Little Women

Once, 12-year-old girls were considered kids in every respect. Today, they are on the fast track to adulthood, grappling with the early onset of puberty.

"This is my last time as a child. It's pretty sad for me. I feel like I need to unwind, to let loose, to use the time that's left. I feel that's why my friends and I sometimes talk in a kind of childish way. We laugh at silly things. But most of the time, I feel as if there is something expected of me. And it's pressure. Sometimes I feel I have to mimic someone, instead of being who I am, because I basically don't know what it's like to be someone mature."

She pushes aside strands of fair hair with such charm after her little speech on life at age 12. Milayt Ben Haim of Jerusalem has the chic of a teenage girl and a sober outlook on life, which doesn't prevent her from sometimes speaking in a childish voice, when necessary. She is a girl-child who is well aware of the magic and grief of childhood.

In order to find time for an interview and photos, it was necessary to maneuver between dance lessons, a theater group and a preparatory seminary for children about to become bat mitzvah, which is only a partial list of her weekly activities. Milayt, whose unusual name is taken from the Song of Songs, made her decision to be called up to the Torah following the bar mitzvah of her brother, Daniel, around a year ago. She decided "if boys can do it, then why shouldn't I?"

During the meeting itself, she quickly reached the heart of the matter. "Obviously we're at the age of puberty," she says, "but it's too embarrassing to talk about it with friends. Imagine if there is something that interests us the most, but no one dares talk about it. Then it becomes the most open secret in the world. The problem is that you either have too much or too little. So that's why you talk about others, never about yourself. That way you feel safer.

"I miss childhood. The innocence. The times when you could talk about everything without thinking. It's true, you're more independent. But you also get much less attention. You simply become less cute to the adults." She stops for a minute to think. "It's annoying to stop being a child."

'It's happening too fast'

The complaint is timely: Until a few years ago, a girl Milayt's age would still have been considered a child, undisputedly. The early physical maturity of children in recent years, a change doctors attribute to changes in nutrition as well as environmental blights, has placed adolescence on a sort of fast track.

The change comes at the expense of childhood, which has been shortened. It is, of course, more noticeable among girls, who tend to develop early. Sometimes, it seems as if they are racing to keep up with their internal biological clocks, which are ticking at a frantic pace. There are, among them, tall girls, developed girls, little women ahead of their time.

"This means that a whole generation is growing up differently from the way people grew up 30 and 40 years ago," says psychologist Orit Tishbi, of the Hebrew University. "It's problematic, because the body develops a lot earlier than the intellect. Physical puberty is outpacing emotional puberty and the perception of one's self-identity, who am I and what am I. Puberty, from a psychological perspective, is a slow process. If it is accelerated, crucial stages are skipped."

According to Tishbi, "the culture as a whole is piggybacking on the phenomenon of early puberty, seeing girls as Lolitas."

Several outlets expose children to sexual content at an early age: children's television shows, such as "Hashminiya," whose stars, in their 20s, are seen making out and kissing at length; the telenovelas; ads for children's clothes with blunt messages.

"I see girls with their stomachs and chests exposed; their sexual behavior is very flamboyant," says Tishbi. ?They are thrown into the adults' arena. There is pressure to kiss or go a bit further. The body progresses, but there is no understanding or internal process. The experience is barren and emotionless, and creates anxieties."

According to her, parents forget to set limits because they, too, are captives of external appearance.

"Curfews for 11-year-olds are getting later. Parents supervise them less. They tend to allow excessive independence," Tishbi says. But the young adolescent girls still need parents' authority, guidance and protection.

"I feel it's happening too fast, adolescence," says Anat, 12, also of Jerusalem. "No one prepared me. For as I long as I can remember, I've been a girl and suddenly I have to wear a training bra. When you're an adolescent girl, it looks nicer because there is actually a chest. But being in between, that's what's annoying. You're not a child and you're not a teenager. Sometimes I just want to cry. And when they tell me, 'you can't cry like that because you're not a baby,' it makes me angry.

"My friends are also more sensitive. And there are scary things, such as starting junior high school or wearing a bra. There are a lot of things that you're embarrassed about, mostly connected to your body. There are some girls who are very developed. They are talked about, but most of the talk is about embarrassment, because, right away, you go and check yourself."

