I started stealing razors from my dad in the first grade. It was easy.
I watched my mom and older sisters do the same for as long as I could remember. As soon as I began sprouting hair in areas I didn’t want covered (i.e., not the top of my head), I slicked them off quickly and painlessly without telling a soul.
Although I began signaling sexual maturation sooner than most, I was sure that my very understanding mother wouldn’t approve of depilation at age six. I was right. Dr. Miles, my pediatrician, had forewarned her that I showed signs of precocious puberty. My mom vigilantly observed for the markers that I expertly hid.
When I began menstruating at age ten — I concealed that fact for months before an untimely trip to the mall forced me to reveal it — my mom, in shock, exclaimed that it had happened before any pubic hair growth. I sassily retorted that that was only because I handled the fuzzy inconvenience before she even noticed. The glare she darted my way warned me to tread carefully in my remarks.
I was often referred to as “mujercita sin tiempo” — little woman before her time. It began when I decided to put the dolls away and play instead with my little sister. Toys held my interest for a very short period of time. That was the most prominent feature of my precociousness until I opened my mouth. That mouth got me sent to the naughty table in the first grade. It was there that I formed a lifelong friendship with Miguel, the first and only person to know that I had “woman problems” at the time. Perhaps my smart aleck-y attitude should havve alerted my mother to the situation.
Merriam-Webster simply defines precociousness as having or showing the qualities or abilities of an adult an unusually early age, exceptionally early in development or occurrence (emphasis on early). The National Library of Medicine provides a more precise demarcation for precociousness. Precocious puberty is the development of sexual maturation in boys and girls at a chronological age that is 2.5 standard deviations below the mean age of onset of puberty in the general population.
The language is ominous. Precocious puberty is 2.5 times away from average. Average is typical. Two and a half standard deviations below normal naturally seems abnormal. But is it?
For me, it was a minor change. And if you take it from the perspective of pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan, MD, coauthor of The New Puberty, a book geared toward guiding parents through early development and sexual maturation, it’s a minor change for a growing number of girls. In a study launched in 2005 that evaluated a controlled group of girls in three cities, nearly 10 percent of the participants developed signs of puberty before eight years of age.
On a slow Saturday night, a Google search of “early puberty” returns approximately 1.3 million hits in 0.31 seconds. The right side of the search window shows a chart proclaiming precocious puberty a rare condition that is treatable by a medical professional.
Several headlines, some by prestigious news organizations, lament this ordinary change, a change that occurs in all (minus a sliver of a minority) sooner or later. Each publication parrots the others, rattling off a list of negative affects of early maturation — depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, early initiation of sexual activity, etc. — expounding the fears of clueless parents.
I was the fourth born, the third girl in a family of five siblings. My home was a stable household steeped in femininity. I watched my two older sisters grow into their womanhood, and the lessons my mother instilled in them flowed unto me in seamless transition. While I didn’t comprehend everything that was happening, I did understand that puberty was a series of events that would occur over time. My mother explained these changes as they were presented to my sisters, as I was a witness to their evolving bodies. My turn would be next. I wasn’t sure when, but I did know it was coming.
Four years ago, writer Elizabeth Weil profiled a mother and daughter experiencing the onset of precocious puberty for a piece in the New York Times Magazine. The article chronicled how Tracee Sioux, mother and now author of The Year of Yes! fought for a “solution or treatment” to the “problem condition” her nonplussed daughter, Ainsley, was traversing. Doctor after doctor had deemed Ainsley advanced but normal, but that was not the answer Tracee sought. The big, ugly world was revealing itself much too soon. Momma bear had to protect and guard against it. A puritanical concept of innocence was at stake.
The false sense of loss of innocence is the most pressing negative affect of early onset puberty. Society’s fixation on the sexualization of young girls — the famed Lolita Syndrome — should not dictate how we educate our daughters. Let’s divorce the idea of being wanted from that of being a woman and teach girls from the earliest moment possible that they are the owners of their own bodies, and that while they grow, those bodies will change. Girls need to be granted agency over their selves in order to successfully navigate the challenges that arise from childhood into adulthood. Womanhood does not begin with desirability.
In her “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison suggests that being a woman requires pain. Jamison goes as far as describing menstruation as “one kind of wound.” For such a central aspect of womanhood to be described as an affliction so casually is troubling. If everything ails, nothing will heal. Pain is not a gender.
Women need to lead the change to stop the stigmatization of our changing bodies. While it may seem preferable to be viewed as a victim rather than a whore, both perspectives are damaging. Our collective understanding of self should be the source of our bonding. The pains of our periods may indicate the possibility of fertility. There should be no shame in that potential. It’s potential: a maybe, but not a certainty. And if it does become a certainty, the reality is just another step in life.
Puberty is a beginning and not an end. It’s a minor change that leads to another that will successively lead to more. It may be scary (or not) and weird at first, but it’s just another phase, like fallen teeth and lanky limbs. Our bodies are our own, and that personal space requires respect. Teach this to our girls and our boys.
Let’s not rob our girls of the beauty of transformation. It will happen whether you want it to or not. Womanhood is process. Revel in the process. Revel in self-care. Love being a woman. It is not unclean.
Just before 7 p.m on July 7, as protesters gathered in Belo Garden Park, in Dallas, Texas, I settled onto a hard wooden seat in the choir stall of St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota. As they chanted “enough is enough,” we chanted Psalm 59: “You have been a refuge in the day of my distress.” As they shouted, we sat in silence. As they marched, we bowed.
