Whatever has happened to them

I started re-reading Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye last night and there’s a very resonant passage about girls and puberty in chapter 17. The adult narrator starts with her childhood friend [it’s complicated] Cordelia:

Breasts fascinate Cordelia, and fill her with scorn. Both of her older sisters have them by now. Perdie and Mirrie sit in their room with its twin beds and sprigged-muslin flounces, filing their nails, laughing softly; or they heat brown wax in little pots in the kitchen and take it upstairs to spread on their legs. They look into their mirrors, making sad faces – “I look like Haggis McBaggis! It’s the curse!” Their wastebaskets smell of decaying flowers.

They tell Cordelia there are some things she’s too young to understand, and then they tell these things to her anyway. Cordelia, her voice lowered, her eyes big, passes on the truth: the curse is when blood comes out between your legs. We don’t believe her. She produces evidence: a sanitary pad, filched from Perdie’s wastebasket. On it is a brown crust, like dried gravy. “That’s not blood,” Grace says with disgust, and she’s right, it’s nothing like when you cut your finger. Cordelia is indignant. But she can prove nothing.

I haven’t thought much about grown-up women’s bodies before. But now these bodies are revealed in their true, upsetting light: alien and bizarre, hairy, squashy, monstrous. We hang around outside the room where Perdie and Mirrie are peeling the wax off their legs while they utter yelps of pain, trying to see through the keyhole, giggling: they embarrass us, although we don’t know why. They know they’re being laughed at and come to the door to shoo us away. “Cordelia, why don’t you and your little friends bug off!” They smile a little ominously, as if they know already what is in store for us. “Just wait and see,” they say.

This frightens us. Whatever has happened to them, bulging them, softening them, causing them to walk rather than run, as if there’s some invisible leash around their necks, holding them in check – whatever it is, it may happen to us too. We look surreptitiously at the breasts of women on the street, of our teachers; though not of our mothers, that would be too close for comfort. We examine our legs and underarms for sprouting hairs, our chests for swellings. But nothing is happening: so far we are safe.

That all sounds kind of familiar to me, although I don’t remember that time with anything like the clarity and detail Atwood gives. I don’t remember much but I do remember that it felt alien and strange and sometimes repulsive.

The writing is brilliant, obviously (I think this is perhaps her best novel), and I think it’s relevant to the gender dysphoria issue. The onset of puberty is ook, at least for some (apparently some girls await it impatiently and are delighted when it arrives), but mostly you get used to it. You don’t feel hairy, squashy, monstrous forever.

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