Raised by Wolves: My Journey from Man-Cub to Devoured Woman

Image from page 34 of “The second jungle book” (1895)
Like Tarzan or Mowgli or the ubiquitous tabloid baby — I was raised by wolves! — I spent my formative years among a strange people I only thought were my own.

Standing in line at the grocery store beside a cart full of food, I try to tear my eyes away from the gaunt faces staring up at me. I can’t help it, though. I look. I look at Shape and Self and People and InStyle and Cosmo and all those other magazines strategically placed in front of the checkout stand, and even inside of it. As my food…a roast chicken…a packet of cheddar cheese slices…an avocado…scrolls beneath the vulpine faces of actresses, pop-stars and supermodels, I laugh. I laugh because it never fails. There, plastered across the barely existent midriff of an impossibly attenuated model, a Giacometti bronze in a bikini, is the invective: “Love Your Body!”

I picture the editors of this magazine howling around a ruthlessly well-designed table. A gang of sadistic prison guards telling the prisoners to “Feel free!”

“Fuck you,” I whisper.

The last time I loved my body, I mean my whole body, was three decades ago. Back when I was a man.

Like Tarzan or Mowgli or the ubiquitous tabloid baby — I was raised by wolves! — I spent my formative years among a strange people I only thought were my own.

My mom left for work each morning of my early childhood, naively believing my seasonally unemployed construction-worker father shared her definition of the word “babysit.” What she didn’t know, but would quickly come to suspect, was my father was taking me down the street to the pool hall.

Instead of playing babies with the little girl next door, I spent my days playing pool with my father and his buddy Darryl, or at least I played with the pretty pink cubes of billiard chalk and ate hot dogs and drank root beer, while above my head, their manly curses floated on a cloud of Marlboro smoke.

One day at home, my blocks toppled in a heap on our green shag carpet. “Fuck!” I said, like any toddler would. Luckily for my mom, my Mormon grandmother practiced her powers of denial like my father practiced his bank shot. “Good girl!” said grandma, “You made a good truck with those blocks!”

My pool-playing days came to an abrupt end after that. But my days as a belching, farting, junk food-scarfing man-cub would go on a little longer yet. My mom still had to work and so I spent my days — in my grass stained Toughskin jeans and my favorite brown t-shirt with the bleach stain on the pocket — generally enjoying myself as I drifted below the cloud of obscenity that floated, in the fishing boat and in the pickup truck, between my father and his friend Darryl. My mom, trapped in the windowless gulag of the Wurlitzer organ factory where she wielded a spray gun full of toxic lacquer, imagined me safely sheltered in the green world of my father’s promises, fishing holes and berry thickets.

I was outside, that much was true. Outside of the confining walls of the pool hall, the cloud of obscenity generated by my father and Darryl grew larger, expanded, went cumulonimbus. Fishing or gathering choke cherries for wine and jelly — hooks, thorns — the fucks rained like blood from their wounds.

Besides a lifelong appreciation for that very versatile f-word, I learned other important things in my early life as a man-cub, things my mom did not know I was learning until one fateful day when I was three. Through my mom’s telling and retelling of it, a Zapruder-like film of it has wound its way onto the projector of my mind. In its grainy fluttering footage, I see it all unfold.

My mom is driving our big black battleship of a car down the narrow main street of Logan, Utah. It’s a hot, overexposed day in the summer of 1973. Our windows are down. The light ahead turns red. The light is as red as the vinyl bench seat I am standing on. It’s the ‘70s! No child seat, no seat belt fetters me! We stop and wait our turn in a lineup of cars, all with their windows down too. It’s 100 degrees. I hear the man on the radio say this and I think this must be as hot as it can get on Earth.

Meanwhile, a brunette lady walks out of a nearby shop. Below her impressively high and humidity-resistant beehive hairdo, she is wearing a short turquoise polyester dress and white patent leather pumps that match her purse. I see her and I want to tell her how lovely I think she is, because that would be the nice thing to do. I swagger across the seat like a little Jackie Gleason. And my mom knows this means trouble. She keeps her foot on the brake and tries to grab me. She windmills her right arm my way but the seats on our battleship are fathoms wide. Her long, well kept nails pinch nothing but air. Click. Click. At last, I reach the open window and lean out of it to sing a canton to my beloved.

“Hey lady! Nice knockers!”

One-hundred degrees in a black car stuck in traffic. My mom puts the car in park and is across that bench seat in a flash, rolling up the window, pulling my legs out from under me. I plop down with a vinyl squeak. And my mom pretends she has seen nothing, heard nothing, and doesn’t know why this strange woman is now staring so rudely at us. Really! The nerve!

I don’t remember this. I’m telling you a story of a story. It is now a safely shellacked anecdote of my mom’s. She’s sure I was just imitating my father’s and Darryl’s horn dog ways. I’m sure I thought I was paying a lady a compliment.

It wasn’t long after the “knocker” incident that my life as a man-cub came to an end. I remember that last beautiful moment. It’s a breezy summer night and my father, who would disappear in the middle of a night not too far off from this one, is holding me in his arms and hand-feeding me bits of juicy steak fat from his greasy plate. I love him and I love steak, especially the fatty parts. In my mind I hear, Jack Sprat could eat no fat and his wife could eat no lean, in between the two of them, they licked the platter clean. And man, do I feel sorry for Jack. I look down to see my good fat belly full of food and I am supremely happy. Then, my mom makes a sour face at me. To my father she says, “That’s disgusting.”

