Starting at age 13 Stephanie Klein went to three different fat camps over five summers. In "Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp" (William Morrow) she writes about how she lost 30 pounds over one of those summers (among other things). It's hard to imagine that the sexy author of the memoir "Straight Up and Dirty"—the tale of her jump into single life after her first marriage ended in divorce—was ever overweight. But she was—emphasis on the past tense. The happily married mother of 15-month-old twins now carries 135 pounds on her five-foot-five frame. And with help from her husband, a naturally thin hedge fund manager, she's gearing up for a book tour for "Moose" (the title came from her childhood nickname). She talks with NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen about how parents can help chubby kids and the upcoming TV series based on her first memoir. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Is it true that all your "Moose" book tour stops will feature free chocolate?
Stephanie Klein: Yes! What kind of fat camp party would it be without a little junk food?
What was the most surprising thing about fat camp?
They weighed us on meat scales. The kids who were too heavy got weighed on a truck scale at the truck stop.
That must have been humiliating.
Humiliating. It's unbelievable to me, even to this day. They had barbed wire all around camp to keep us in so we didn't sneak out at night to go find food elsewhere. One parent sent menus from local restaurants nearby. Because we were so deprived, we would at night read the menu items out loud and imagine how they tasted. There were lots of humiliating experiences, but fun experiences too. For the first time in your life the opposite sex is paying attention to you. That's an aspect that people don't necessarily think about. Everyone is all of the sudden getting some boyfriends and girlfriends.
Your family was thin, right?
Yeah. More or less. My father had ups and downs. I did not have obese parents by any means.
How do you think you became an overweight child?
A lot of it was genetics, because my mother's family was overweight, even though she wasn't. I also think it was poor eating habits. I was kind of a book nerd. I was very good in academics. I'd come home, want to study and eat three bowls of cereal. Even though my mom didn't overall keep a lot of junk in the house, there's something called portion control. I had none.
You had a thin mother and a critical father. Did they make you want to eat more, not less, when they talked about weight?
I don't know. It's hard. My father would puff out his cheeks at the dinner table. Sometimes I'd just eat to spite him. I probably also ate in secrecy because I wasn't free to eat in front of them, in front of my father because he'd be critical. I'd find other ways to get food. I'd have it at school, in the cafeteria, when my parents weren't around. Again, that goes back to denial-denying me foods, I had to find a way to get them, so I'd cram them in after school, when they'd sell at some bake sale or whatever. That's what kids do if they know that's the only way they can get it.
When you were a kid, your legs' chafing together caused red itchy bumps that your mom called "chub rub," and boys at school called you "Moose." Was the name-calling the worst part about being overweight?
Yeah, that was the hardest part, was all the cruelty. It wasn't just name-calling. We'd play spin the bottle, and if the bottle landed on me, the guy would ask for a do-over. There you are trying so hard to fit in as an adolescent. Back then they didn't have stores where they had fashionable plus-size clothes. I'd have to wear clothes that were not cool and hip.
Were there positives to being overweight?
You have been chastised. It gives you empathy. But also, I'm not perfect. I'm human. But overall, whenever I see anyone being made fun of or given a hard time, I rush to their defense. I want to help them because I know how it feels.
You've said you're fed up with what you call "fatnalysis." Why?
People can analyze it to death. People can say you're fat because you're filling a void, or you eat for all these emotional reasons. I said I don't need to focus on this anymore. It doesn't matter why I'm fat. Let's fix it. I don't think fixing it involves searching into my past and analyzing every last reason why I like cheese. It's much more important for me to focus on my daily habits and what can I do to possibly change certain habits and give myself tools to get through whatever I have to get through. Especially as a child, you don't need to hear about it all the time. Focus on developing talents.
Would you recommend a fat camp to parents whose kids are overweight?
It depends. It should definitely be something the child wants to do. It also depends what kind of camp it is. Today the camps are quite different. I think they try to prepare the kids much better for once they leave camp, equipping them with skills instead of just sweating them and starving them. They give them journals, so they're in the habit of writing down what they eat ... They have a lot more control, as opposed to being told, "This is all you're allowed to eat." They're giving them choices.
What is the best way for parents to help an overweight child?
For starters, be a very good role model and don't just talk the talk. Don't keep [junk food] in the house. Be active with your child. Show them that you're in it together. It's the whole family that's getting involved, even the thin people in the family. You have to remember it's a health issue; it's not an aesthetic issue. I'd hate it when my own mother would say, "I'm not going to deprive your father and your sister of sweets just because you're heavy." If my children come to me and want tons of sweets, I'm going to say, "We all get one, out of fairness, and that's enough." It's about not rewarding your children with food, not always celebrating with food. I do think it's important to find other ways to comfort our children and ourselves, to work other ways of celebrating and rewarding.
How do you feel about your weight now?
I could stand to lose 10 or 15 pounds, but honestly, I'm happy the way I am. I feel comfortable with it. I'd rather have that extra 10, 15 pounds on me than live a lifestyle of trying to sustain this unattainable weight.
What's your next project?
I'm working on two books. One is young adult fiction and one is women's fiction. I don't want to say too much.
Your first memoir, "Straight Up and Dirty," is in development as a half-hour comedy series. When will it air, and who would you like to star as you?
I have no idea when it will air. I want it to be sort of a young Bette Midler type. Someone with lots of personality who tells it like it is.