It's another busy morning, and I'm running late. My beloved and I went for our last bike ride before Saturday's Solvang Century early today; I'm still thinking I may opt to just play it safe and ride the 50-miler. I need to amp up my running as I get ready for June's Rock n' Roll marathon in San Diego.
Tonight, we're off to Cal State Fullerton to watch the USA-Colombia soccer friendly. My fiancee and I are taking her Colombian-born mother as a birthday present. (Have I mentioned how much I love soccer?) We'll all, naturally, be rooting for the South Americans. I'll be decked out in my Atletico Nacional kit. My fiancee's family is Afro-Colombian from the northern coastal regions of Colombia; AN is the favored team of the costenos...
In my post last night, I mentioned lecturing on the subject of menarche, or first menstruation. (First off, folks, it's a Greek word, not a French one. I run into people who say "menarsh" as if it's French; it's pronounced "men-archy". Sheesh.) The point that many body historians, chiefly Joan Brumberg, have made is that we cannot underestimate the importance of the drop in average age of menarche that took place over the course of the 20th century. At the turn of the last century, American girls began to menstruate sometime between 16 and 17 (on average); today, they begin sometime between 11-12. (There is some evidence that African-American and Latina girls begin earlier than white and Asian youth.)
Feminists rightly tend to see the sexual objectification of women as a cultural phenomenon rather than a biological inevitability. Any feminist or pro-feminist worth her or his salt is quick to point out the deleterious effects of consumer culture and the media on girls' self-esteem. But we have to remember that social forces interact with biology -- and the fact that American girls hit puberty an average of four to five years earlier than their great-grandmothers did has immense consequences for which the culture alone cannot be held responsible. It's obvious that 16 and 17 year-olds, in any culture, are going to be mentally more mature than 11 and 12 year-olds. In an earlier time, physical adolescence was, I argue, far better matched to emotional development.
Obviously, different girls develop at different rates. As most teens will tell you, it's as upsetting to be "later" than all your friends as it is to be "earlier". Teenagers of both sexes generally want to be right in the middle, and of course, statistically speaking, few are. I often ask my students in women's history courses about what it would be like if girls developed four to five years later than they do now. Without exception, every one seems to agree that it would be marvelous indeed. "We'd have so many more years to just be kids", they say; "We could stay innocent so much longer." "My friendships with other girls would be so much better with so much less competition." These are the sorts of comments I frequently hear in my classes.
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.
Parents, educators, and youth workers need to be much more aggressive about resisting the sexualization of girls in early adolescence. (Of course, I'd be happy if we did a better job of fighting the objectification of women of all ages, but I am particularly concerned for the very young and vulnerable.)
Fathers -- and other male authority figures, like youth group leaders -- also have a vital role to play. Too often, I hear stories from young girls about fathers who began to distance themselves at the precise moment that they hit puberty. (It's an old story: when Dad sees his daughter developing breasts and hips, he is forced to confront the reality of his child's sexuality. For too many men, that is so uncomfortable that they end up withdrawing their attention and affection -- or, alternatively they end up becoming hyper-vigilant and critical. Both approaches harm their daughters.) Young girls desperately need older male figures (ideally, but not necessarily their fathers) who will give them immense amounts of love and non-sexual validation as they go through the early stages of puberty. Good male figures will not, of course, respond sexually to these girls. Neither will they seek to deny the changes their daughters are undergoing by frantically covering up and controlling them. Above all, they won't withdraw their love and affection because they are bewildered and overwhelmed by their daughter's transformation. Though pubescent girls need the love and support of older women every bit as much, I'm convinced the need for safe, nurturing, and fearless adult male support is absolutely vital.
I've talked about this issue with a few of my friends who are fathers of daughters. We're thinking of doing a workshop someday for Dads of Daughters at All Saints on just this topic.
I must prepare for class. Viva Colombia!