Fat camp, or weight-loss camp, is a unique summertime experience that many plus-size people have in common. The tantalizing dream of returning to school a new person after spending a summer adopting a new lifestyle full of workouts and weigh-ins is enough to keep these kinds of programs in business.
The media has portrayed fat camps in countless ways: from the comedic movie “Heavyweights,” where an evil, formerly fat, workout-obsessed character played by Ben Stiller takes over a camp attended by chubby pre-teen boys to make their lives a living hell, to the cable TV drama “Huge,” focused on teen relationships and featuring plus-size model Hayley Hasselhoff as your typical mean girl. There have even been reality shows and documentaries following young people on their weight-loss journeys over a summer at camp. Whatever the format, these portrayals encourage us to believe that in one summer we could change our bodies and become thinner and happier by fall. But that goal is next to impossible—and being happy and wearing plus sizes are by no means mutually exclusive.
We turned to three women—two who survived weight-loss camp and lived to tell the tale, and one who started her own body-positive fat camp for adults—to hear their camp stories. (Spoiler alert: Only one of these campers left camp feeling more confident.)
*Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Chloe Stein on attending weight-loss camp as a teen.
The worst part:
There were quite a few things I didn’t like about Camp Pocono Trails—the most memorable being all the teenage drama. Everyone had self-image issues and very low self-esteem. The thinner girls were usually the most popular and would be mean to the bigger girls. It was a lot of teenage girls bullying each other in passive-aggressive ways because we all hated ourselves.
Another thing I didn’t like was the weigh-ins. Once a week we would stand in line outside the auditorium and wait to be put on a scale and told whether we lost weight or not. Campers really stressed over it and felt horrible when they didn’t lose as much as they wanted to.
The food was awful. We had small portions and sugar-free jello as dessert. There was an all-you-can-eat salad bar, but it’s really hard to fill up on lettuce, carrots, and fat-free dressing.
The best part:
Honestly, for me, the best part was going home. I lost 12 pounds in three weeks and got a lot of compliments from friends and family. But that weight came back within a few months, despite all the tips and tricks they taught me at camp, like eating slowly, taking small bites, and chewing for 10-20 seconds per bite.
What I learned:
I learned that my body could handle 10 hours a day of sports, aerobics, and swimming and not completely shut down. I was dog-tired at the end of every day, but I survived. After talking to a lot of other campers over the three weeks I was there, I also learned that the weight lost at camp almost always comes back. No one could maintain their weight loss, mostly because no one had enough time to exercise 10 hours a day when they got back to their regular lives. I don’t think that what they taught us improved our relationships with food either. We were taught to fear food and to not allow ourselves to lean on eating as a coping mechanism or comfort.
As if that wasn’t rough enough, Camp Pocono Valley was filmed for an MTV movie while Chloe was there. You might be able to spot her in the background wearing a black-and-white floral shirt. Her painful experience was immortalized on YouTube.
Aimee Cheshire, who works in the plus fashion industry, on unexpectedly finding community:
The worst part:
The worst part was eating 1200 calories a day while working out about 4-5 hours a day. And for whatever reason, I bought a gym membership so I could work out between the classes, too. Then, after all that hard work, being so disappointed when the number on the scale didn’t change.
The best part:
The best part for me by far was the relationships. It was the first time in my life that I was surrounded by people who had similar life experiences. I would go from my home and my circle of friends where I was the only fat person to being surrounded by friends who got it. It was a nice break from my reality.
What I learned:
One of the reasons the weight would come back after time away at camp would be that the same environmental stressors would remain even as I was working hard at “healing” my weight problem. My family was still acting exactly the same. The whole process would just repeat itself.
It did give me a moment, though, to experience life with people who were actually accepting of me as I was—and I did end up using that as a gauge for my future relationships.
Aimee now works in plus-size fashion, surrounded by people who accept her as she is.
Annette Richmond, founder of @fatgirlstraveling and the adult Fat Camp, on building new memories.
Why she created Fat Camp:
I wanted to host a body-positive event that focused on self-care, self-acceptance, fun, and nostalgia. I grew up in a single-parent home and went to summer camp every year. I always had the best time at camp, but I know many people didn’t have that opportunity. There are so many people in my community that have negative memories from camp—memories of being bullied or excluded, and others who were sent to weight-loss camps. Not only did I want to recreate the feelings that I got from camp every summer, but I wanted to create an opportunity for a redo for those who did not have a positive camp experience.
What her campers take away from the experience:
The speakers and influencers at Fat Camp share a cabin with the campers, so the campers leave knowing that their favorite blogger or influencer they idolized on the internet is a human being with insecurities and daily struggles. I invite every camper to be brave and vulnerable so that they leave feeling more open and connected to the people they’ve only known for a few days. I think that the biggest takeaway is a newfound level of confidence. Each camper from last summer is returning this year, but they’re returning a different person: more confident and more secure.
The best part of camping with fat women:
There are so many fantastic parts to Fat Camp! A new one that I’m excited about this summer is the clothing swap. How often do you get to attend an event where every single body looks like yours and you get to share clothes? The feeling you have when explaining microaggressions and fatphobia to a room full of people who understand your experience and can relate to what you’re describing is unlike any other feeling. Truly the best part of Fat Camp is feeling seen, heard, and understood.
Annette’s Fat Camp is sold out for this year, but keep an eye out for ticket sales for the summer of 2020. Also, stay tuned to the Dia&Co Instagram for photos and stories from the event!
Have you been to fat camp? Do you wish you could get a do-over and attend body-positive camp as an adult? Tell us your fat-camp stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.