I imagine everyone was praying, in our own ways. At the church, we prayed in formal style, a monk beseeching God, the congregation responding: “Lord, hear our prayer.” One monk prayed for “Philando Castille and his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.” I wondered if Philando and Diamond were members of this church. I wondered what had happened, that they merited the prayers of this holy community.
On retreat at a writing workshop, I had not been keeping up with the news. I had no idea that just eighty miles away from where I sat, Philando had been killed by a police officer the night before. No idea that Diamond had somehow had the presence of mind to begin recording the incident even as her boyfriend sat bleeding beside her. I had no idea, but I prayed for Philando and Diamond: “Lord, hear our prayer.”
As peaceful yet angry people continued to gather and chant and march in Denver, I recited the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth.” I received the blessing. I watched the men in black robes file out of their seats, bow to the cross, and head back to their mysterious—though likely mundane—monkish lives.
Later that night, I was drinking and laughing with my friends when the gunshots rang out on the streets of Dallas. Were we talking about church politics, or bad dates, or our cute dogs when the first police officer died? And then the second. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.
I slept well that night, but some of my friends at the retreat did not. One woman had a frantic text from a friend whose husband is a police officer in Dallas—whose husband was at the protest and hadn’t come home yet—whose husband, she thankfully learned later, was not physically harmed in the attack. One man from Nigeria received an early morning call from his sister. His family heard about the black man shot in Minnesota and they were worried, because he was a black man—in Minnesota. “Come home to Nigeria where it is safe,” his sister begged him.
It is a strange experience, to be on retreat while the world is falling apart. I did read some news stories, but not deeply. I did skim Facebook, but I didn’t participate in the conversations—not the important ones. Because I wanted my week away. Even as people were dying, I wanted to walk by the lake, enjoy the beautiful gardens, gaze at the stained glass windows, listen to the breezes and the birds. And I did all of these things, but with an underlying consciousness that my space, the peace of my moment, was far from the reality of many.
Being on retreat during these events heightened the struggle I feel in the face of any national or international tragedy: What is the appropriate response? Or rather, the good response? How do I acknowledge and honor the pain of strangers? How do I live into the truth that we are all connected to each other? How do I maintain my own sanity and fulfill my ongoing obligations while still giving time and energy to address what is happening in the world?
I care about the hurting people. I care about the injustices in the world. I want to speak and act against racism and homophobia and gun violence. I want to write powerful words and preach prophetic sermons and pray faithful prayers. And I want to watch Netflix. And I need to have supper ready by five because my daughter has gymnastics tonight.
I generally end up doing all of these things. I write and preach and pray and watch Netflix and make dinner. Though I increasingly recognize that not needing to worry about my nineteen-year-old son being shot by police is a luxury parents of black boys don’t have. And my ease makes me uneasy.
Paul, the New Testament missionary/writer, and I have something of a love/hate relationship. One of his concepts I love is the metaphor of church as a body. “The body is not made up of one part but of many . . . If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Corinthians 12:14,17) This metaphor helps sustain me when I struggle with what to do, when I feel guilty that I’m not doing enough.
Paul specifically applies this metaphor to the church, but I consider its application to community more broadly. We are a body with each other—across the country and around the world. This may sound a little cheesy, and if you’re of a certain age you might have an image of swaying pop stars singing “We are the world” and be tempted to roll your eyes.
Go ahead and get the eye rolling out of your system. Then consider the implications of the metaphor. Being a body means that we are connected—head to toe connected. If you stub your toe, the message courses along your nerves all the way up to your brain. If you injure an eye, it makes your hands and arms less precise because it messes with your depth perception. An inner ear infection can make you tip over. . . . You get the idea. All connected.
At a basic level, this connection means that what is harmful to some is, ultimately, harmful to all. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When we say, “Black lives matter,” it is not a denial that other lives also matter. It is a claim that black lives are not being properly valued; and in failing to value black lives, we harm the quality of life for everyone. I do not want to live in a society where anyone of any race gets abused or shot by police for having a toy gun or reaching for his ID or asking to see a search warrant or being a little grumpy when they get pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. As Paul reminds us, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
In addition to telling us why we should work for justice—because we are all connected—this metaphor also gives us insight into how we can continue to do the work of justice. The eye focuses on seeing. The stomach digests the food. The legs hold us up and move us forward. And we each do the work that is in front of us to do, while trusting that other parts of the body are doing the work that is in front of them to do. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5).
I teach my children and preach to my congregation and write my columns. Others research the criminal justice system and police brutality and traffic stops. Others organize rallies and gather people on social media and in real life. Others promote legislation that will address the systemic racism in our country. Others work from within police departments to change police policies and procedures. The work being done is as varied as the people doing it.
A body works best when the eyes do the seeing and the stomachs the digesting and the legs the walking. Movements for justice work best when we each do what we are given to do. When we do it well. And when we cheer on others who are doing the work they have been given to do.
This is a comfort to me. Because there is so much I am not doing. There is so much I cannot do. And some things that, if I’m honest, I don’t want to do.
This body metaphor is a comfort to me because I was praying with a bunch of monks while people were marching in the streets insisting that Black Lives Matter. I need to trust that my contemplation and prayers, conversations and tears, are also part of the work that must be done.