One of my favorite podcasts, Maintenance Phase, recently announced that it's releasing an episode all about Fat Camp. My mind flooded with memories and conflicted feelings from absolute rage to utmost thankfulness about my four years spent at Fat Camp. It's very Jekyll & Hyde all up in my mind right now, to be honest. Before the episode comes out (Tuesday, January 4th) I wanted to attempt to get my thoughts out without influence. Like so much of life, we can have memories of events being amazing, but time and hindsight reveal super problematic elements. On one hand, Fat Camp is a horrible premise that created and/or reinforced disordered habits and supercharged the belief that weight is worth among still growing and developing kids. And also, the experience I had was extremely formative in helping me come out of my shell, be exposed to new people and things, and is a time I look back on mainly with fondness. Both things are true, and I'd like to share my personal experience.
When someone learns that I've been to Fat Camp, I usually hear one of three responses:
- “Wait, that's an actual thing?”
- “Oh my God, that's awful!” – usually someone who wasn't criticized for their weight as a child
- “I wanted to go so bad!” – girls who saw the same ads that I did at the end of Seventeen Magazine
For the uninitiated, they weren't actually called “Fat Camps,” but they were sleep-away camps with the intention of weight loss for kids and teens. There was a restricted diet, mandatory exercise, weigh-ins, and body measurements. There were also before-and-after mugshots. Some people went unwillingly – parents who sent their kids away to get slim; and others like myself begged to go. In the 1990's, we were already deep into multiple fad diets, Oprah weight loss hysteria, and the discovery of Frankenfoods like Olestra potato chips and Snackwell cookies. For many of us campers, we had a lifetime to learn about how unacceptable our bodies were to society, so it sounded like a great idea to go somewhere away from home where we could have fun and take care of our “problem.” These camps aren't as prevalent today, but there are many things that operate under the wellness umbrella, which is really a veiled way of saying weight loss. Wellness retreats, detox centers, health spas, etc.
I started this blog nearly 13 years ago as a space to publicly share a weight loss journey. Several years ago, I let go of that and have worked hard to unlearn diet culture, weight-based shame, and advocate for health at every size (HAES), fat liberation, size acceptance, and joyful movement. It's a hell of a lot to unlearn as a now 40-year-old, but I do my best and hope others respect that as much as they respected my efforts to shrink my body. I share this background because back in the early days of the blog, I wrote several pieces about my years at Fat Camp. They were mainly intended to be funny stories that looked upon my awkward teen days with fondness and to share a rare experience so many find fascinating. It's not my finest wordsmithing and there are some potentially triggering quips around food/weight, but I shared having a guy's hand get stuck in my bra after feeling me up, my escapades as Britney Spears and 1/5 of *NSYNC at the talent shows, sneaking out with an older boy (part 1 and part 2), and raiding the vending machines (funny how that happens when you're severely food-restricted). I kept things very surface-level and I want to expand more in anticipation of this podcast episode. I have such mixed emotions. On one hand, it was diet culture, weight shame grossness to the max. On the other, it was a place where I truly felt like I came out of my shell and was exposed to people and experiences that changed my life for the better. As much as I'd like to lay the gavel down firmly on good or bad, both are true.
How I ended up at Fat Camp
The gateway to all Fat Camps in the 1990s seemed to be the same: Teen magazines. At the end of the magazines would be these small black and white classified-style ads, boasting about weight loss and fun. After devouring dozens of glossy pages promoting thin=beautiful through images and advice on “how to get the guy,” we were all primed and ready for these ads by the time we hit that section.
I had been acutely aware of my size since I was 5, having been my mom's sidekick to all types of exercise and diets from Mousercize to cabbage soup to Susan Powter's “Stop The Insanity.” I don't ever remember a time when my body wasn't under scrutiny. It's no wonder that as I hit my early teens, the discomfort in my own skin was at an all-time high. I was extremely moody and suicidal, and seeing an ad for a Fat Camp in California truly made me feel like there was a solution that would work. My family dynamics/home environment weren't the best, and Fat Camp was my ticket to 1) escaping to the other side of the country; 2) losing weight; 3) finally being happy; 4) living in f'ing CALIFORNIA – a dream for a teenager in Kentucky.
