The rate at which girls progress through the stages of puberty in relation to body fat mass and body fat distribution and its relation to their hormonal profiles was studied. Sixty-eight schoolgirls participated in a longitudinal study during 3 yr. The girls were divided into subgroups with increasing skinfold thicknesses and waist-hip ratio. They were also grouped depending on Tanner's breast development classification (M2 and M3). The age at M2 was only marginally correlated with the menarcheal age, but the age at M2 and the time interval from that age to menarche was negatively correlated. Age at the onset of puberty was not related to body fat mass or distribution. The rate of pubertal development after pubertal stage M3 was negatively related to the body fat mass. Age at M2 was only correlated with estrone (E1), while the rate of pubertal development was associated with higher FSH, E1, estradiol (E2), the fraction of E2 that was not bound to sex-hormone-binding globulin (non-sex-hormone-binding globulin bound E2) and androstenedione plasma levels at the onset of puberty. Body fat distribution, rather than body fat mass was related to the total and the non-sex-hormone-binding globulin bound plasma levels of E2 and testosterone at the onset of puberty. Changes in body fat distribution in early female puberty were chiefly related to the waist circumferences. We found no evidence that body fat mass or body fat distribution triggers the onset of puberty. Body fat distribution was related to early pubertal endocrine activity. Body fat mass was negatively related to the rate of pubertal development toward menarche, but no clear indications for an endocrine-related process is found. We conclude that onset of puberty and menarche are not parallel pubertal events, and that early pubertal plasma E1, E2 and androstenedione levels are predictors for the rate of pubertal development toward menarche. We propose that the control of the onset of puberty and maturation of the hypothalamic-pituitary gonadal axis, with regard to negative feedback control, are at least partially independent. This induces on the average a "catch up" pubertal maturation in girls with a late onset of puberty.