and didn't start working at the age of eight and had all sorts of "unnatural" advantages which were denied my great-grandmothers. And honestly, all the trauma I suffered for hitting puberty early is a tiny, tiny price to pay.

What I do know is that I consistently got the message that you send in that paragraph: that my body was grotesque and unnatural. This sentiment was often couched in compassionate terms, acknowledging that it wasn't my fault that my body was grotesque and unnatural. The sales woman in the underwear section of a department store even went so far as to suggest that my grotesque, unnatural breasts were a "medical problem," for which I needed surgery. But the fact that people were very compassionate when calling me a monstrous freak didn't make it any better. I deserved not to be treated like there was something wrong with me.

And you know, there was nothing wrong with my body. I had social problems because I went through puberty early, not medical problems. (Oddly enough, today I found out that I have low bone density, something for which late menarche is a risk factor.) The problem was that people treated me badly because of my body. The problem was that the entire society thought that the most important thing about me was my body. And I persist in thinking that the problem was the people and the society, rather than the body.

So anyway, hopefully there are no 13-year-old girls reading your blog. But if there are, you should be aware that you're just another in an endless stream of people who are judging their bodies and telling them there's something wrong with them. And since you have no evidence that there's something wrong with them, other than your own assumption that you know what nature intended for women's bodies, I kind of think you're part of the problem here.

mythago

and men don't know how to deal with girls who are legally (and often emotionally) children but who look like adults

Oh, I don't think it's a problem of confusion at all.

MetaMetaX

Actually it's fitting! Early menarche causing confusion and wonder among all of us? How fitting - especially if you can show that increased modernity leads to the early onset of menarche!

Innocent? Hah hah hah! Our over-emphasis on criminal punishment leads too many to believe that the opposite of innocent is guilty. Thus, when a girl menstruates early, people think she's guilty of something. It's unfortunate, but yeah, it's the attitude we seem to have.

But no. The opposite of innocent is not guilty - it's *responsible*. Not punishable responsible, but just responsible.

We've made the world so complex that everything we do matters - especially if the impending environmenal shit hitting the fan theories have any meat at all. Our trading policies and acquisition of raw materials from anywhere on the planet cause our every choice - from the smallest meals we eat to the large moral and personal beliefs we have - possess the power to grant life or death to people far far away on the other side of the world. Innocent means that you just haven't figured this out yet...

Early menarche is an onslaught - a smack in the cabasa from God - "Everything matters. Grow up sooner, not later. Everything matters. Understand how. Everything matters. You are not so special that you will escape this. Everything matters. And of course everything dies. Everything you do matters. And exactly what are you doing now? Everything matters! Make the world complex and be prepared to learn early how to nurture and protect it, or it will kill you."

It's not wrong, Hugo. It's beautiful!!

To Maureen - "On the other hand, why are pubescent girls fetishized so much in our culture?"

Two answers - both stabs in the dark that have probably 60% of truth to them. 1) From the corporate / advertising perspective if you can pound these girls early (How's that for a violent sexual assault image?) with advertising that emphasizes physical beauty, de-emphasizes intellectual achievement, and heavily heavily emphasizes the acquisition of particular luxury items as the road to popularity then you will separate that girl early from her parents and will create a shop-a-holic. The more shop-a-holics you create, the more income you can receive for years and years in to your luxury item business.

Oh but don't worry. We don't do any of this. We don't emphasize physical attractiveness, de-emphasize brains, and focus on acquisition of unnecessary goods as the road to happiness. Who's Britney Spears anyway? Didn't she win a Rhodes scholar? Paris Hilton? Never head of her. Jessica Simpson? Oh yeah, OJ's sister - she was really broken up about that whole Bronco chase.

Answer two. This is the only culture that goes *batshit* whenever older man plus younger woman relationships come up. Absolutely batshit. Peronally, I like them young and sweet - because they are young and sweet. And because they're still confused over what is their responsibility and what is not - you can have interesting conversations about guilt and innocence, responsibility, duty, and obligation, trth and lie - without encountering the huge chip-on-the-shoulder that seems to dominate any woman who has a degree. Something happens to most women in college that puts years-long scowls on their faces that just aren't cute...

MetaMetaX

TO Maureen - "As for dealing with boys their own age--the twentieth century's made boys mature faster as well, although teenage boys don't seem to attract the level of adult purient interest that teenage girls do."

Don't go there. No seriously - DON'T go there. Pedophiles like little sweet boys just as much as they like little sweet girls.