My mom would give anything to be thin herself, and my dad would apparently give anything for me to be thin – he'd once promised me a convertible and offered to pay for weight loss surgery at 17. We were comfortable, but absolutely not rolling with that kind of disposable income, so it goes to show the depths of how much he hated my fatness. They agreed to send me from Kentucky to southern California for 7-9 weeks during the summer. I went every year from 1996-1999 (the summer before I started college.) The summer of 1999, I was on staff as a counselor. Back then, it seemed like a loving thing to do: send your fat, suffering child away to get help. I begged for it and they obliged. I felt like I'd won the lottery. My mom frequently mentioned that she wanted to come with me (they had an adult program as well) and it was again a reinforcement about how her body was bad and also needed to be fixed. It wasn't Fat Camp that plunged me into feeling horrible about my body – I'd had that drilled into me for years.
About My Fat Camp: Camp La Jolla
Fat Camps, like any other type of camp, run the gamut of locations, amenities, cost, niches, etc. I've not seen the film “Heavyweights,” of which many people share as their only experience with Fat Camp, so I can't compare it. I have seen MTV's True Life: I'm Going to Fat Camp, which truly looked dystopian compared to the camp I lived at for four summers. Cabins and woods and mosquitos? No thank you.
Camp La Jolla was billed as “The ultimate summer! A fitness and weight loss vacation at the beach in La Jolla, California!” The sales brochure they send has “FUN” written dozens of time – always in capital letters. In its “Method to Success” section (which could have desperately used a copy editor), they declare:
You will become someone who is much slimmer, more active in sports and activities, and you will have greater confidence in making friends. This summer, you will have the time of your life, losing weight, being outdoors in your fun activity classes, learning about nutrition and discover proper eating habits. The time will soar by as you see yourself losing weight, developing self esteem and pride in achieving your main goal, a happer more fit, slimmer you!
The materials also included a story about a girl who wrote to Oprah talking about how miserable she was being fat. Oprah featured her on the show and then sent her to Camp La Jolla. The Oprah stamp of approval was everything, and they played it up repeatedly.
I'd share more from the brochure, but I read it and screamed “this is the biggest bunch of bullshit ever!” at all of the slim down, get thin messaging, peppered with promises of improved self-esteem for good measure.
So instead, I'll share how I remember camp:
- Camp La Jolla was located on the campus of the Unviersity of California San Diego, in La Jolla, CA. We lived in the dorms and used their common areas, a restaurant for our use only, the RIMAC center (where the San Diego Chargers also trained… sometimes at the same time as us! I smiled at Junior Seau (RIP) once and he didn't react with disdain, so there's that), track & field, and some classrooms. We also occasionally used their indoor pool facilities, and some tennis courts. It was, by all accounts, luxe accomodations.
- Being located in Southern California, we had regular field trips outside of camp. We went to Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Knotts Berry Farm, Catalina Island, San Diego Padres games, and more. This is on top of some of our regular classes that took place at La Jolla Shores – a beautiful beach just down the road.
- The camp was multiple age ranges and co-ed. Most of the campers were teenage girls, but there were a decent amount of pre-teen girls and also teen boys. There was a separate program for adults, but we didn't interact.
- Campers came from all over the world. There were kids of dignitaries and celebrities. And a lot of people just like me from around the country, looking for a fix. It was unlike any mix of people I'd ever meet at home.
- The diet was 1,200 calories per day for girls. I believe it may have been 1,500 for guys. We all took turns serving food at meals to understand what their prescribed serving sizes were.
- The exercise consisted of a morning walk/jog at the track (1 mile, I believe); plus 3-4 classes of your choosing per day. These included things like step aerobics, kickboxing, tennis, basketball, boogey boarding, snorkling, dance, butts & guts, firm-n-tone, volleyball, soccer, weight training, etc. All-in-all, around 4-5 hours of movement each weekday.
- There was also a behavior modification compontent, which was like group therapy. It covered some emotional aspects, but also nutrition. Very focused around finding self esteem and discipline to be able to keep up these new camp “habits” at home with the goal of being slim and trim.
- We had weekly weigh ins and measurements taken, as well as before and after photos from front, side, and back. (like mugshots)
- It was very, very expensive. Around $1,000 per week, plus airfare (I used my dad's frequent flyer miles), field trip money, laundry money, petty cash. I didn't really have a college fund by the time I went, so I'm guessing that's where it all went!
