Karen Carpenter was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to Agnes Reuwer Tatum and Harold Bertram Carpenter. When she was young, she enjoyed playing baseball with other children on the street. On the TV program This Is Your Life, she stated that she liked pitching. In the early 1970s, she became the pitcher on the Carpenters' official softball team. Karen's brother, Richard, developed an interest in music at an early age, becoming a piano prodigy. Karen showed less interest in music as a young child. The family moved in June 1963 to the Los Angeles suburb of Downey.
When Karen entered Downey High School, she joined the school band. The conductor (who had previously taught her older brother) gave her the glockenspiel, an instrument she disliked. After admiring the performance of her friend Frankie Chavez, she asked if she could play the drums instead. She and her brother made their first recordings in 1965 and 1966. The following year Karen began dieting. Under a doctor's guidance she went on the Stillman Diet. She rigorously ate lean foods, drank eight glasses of water a day, and avoided fatty foods. Karen was 5'4" (163 cm) in height and before dieting weighed 145 pounds (66 kg). By September 1975, her weight was 91 pounds (41 kg).
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