Puberty sucks for everyone, but experts and teens agree — it sucks more if you go through it early or late. And apparently, obesity can cause both.
According to Elizabeth Cooney at MSNBC, previous studies had shown that higher body fat could contribute to early puberty in girls. But now scientists think obesity could also delay puberty in boys. Researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that 14% of eleven-and-a-half-year-old boys at the top of the BMI scale had yet to enter puberty, while only 8% of those with the lowest BMI hadn't done so at that age. It's a small effect, but it's enough to make one pediatric endocrinologist say, "it's something to watch for and maybe pay attention to in our overweight boys."
Cooney also quotes some boys who've been especially late to develop, making it clear how stigmatizing this can be. Especially heart-wrenching was one post on an online forum, by a 17-year-old boy who says he is 5'1", overweight, and prepubescent:
Being my size at this age is very, very embarrassing. It hurts the most when most people compare me to ninth graders, no one should go through this.
This boy faces a double whammy — kids are some of the cruelest enforcers of fat-shaming culture, and being overweight in high school is hard enough without feeling like a freak because you haven't gone through puberty yet. Cooney maintains that late physical maturation is harder on boys than it is on girls, but fourteen-year-old me could've told her it was no picnic for us either. At the time I thought that being the last one to grow boobs was the worst possible fate — and it's true that insecurities about being different from your peers have a way of sticking with you. But I learned later that the girls who matured early often felt just as different — with the added problem of attracting sexual attention before they understood or wanted it. And, Cooney points out, "in a society that idealizes slender women, pounds that come with puberty, perhaps on top of being overweight already, can be a burden for a girl who already may feel like she's being treated differently." Given all this, I wonder if anyone actually felt they went through puberty at the "right" time.
Predictably but unfortunately, Cooney winds up her article with the words of pediatrics professor Laura K. Bachrach, who says parents' real concern should be obesity, not puberty. Bachrach adds, "They should be worried about the food they're putting on the table." While a healthy diet is important at any age, I'm reminded of Kate Harding's careful enumeration of all the reasons the supposed child obesity crisis may be overblown. And "watch what you eat" may be unhelpful — or at the very least insufficient — advice for a teenager struggling with multiple forms of social marginalization. The real misery of the teens Cooney quotes should make it clear that kids struggling with the effects of a "different" puberty may need counseling, not just a look at the food pyramid.