After my father disappeared, my body changed. It was marched off to school, made to wear “nice” clothes, told it had to keep its knees together and its mouth closed. Even more disturbingly, only a few years later, parts of my body started disappearing.

It started with my belly: I am 10 years old and slouched in front of the television like the average American kid. From behind me, I hear my mom bark, “Suck in your gut!” I suck in air like I am slapped. I feel slapped. But I still have the round belly of a child. Also I am starting to get what the pamphlet my mom gave me calls “breast buds,” and my always-stubby legs are growing rounder and fuller. I am, as the saying goes, at an “awkward age.”

Seeing this and remembering her own chubby, taunted adolescence, my mom is trying to help me avoid a similar fate. She tells me to suck it in because that’s what her mom did to her, trying to help her.

That summer, my mom bought me my first one-piece bathing suit. Plain. Slimming. Navy. She made me drop my green string bikini and my favorite blouse, a blue and white gingham half-shirt with a lace ruff into the hand-me-down box for the cousins.

And with that, my stomach disappeared.

The next part to go was my thighs.

Returning from summer vacation to the fifth grade, I was greeted by a schoolmate’s exclamation, “You got so fat!

I think, at that time, I was about 5’ tall and weighed probably 80 pounds. From that moment on though, I began to look at the other girls in my class and to compare myself to them. I wanted to know, exactly how was I fat?

I noticed then, that most girls in my class had long skinny legs and I had short, thick ones. I hated my upper thighs so much, I used to punch them like two little fatty speed-bags, hoping somehow to dislodge the fat by force or dissolve it with high frequency vibration. My mom caught me doing it once while I was watching TV and I thought she was in the kitchen.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

I didn’t really know what I was doing but I was damned if I was going to stop. I kept it up in secret for the next year until I had to admit it wasn’t working. This flagellation of my upper thighs was an important rite of passage. At ten, I joined the majority of women who hate this part of themselves. Even more than the start of my period, my hatred of my thighs would mark my full transformation from man-cub to woman.

Lucky for the newly womanish me, shorts in the 1980s were mid-thigh long. Luckier still, was the fact my junior high’s dress code outlawed all shorts except these dorky anachronisms called culottes, which meant no one wore shorts to school but the teachers.

My luck would run out, however, in the mid to late 1990s when “Daisy Dukes” — shorts so short and tight your gynecologist could give you an exam with them still on — were the only damned shorts you could buy in the juniors department. Out of sheer desperation for something new to wear on a Friday night and a crazy kind of hope, I bought a pair. I was 22, 5’4,” and after a year of working out five days a week and counting every calorie, 120 pounds. And just maybe that was finally thin enough. I was “I’m a good dancer!” drunk all that night but somehow still self-conscious of my thighs busting out of their sweaty, denim prisons. I couldn’t stand to look at the shorts the next morning. I kicked them far under the bed and resigned myself to sundresses and skirts when it was too hot for pants.

But under those skirts and dresses, my right knee slipped away on me.

I first noticed something was up with it, or I should say down with it, when I was 24. I worked at a department store, a cult of customer service where, as part of the thrice-daily clock punching ritual, I had to walk down a narrow hallway with a full-length mirror at the opposite end. One day, I noticed my nylons bagging above my right knee. I reached down to pull them up and realized that the problem was not my nylons. I skulked to the time clock, hoping no one had seen but my mirror-self. I started working out furiously. Every day. But the dimple deepened.

The left knee followed the right one’s saggy suit.

They both disappeared under increasingly longer skirts or all concealing pants, heat rash on my chub-rub be damned. I was jump-for-joy happy when Capri pants came back in fashion in 2000 and happier still when they stayed.

But now my upper arms are disappearing. Even though I run and bike and lift weights, I’m starting to get pooches where I used to have triceps. In a few years, you watch out now, I’ll be swinging serious pendulums just like grandma and mom.

Soon, the only parts of my body that will see daylight will be: my head, wrists, hands, calves and feet. These are the only body parts devout Mormon women, because of their undershirt-and-boxer-short-like temple garments, can expose to the world. In my teens and early twenties, I felt as sorry for my fashion-deprived Mormon relatives as I once felt for poor fat-deprived Jack Sprat. I used to feel so smug for having escaped their confinement and now I share it, for reasons that are theologically different but sociologically the same. The imperfect female body must be concealed.

Like my father, who made a few random reappearances in my post-divorce life before he died relatively young, those body parts that have come apart from the way I want to be seen are gone. It’s no hyperbole to say I mourn them like I mourn him. What they are now might reappear briefly before I cover them in shame, but what they once were is gone.

A middle-aged woman in the Western world, I am well trained to fetishize Youth after decades of indoctrination in its cult.I do it and I hate myself for it. I hate myself for it but I can’t stop. I still stare at young women, knockers and all. But it’s not their taut, smooth, voluptuous bodies I really want, though they are wantable. I hunger to inhabit my own young body with the same fervor I used to hunger to trade it for another, more perfect one.

I want to go back in time and kneel before my young self and beg her to forgive me. Killing time in the grocery line, I can at least laugh at the big bad wolves who tell me to “love” my body, when I have gorged them on it for years.