- At the end of the summer, we went on shopping trips and got haircuts so we could reveal our “new-and-improved” slimmer selves to the parents.
The Bad about Fat Camp
The entire premise of the camp was that our bodies weren't ideal and if we just worked hard enough we could get there. I hope that if you're here, you don't need an explanation as to why that's extremely harmful. It is diet culture at its worst: profiting off the insecurities of children and their parents, reinforcing that thinness equals worthiness, health, and happiness.
Other negatives (remember, this is my personal experience and won't be the same for every camper)
- Unsustainable methods of weight loss and potential issues with permenant metabolic damage. What child can maintain 1,200 calories a day and exercising 4+ hours at home? It's giving me Biggest Loser vibes, and we know how harmful that was for their bodies.
- Pre-camp, I'd already become accustomed to extreme diets and started engaging in behaviors (like sneaking food, hiding wrappers, etc) that eventually led to full blown Binge Eating Disorder (BED) in adulthood. Being in such a restricted food environment every summer in my teen years definitlely contributed to my food issues.
- I couldn't eat beets for years after camp because I ate so many there. Along with our 1,200 calories a day, we were “allowed” to eat veggies off the salad bar. The salad dressing was pre-portioned and you couldn't get more, but veggies were a “free” food. I started off heavy on the cucumbers, then transitioned to baby corn, and finally found my match with beets. I would get a bowl full of beets and enjoy with pink-stained teeth and purple tongue. My body wanted the sugar, and got it by way of bowls full of beets. Every time, I felt like I was cheating the system. I found a loophole for sugar, bitches! Yikes.
- Regular weigh ins and measurements were constant reminders that you were there to do a job: lose weight. I felt immense guilt when the scale wasn't moving as much as my parents wanted it to. I remember thinking, “I need to get them their money's worth of progress as a thank you for sending me here.” All the yuck for a 16 year old kid.
- After a summer of constantly moving, I decided that I had to keep that up in order to be successful. Even though I was already an athlete (swimming and tennis), I decided that wasn't working hard enough. I added in 5:30am workouts and went back to the gym after school. No 16-17 year old should be doing 2-a-days along with sports practice. I finally chilled out after I passed out in an early morning aerobics class. I've been working to heal my relationship with movement ever since. I'm 40, and just this past year finally feel like I've been able to divorce movement from punishment.
The Good that came from Fat Camp
When reading this, please don't think of this as an “in defense of fat camp” narrative because obviously, the premise of fat camp is super problematic. That being said, some of my best memories are from my time in La Jolla.
Many of my friends at home in Kentucky didn't know what kind of camp I went to every summer. Removing the “Fat” part of camp can give some insight into why it was a positive experience. I spent nearly every summer of high school in sunny La Jolla, living in dorms with a bunch of other cool people. I got to go to the beach multiple times a week, and had regular trips to Disneyland, Sea World, the Zoo, Knots Berry Farm, and other really fun places. I met people from across the country and the world. We had funny talent shows and dances and I learned how to use a coin laundry machine (don't ask me why but I thought it was SO grown-up of us, and we had the most fun just hanging out at the laundry facilities). Camp was a place of crushes, first kisses, talent shows (“talent” used loosely), and other randomness like seeing Tim Robbins in a vintage convertible at a stoplight while I waited at a crosswalk.
Things at home weren't great, so escaping every summer was like the ultimate vacation. Instead of constant fighting and watching my mom get sicker (this was right after her diagnosis of young-onset Parkinson's disease), I was blissfully unaware as a super cool Cali kid. To this day, I still feel bad that my younger sister had to stay in a toxic home environment without me.
Seeing as every kid there was sent to lose weight, we were all in the same boat. We all lived in bodies that were deemed to be “too big” at home, but “normal” at camp. It was a great equalizer. Around camp friends, I didn't have to suck in my stomach, worry about my thighs out in shorts, or be self-conscious in a bathing suit. It felt like a safe space to grow and develop and come out of my shell. I learned to interact with so many different people and how to navigate in spaces as a little adult – I still can't believe my parents threw me on an airplane at 15 to fly across the country somewhere they'd never been! We only talked by landline (I'm old, friends! This was pre-cell phone days) every week or so to check in, and also exchanged letters. Some of my favorite belongings are stacks of letters I had from camp pen pals and friends from home who wrote me letters of the summer's happenings while I was away.