To Hugo - "Seriously, I am convinced that there is little point in trying to slow the onset of physical puberty. As I said in the post, the key thing is changing how we respond to puberty, and men in particular have a vital role to play in keeping our girls feeling loved and cared for -- while feeling safe at the same time."

Alright, but again I'll ask the same annoying question I always do. If you want to change a prevailing attitude, what system of reward will you set up to encourage people to change their outlook? And once you've answered that, please consider that for thousands of years our genetic drive as men has been to repoduce with the youngest and msot healthy females you can find. Then evaluate your system of reward on its airtightness against a tremendous biological imperative. Lotsa luck!

To LaLubu - Well I doubt it'll make you feel better but men sometimes proposition to women in an impersonal light strictly for the purpose of developing a pecking order among their male friends! It has nothing to do with the woman at all! It's all about men dominating other men.

Group of men sees woman. Woman gets a number from one to ten based on physical attractiveness. Having the balls to approach said woman - and sometimes the really low scoring girls are worth triple points - counts for certain number of points. Not getting slapped acquires points. Actually getting a number scores points. You get the idea - it's all in good fun. AND hitting on a girl in a vulgar and original manner is also worth points, too. You get to be the guy in the group that everyone talks about in the bar the next weekend. "Holy shit, did you hear what John said to this girl last Wednesday!? Hah hah hah - she was so fucking pissed I swear she could've stabbed clear through an elephant with that dagger-like stare!"

Being hit on by a group of men in a car while you're out on the street in public? Ehh it sounds scary - but nothing would be worse than being hit on by *one* man - he's probably serious.

Or, then again he could just be using you for practice. "Talk to a chick you're not interested in until they all become uninteresting to you..." is solid dating advice!

To mythago - "Oh, I don't think it's a problem of confusion at all."

Alright, so for thousands of years men have went out and killed shit to create a village, and after they're done killing they've gone home to sleep with the youngest and most healthy chickadee-dee they can find. But only in the last fifty years the girls have been developing younger and younger *AND* we're not allowed to just randomly kill shit...

And among all this "YOU DON'T THINK there's any confusion?!?!?!" Yeah - men are just neanderthals, we can't help our reactions. No wait, didn't we just have a blog that said that statement is sexist and wrong?

To Sally - Great post with regard to women and clothing. Of course, though, you need a civilized society with rules to come up with a rule for everyone regarding clothes that divide people in to specific roles. Get rid of the class distinctions - get rid of the rules that use clothes to divide people in to groups.

Simple as that...

La Lubu

Meta: I'm aware of the dynamics involved in both street harassment and propositions (both the offensive and the nice-guy type). I'm just one of those pesky killjoys that still believes men, especially grown men (as opposed to older teenagers) should not be, oh, requesting blow jobs from grade school girls just because they have breasts. When I was a fifth grader, out skateboarding, blowing bubble gum, wearing a T-shirt with my grade-school logo on it, it really could not have been more obvious that I was a child and should have been automatically considered off-limits.

You point to advertising and its sexualization of girls. I agree that this can be an exacerbating factor, but the conditions responsible already existed. There weren't "junior hooker" clothes sold in 1970's stores, and there was no equivalent to Britney Spears and her ilk. Advertising to children was limited before media deregulation in the Reagan era.

No...those men were hitting on me for the most transparent of reasons. Ever hear the odious expression, "old enough to bleed, old enough to breed"? Translation: eight-to-fifteen year old girls make the best f*** buddies. I can do things to them physically and emotionally that an adult woman won't allow me to do. And that's it in a nutshell. But like I said before, it's not like I hadn't heard of perverts before (yes. I said perverts. men who proposition children for sex are perverts.), I just didn't expect so many of them. My breasts brought a wave of seriously creepy men along with them. And if that wasn't bad enough, the reaction from the general public was that it was my fault...for having the breasts and leaving the house, I guess. My "revealing" clothing consisted of crew-neck T-shirts and sweatshirts.

And with that, we're back to: Hugo? I wasn't trying to "call you out" back there...I'm seriously interested in your opinion as a professional educator dealing with feminism and sexuality, about how to address this problem. I wasn't referring to "what are you doing personally to address this (hey, we all can't be everywhere, doing everything); I was thinking more along the lines of how do we collectively change this negative aspect of the culture? I think there has been improvement in the awareness of sexual predators, but at the same time, the sexualization of children in the media has made it hard to counter the message that these children are somehow "asking for it" or that they "like it". It's almost as if the predators are doing a better job of sharing their message: that it's a "reciprocal" relationship.

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