When I was 13, I saved up my own money for a year and begged my parents to let me go to a weight-loss camp in the Poconos. I had been unhappy with my body since I was old enough to know that was possible and was determined to make a major change.
I did my research and picked the camp that billed itself as "different" and "more fun" than other fat camps—it had even been featured in a documentary on MTV! I was convinced that it was going to be a great experience. After all, from everything I'd seen online, camp was going to be full of equally motivated people who were excited about the opportunity to get a handle on their weight, surrounded by counselors and experts passionate about helping us on our journey.
Of course, this was not the case—and anyone thinking similarly about these camps for themselves or their children should keep in mind what I learned (and wish I'd known before shelling out a year's worth of my babysitting cash). Granted, not all camps are run the same way, but I've heard and read enough about other people's experiences to know that mine was hardly unusual. So if you are considering a weight loss camp, be aware that at least some of them are run this way…
Kids are rarely at a 'fat camp' because they want to be there.
My trip to camp was completely self-driven, but I was the glaring exception. Most of the kids were sent there against their will by their very ashamed, very wealthy parents. Almost every girl in my cabin had a story about something wretched that a family member had said to her about how her size was reflecting poorly on the family. The overwhelming sentiment was that kids at the camp need to be "fixed" rather than "helped" or "supported."
It's much more like a boot camp than a summer camp.
Our daily schedules were obviously loaded with physical activities (aerobics every morning, followed by three or four other stations that varied by day), but more than that, the rules and rule enforcement were strict and degrading. We were not allowed to use our cellphones, our bags were searched upon arrival, and every package we received from home was opened in front of us and searched for contraband food—to the extent that when my mother sent me a bag of pads, they made me open it up and take one out to prove that they weren't really candy in disguise.
Campers were constantly treated as though they couldn't be trusted to make any fitness or health decisions themselves. Sneaking food or seeking comfort in a phone call or text home was framed as an intentional disrespect for and violation of camp rules—instead of being seen as a cry for help or a symptom of an underlying issue that deserved attention.
People of different weights do get treated differently.
The camp I attended had campers of all ages from seven (yes, seven!) to 17. On the first day, we were weighed and measured in order to track our progress throughout our time at camp. We were also told what amount of pounds lost would get us on "maintenance," which was a term for campers who were no longer required to try to lose weight. They were given, I'm not kidding, a special wristband that allowed them to go back for seconds and thirds of meals and snacks.
Almost every girl in my cabin had a story about something wretched that a family member had said to her about how her size was reflecting poorly on the family.
In this way, our weight was used both as a marker of shame and a ticket to acceptance. There was no concern for campers' confidence in their bodies, no discussion of how different bodies respond to different health strategies, and no personalized focus on individual needs or goals. Weighing less was simply good, and weighing more was bad.
The food is not good, and everyone is hungry all the time.
The camp I went to served food five times a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks. Seconds were not allowed unless you were on maintenance, and if you didn't like what was offered, you could ask for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (One time, I requested any jelly flavor other than apple, and the lady specifically handed me apple jelly and said, "You get what you're given.")
Once campers were finished with their meals, they would walk around asking people if they were going to eat the rest of their food. People on maintenance were offered all kinds of bribes to go back and get seconds to share with those without wristbands, and anyone who mentioned their hunger to a staff member was told to "go eat a salad." The salad bar was iceberg lettuce and a variety of artificially flavored fat-free dressings.
There was no effort to change the dialogue around meal time or eating choices, and no attempt to build healthy habits or treat this change with compassion. There was nothing happy or triumphant about eating good, healthy food—you just "get what you're given."
Gender differences become very apparent very quickly.
When I arrived for my three-week session, some campers had already been there for an entire month. At the end-of-week meeting for the whole camp, they inducted the first four boys into the "50 lbs. lost club." There were a select few girls who had lost 20 lbs., but if I remember correctly, there was no such distinction for them.
Male- and female-bodied people lose weight at different rates and in different ways. Though sex differences were addressed in other ways at camp—kids bunked separately according to their gender and did virtually all physical activity separately—there was never any discussion of how biological sex influenced weight loss and fitness. Losing more weight in more places was better, full stop.
Weight is often a symptom of larger issues.
We attended a group therapy session every week called "Be Your Best." I heard about abusive home situations, parents' boyfriends getting out of jail, sudden family deaths, and numerous other traumas that went far beyond being called mean names at school. For many of the kids at these camps, weight problems are exacerbated or even caused by underlying situations at home that are certainly not going to be remedied with two weeks' worth of restricted caloric intake and daily aerobics classes.
The day-to-day counselors are not trained or equipped to deal with the psychological states of the campers.
Perhaps one of the most jarring parts of my experience was how much everyone in a position of authority tried to act like we were all just at regular camp 95 percent of the time. The counselors were teenagers and early 20-somethings with little-to-no experience working with young people dealing with the fallout from weight issues. Many campers were depressed or had eating disorders, and there are few places more dangerous for a young person's mental health than a cabin full of hungry, embarrassed, and insecure 13-year-olds. But the counselors served mainly as rule enforcers without any real idea of how to serve as support systems.
Our weight was used both as a marker of shame and a ticket to acceptance.
Plus, the counselors were also getting weighed in on a weekly basis and those who gained weight were at actual risk of being terminated. So not only were they responsible for the well-being of a cabin full of weight-conscious kids going through a difficult, humiliating time, they were teens handling their own image issues at the same time!
Weight-loss camps cost a lot of money, and though they do certainly yield results, in many cases, the changes are temporary ones. The concept of introducing young people to the benefits of a healthy lifestyle in a fun, safe environment is admirable, but the execution doesn't exactly live up to this ideal.
In my experience, weight-loss camp does little more than reinforce that the body is something to battle into submission and that fatness is a disease to be eradicated at all costs—rather than treat a person's weight as an element of their life that deserves to be treated with dignity and compassion.
Taylor Kay Phillips is a writer and comedian living in New York City. She recently tried both seltzer and everything bagels for the first time and is kind of dealing with that right now. Read more of her writing at taylorkayphillips.com and follow her on twitter at @taykayphillips.