Written by Chelsea Kronengold for TeenVogue.com
Close your eyes and imagine being in a place where you feel completely and utterly free to be yourself. You are surrounded by people who not only understand and accept you, but are embarking on a life-changing journey alongside you. Now open your eyes; you have arrived at a summer of fat camp. Yes, you heard me… Fat camp! When people hear the term fat camp, they imagine a fictional place created by Hollywood where “lunch is canceled due to lack of hustle.” However, I live to tell you that these camps actually exist, and I have had the privilege of attending fat camp — formally known as weight loss camp — as a camper, counselor, and group leader for the last decade.
I wasn’t always this enthusiastic about fat camp. I vividly remember coming home after school one day in 8th grade to find, much to my dismay, a brochure for weight-loss camp on my bed. There was something unsettling about spending the summer before high school trapped in an un-air-conditioned cabin with a dozen strangers, forced to follow a strict diet plan and exercise regimen. Little did I know that this lack of air-conditioning would build character, the workouts would positively shape my body image, and these so-called strangers would quickly turn into family.
A typical day at fat camp consists of active (e.g., sports and fitness) and leisure (e.g., arts & crafts and nutrition) classes, rest hour and shower hour, evening activity, and free play. Aside from the one or two daily scheduled workouts — Zumba, weight-lifting, boot camp, or yoga — and pre-portioned meals, weight-loss camp operates like a traditional summer camp with the added bonus of a built-in health and fitness plan.
Given that everyone is at camp for the same reason, sharing similar goals and motivations, fat camp is a place where we encourage and empower one another to be the best we can be. This encouragement and support goes beyond one’s weight and appearance; the emphasis is on building confidence and a sense of self-worth. I felt comfortable doing things at camp that I would never think of trying in the real world — like wearing a crop top or running a 5K. At 21 years old, I walked around camp wearing tutus and fanny packs just because, and I knew that nobody would judge me for it.
Some people find the term fat camp offensive and would rather it be called weight loss or diet camp. However, just like the body-positive movement encourages individuals to reclaim the word fat, by referring to it as fat camp, I aim to shift the perspective away from a secretive or shameful experience, to something I am proud of and want to share with the world. My summers at fat camp taught me a lot about myself: my passions, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses. While the weight loss was inevitable, the tenacity and self-awareness I gained was far superior. Through leadership roles, like Color War general, I learned that my voice was worthy of being heard and that I had the power within me to lead a team and make a difference. Moreover, camp kickstarted my understanding (and resentment) of our culture’s unrealistic beauty and weight standards, which cultivated in me the desire to pursue a career in the body image and eating disorders field. Today, I work at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) coordinating a prevention program called the Body Project, which teaches young girls how to confront unrealistic beauty ideals and engages them in the development of healthy body image. My experience at fat camp influences my work at NEDA, and my work at NEDA has an impact on the body-positive messaging I relay to my campers.
While I stand by my word that fat camp was one of the greatest experiences of my life, in hindsight, it was one of many factors that perpetuated my own eating disorder. After camp ended each summer, I put a lot of pressure on myself to keep the weight off, sometimes restricting and obsessively calorie counting. As the following summer approached, I would fall back on camp as a crutch, or excuse, for my binges and weight gain, knowing that I had 9 weeks ahead of me to lose weight and get “healthy” again.
I am not saying that fat camp caused my eating disorder, but it is important to consider how any rigorous diet plan, which places a great deal of emphasis on one’s body and appearance, can be a trigger. Moreover, this chronic yo-yo dieting that I, and many of my camp friends, underwent is both physically and psychologically harmful. Rather than focusing on the number on the scale, the goal of fat camp (or any diet/fitness program) should be to garner the knowledge and skills to implement a healthy lifestyle that is both balanced and sustainable.
Truth be told, I wish there wasn’t a need for weight loss camp. I wish we lived in a culture that viewed body size as marginally as eye color, rather than a defining feature of one’s identity. While we have made strides toward body acceptance with an increase of body diversity in the media, our society still has a long way to go. The fact of the matter is, for better or worst, fat camps exist, and despite my wish for a culture that embraces the Health at Every Size movement, I am proud to have spent my summers in what I like to call the “fat camp bubble.” I would not trade the friends, memories, and lessons I learned at camp for the world. I believe that we are a product of our experiences, and my summers at fat camp have truly shaped me into the person that I am today.
The Camp Shane Team