The 'Hop' fans

"Puberty? Yuck, a lot of blood," says Neta Nahtomi, 11, off the cuff. She actually delved into the subject via a book her mother bought her. "I just wanted to understand what's happening to me. I don't think it's scary or anything like that."

Michal Nahtomi, Neta's mother, is surprised by her daughter's complete lack of embarrassment over everything associated with puberty.

"I think she's also a lot more mature and responsible than I was at that age," she says. "Life is somehow more pressured today. I always thought I was a cool mom, but now that Neta is more independent and goes places by herself, there is more pressure. I make sure she didn't forget her cell phone. I need to know where she is at any given moment. And who she's with."

Neta, Tom Freudental and Amit Saar, all friends from the A.D. Gordon School in Tel Aviv, admit that they miss kindergarten. And when they jump on the bed in Tom's room, this longing seems obvious.

"When you grow up you have boobs and it's not fun," says Amit. "There are girls who have pimples. All sorts of things happen to you. You can't just be."

The room has a collection of handicrafts, stuffed dolls, and pillows with pink prints that prove a little girl's fondness for kitsch has not waned over the years. On the contrary, there is a renewed desire for anything that is pink "and kind of cute." With the necessary savvy, this step backward to kindergarten age is being transformed into a trend. There are girls who said, for example, that they watch the children's channel, "Hop," when no one is looking. A group of girls in a Tzofim scouts troop in Jerusalem call themselves "the Hop fans."

Tom, Neta and Amit of Tel Aviv prefer "Hashminiya" or "The Island," the flagship programs of the children's channel on HOT. According to them, kissing "is yuck. When there is kissing, we close our eyes," adds Tom.

"There are kids in our class who love each other. But they don't really talk about it," says Tom. "So we figure out who's a couple. If someone doesn't hide that she likes boys, she makes herself look silly."

"The society is very critical, mainly when it comes to the subject of couples," agrees Milayt. "On ICQ, you're not really yourself. In order to be considered in, you basically have to come up with a great name."

"Great,' in the eyes of some classmates, means a name with blatant sexual connotations: "A firebomb since age six," "fire dancer," "silences with a kiss." On ICQ, couples tend to drop hot declarations of their love even though, in the real world, boys and girls are still in the cold-war stage.

Dear readers

Neta, Tom and Amit prefer blogs to chatting. Around a third of the girls in their class have blogs, a sort of "dear diary" on the Internet, open to the public. The content ranges from the childish to puberty-age depression.

"Oof, I sound like some kind of depressed person - but the exact opposite is true. So what exactly is happening to me?" writes an 11-year-old on the Israblog site. Despite the monikers they hide behind, names like "Tutit" and "Princessa," comments posted to the blogs suggest their classmates know their real-life identities. Some of them say who they are, compliment and even offer help.

Presumably, even the parents can enter the blog and understand what their daughter is going through. How did we move from slamming a door and "don't come into my room without knocking!" to the open coping strategies of the Web? It seems the current generation feels a need to document its experiences for all to see. And perhaps publicizing feelings is just another, new, way to cope.

"The Internet is impersonal and unbinding," says Tishbi. "It's an alternative to the playing field of yesteryear, but it still provides experience and a kind of simulation of the real world. This open space also allows for violence and uncontrollable urges."

In a public discussion following Channel Ten's report on pedophiles, parents questioned whether, in real life, 13-year-old girls would respond to temptation and initiate contact with older men without their parents? knowledge. Almost certainly, there are such cases on the margins, and perhaps a case from a Tel Aviv school last year attests to this: A 10-year-old girl photographed herself nude and sent the photos to whoever asked.

Even without that extreme example, the innocent blogs of 11- and 12-year-olds attest to the degree of confusion among those who are at the same time a child and an adolescent.

'Tomorrow my mom's going abroad for three weeks," relates the 11-year-old author of the "Life's not everything" blog. "I feel like a baby when I complain about it. I'm not a little, dependent girl anymore, who needs her mother all the time. Actually, I am - I'll try to get over it and be mature - in the end I'll explode from all these mood swings."

From another post: "Now I have no definitive idea about my feelings or my thoughts. My head is about to explode and I'm so confused by everything. Even the silliest little thing annoys me - I have to downshift, start being more organized in every respect - but no, I don't manage to."