Stephanie Klein’s memoir Moose is a compilation of the year she spent going to fat camp, a time which eventually led to her working as a counselor there. The book opens with her standing on a scale in the OBGYN office. Although she is pregnant with twins, Klein doesn’t want to gain weight, so she is surprised as the nurse makes clear the harm she could do to her unborn children if she continues to diet while pregnant. “Fifty pounds,” the nurse says. Klein has to gain fifty pounds for the sake of her children, and to eat whether she’s hungry or not. Panic sets in.
This is when we jump back to Klein’s childhood. Her mother, the chronic dieter who is already thin but vocally hates her body. The father, who eats “meals for a man” rather than the diet foods his wife and two daughters eat at dinner, who reminds his daughter she is fat and makes fun of her. The little sister, who is physically active and not considered fat, but sent to fat camp with Klein so they aren’t separated and then develops disordered eating. The boy at school who calls “Moose” down the halls at Klein. The group therapy diet meetings that start in elementary school.
In her introduction, Klein is clear:
Moose isn’t a book about accepting yourself as you are, embracing life as a fat girl. It’s not pro-fat, peppered with tips for learning to love your cellulite. It’s not about overcoming eating disorders.
Although I chose this book in the hopes that it was exactly what Klein straight-away said it is not, I kept reading, hoping to understand the mindset of someone who hates fat people because she hates herself — both when she’s fat and underfed. Moose definitely will not go on my recommendation list for reading compassionate portrayals of fat women; however, I’m still glad I read it.
For instance, Klein can write the truths about dieting, even though she can’t apply them to herself. At a fat camp called Yanisin, she notes that the same campers return yearly, always fatter than the previous summer. Camp life is so regimented and routine that it can’t be replicated in real life. Counselors guard food stores and go through campers belongings looking for contraband. If you’ve seen the classic film Heavyweights and then read Moose, you will definitely see parallels.
She also speaks the truth about prejudice, even among fat kids at fat camp. At Yanisin there exists a hierarchy: small-fat and medium-fat kids hate the very-fat, for example. One boy, who is fat enough that the counselors weigh him at the local truck stop instead of camp scales, is in foster care. Rather than feeling compassion for him, Klein writes that she didn’t believe he deserved a family because he was too fat and couldn’t be loved. As hard as that is to read, it emphasizes the insidious nature of hating fat people.
And even though Yanisin proclaims that it’s helping children learn healthy habits and competency in skilled sports (rather than running constantly for basketball, they gain confidence in their dribbling and shooting skills), it’s a place that creates eating disorders. There, Klein learns about binging and purging, then proceeds to teach her fellow campers. Diet tricks are repeated like the Ten Commandments, although they always begin, “I read somewhere that if you. . .” and have no basis in actual nutrition or science. Klein goes so far with random diet tricks when she’s a counselor to a group of eight-year-old girls at Yanisin that her division leader has to tell Klein to stop.
All of this is to say that I appreciate how Stephanie Klein doesn’t pave a smooth road for readers who want some lesson at the end. She’s honest in her acknowledgement that her thinking is utterly messed up, despite evidence that she’s harming herself, other children, and her unborn babies. Disordered eating is a disease that requires therapy and kindness, and it doesn’t seem in Moose that Klein has experienced either (the diet therapist doesn’t count). She even hires a doctor (who operates out of a house??) whom she literally pays to tell her what a piece of garbage, reminding her she has “a ways to go” at size four. The hatred and abuse is hard to read, but the more the memoir went on, the more I understood how hated of fat people proliferates. How it spreads so easily, even among fat people.
A shining star does exist, though, and it’s not in Klein. The author’s fat camp best friend and bunkmate, is Kate, who sees through Yanisin, finds ways to work the system, and is full of the weirdest, funniest quips I’ve read in a memoir, like “Now get ready, darlin’; you’re about to be fat-flocked quicker than two jiggles of a jackrabbit’s balls.” Who is this lovely, weird tween?? She’s the one who tells Klein, “I’m not here [at Yanisin] to be saved, either. Shit, I was born fat. . . . My whole family is fat, and as much as I diet, I always come back to this.” Klein, unfortunately, takes Kate’s speech as resignation to being miserable. But Kate isn’t miserable. She’s a hoot, and I would love to have had a friend like her when I was thirteen.
Moose interweaves fat camp (click for image of author at camp), public school, flashbacks of traumatic family moments, and Klein’s future as a mother in a successful effort to show how the author became the weight-obsessed person she is. It’s worth the read to gain understanding, though it can be upsetting for the humiliation, violence, and disordered eating this memoir contains.