Spending summers in California by myself wouldn't have been possible without Fat Camp. So for ALL of the messed up things it was built on, I truly feel like I am who I am today because of the interactions and experiences I had while I was there. I already had the body image baggage before going, but I didn't have the exciting experiences or exposure to new places and people.
Words to my younger self
Looking through my body mugshots last night, I felt so many things. I've been in therapy a long time and have done a fair amount of inner child work. The inner child I usually focus on is younger than when I went to camp, but when I saw these photos I knew I wanted to share a few words with her as a 40-year-old woman.
I love you! You are kind, caring, helpful, and thoughtful. You are polite, responsible, and I know you always try your best – these are all amazing things and you should be proud of who you are becoming. You are going to create a wonderful life for yourself. It's not always going to be perfect, but you will persevere and do things you can't even imagine yet.
I am so sorry that you have been taught that your body is flawed in any way. It's cruel and unfair and absolutely a lie. Unfortunately, many people in the world profit from making you believe that you need to do something to conform to a standard that is arbitrarily decided. Your body is worthy exactly as it is, and you can do incredible things with it. It doesn't have to be small to be good. You are naturally strong and athletic. You are a strong swimmer and are getting so good at your flip turns! Your tall height is a gift and you'll be happy about it one day. When others make fun of you, they're doing so from their own insecurities and unhappiness. Defend yourself, or simply let it roll off your back, but never accept it as truth.
No matter what anyone says, eat when you're hungry. Don't eat food in secret – enjoy it with others. I know that doesn't feel safe or possible right now given your environment, but when you are able to make choices for yourself, do so. Nothing is off-limits, and you can get it whenever you'd like. Doing this as soon as possible will help you learn to listen to your body, which you've never been able to do before. You don't have to earn your food by doing anything before or after. Trust yourself.
Also, I hope that you will learn how powerful it is to move your body in ways that make you feel good, and not ways that are written down by someone else on paper. I know you hate running, so don't run! You love dancing, so dance! Do it for as long as you'd like, when you feel like it. I know it sounds so basic and unstructured (I know how uncomfortable that makes you!), and that's exactly what it is. Enjoy the freedom and ability to move your body in ways that feel good – how lucky are we to get to do that?!
Throw away the scale. You know how you stand on it and it completely changes how you feel about yourself? That's ridiculous! A number on a scale or in a pair of pants can't tell you anything about who you are as a person, but for some reason, we let it dictate our worth. It's taken me a long time to learn this and it's still something I face from time to time, but it's freeing.
I know so much of your life is dictated by how others want you to measure up. There are some people in your life that you'll never please and I wish so much for you to ignore them. Other people's unrealistic expectations are not a reflection of the reality of how great you are. You have the time and space to become whoever YOU decide to be – don't waste any of it on trying to conform to anyone else. I'm sorry there aren't enough people right now that are lifting you up – it's not fair and it's not because of who you are or anything you did. They may simply not have the capacity to lift. You'll eventually find the right people in your life who will gladly lend you their hand when you need it – it just might not be family. In the meantime, you're going to have to lift yourself. You can do it!
Emily, my biggest wish for you is that you learn to take up space. I know it feels so much more comfortable to be quiet and to make yourself as small as possible. This was something taught to you from early on, but it won't serve you. Enter rooms knowing that you are meant to be there. Speak your mind and don't hold back on sharing if there's something important to you. Wear what you want to wear because you love it, not because it fits into a checklist of “rules” someone made up. If anyone makes you feel less-than, know that you have a choice in how to respond and stand up for yourself. Be unafraid to take chances on things you really want to pursue. Don't deny the world the wonderful person that you are and what you can contribute.
Growing up isn't going to be easy, but I promise your future is bright. You're going to surprise yourself, but you won't surprise me. I know you got this!
All my love,
The Maintenance Phase episode on Fat Camp is out now, wherever you get your podcasts. I'm off to listen!
If you've made it this far, thank you for letting me share this piece of myself.