Gchat: Notes on (Fat) Camp

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

By Abby Ellin and Stephanie Klein

“What I miss most is the times when I was really struggling. I miss being tortured with a group of girls. We’d all bitch together about the hills they made us climb, our thighs shaking. I miss being in a gross bunk worried if we heard raccoons. But I don’t miss crying myself to sleep, terrified of going to school the next day.”

Stephanie Klein and Abby Ellin both spent significant chunks of their childhoods at fat camps—five and six years, respectively. And they both made their experiences the subject of memoirs: Ellin in Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat-Camper Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help, and Klein in Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp. They recently compared notes in an IM chat. —Elizabeth Minkel

abby.jpgaellin123 (pictured, right): I spent six years at camps, from 1984 to 1991, off and on. Colang, Kingsmont and a bunch of Weight Watchers camps. We must have crossed paths, no?

about_pic.jpgkleins99 (left): I keep a word document titled “AGES” because I’m getting to the point where there’s no way I’ll remember which summer was spent where. I was at Kingsmont in 1989, Colang in 1990, Shane in 1991, and then back to Kingsmont in 1992 and 1993. Ah, to be young doing the fat camp rounds.

aellin123: I know—it’s summer now, and I keep thinking I should be back at camp. And this is 20 years later! Part of it is that I’m a camper at heart. I loved camp, even ‘normal’ camp (where I always gained weight, but what the hell). I’d love to go away to a camp/spa for two months now. Do you ever feel that way?

kleins99: EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Some people look back fondly at their college years. For me, sleep away camp was a religious experience, where every day was filled with dramatic moments of notes being passed, breakups, gossip—and then there were the smaller moments of tipping a canoe, or of shower hour. I loved it all. I want my children to go to sleep away camp, so I can go be a counselor.

aellin123: Do you think there’s a difference between camp camp and fat camp? I know people who feel just as passionately about their regular camp.

kleins99: I, too, have been to “regular” camp, and I think the biggest difference is the suffering. At normal camp, you suffered with repetitive meals or mosquito bites. It’s not the same kind of suffering we felt at fat camp when we forced into caterpillar drills. I like to say it’s pretty much the same, though. At normal camp, it’s skinny-dipping; at fat camp, it’s chunky-dunking. But either way, there’s still a slimy lake bottom no one wants to touch.

aellin123: Agreed. I always wondered if the general psyche at the fat camp was more distraught. Teenagers are always tortured, but the fat kid is more tortured. And part of the reason why kids are fat is because they have experienced major, major traumas.

kleins99: What I miss most, and this might sound odd, is what you hear a lot of older married couples say: I miss the times when I was really struggling. I miss being tortured with a group of girls. We’d all bitch together about the hills they made us climb, our thighs shaking. I miss being in a gross bunk worried if we heard raccoons. But I don’t miss crying myself to sleep, terrified of going to school the next day.

aellin123: Were you really terrified? I wasn’t terrified, just miserable. But I was Flabby Abby. You were Moose.

kleins99: OK, terrified is an exaggeration. I was terrified at fat camp when I heard the girls wanted to cut off my hair in my sleep and put cigarette butts in my bed. At home, every moment pulsed with anxiety, never certain if it would be a good day, or a day that would end in tears. They made fun of me for a lot of reasons.

aellin123: In Moose, you condense five summers into one. How much weight did you lose in total, and did you keep it off?

kleins99: I lost 30 pounds that first summer and did keep it off. I continued going to fat camp, year after year, even though I was at a normal weight eventually. I gained weight again in college, when I was in love. But I lost it. I never returned to my childhood weight, except when I was pregnant. I really will always struggle with it, even if I look thin.

aellin123: The best thing about being the thinner kid at the fat farm—a small fish in a big pond—is that all the guys love you. That’s what bummed me out the most: the thinner kids were the most popular, exactly the way it is in the real world. Granted, everything is on a larger scale, but still…you would think that weight wouldn’t matter so much in the fat camp world, but of course it does—there more than anywhere.

kleins99: Imagine two adults with the same age, frame, height, and weight. Do you think those of us who grew up as fat kids have a different view of ourselves than those who put on the weight later in life?

aellin123: That’s a good question. I was never supposed to be fat, and I was only about 20-25 pounds ‘overweight’ at my heaviest—about 150 pounds (I’m 5′2 and a half, so every pound counts). But my family made me feel like a heifer: weight was an issue—my sister was anorexic—and we were always taught that girls had to be thin and beautiful. The adjectives were always linked together. Much of my identity is wrapped up in being “fat.”

I think being a fat kid affects your psyche in different ways than those who put weight on in later life. I think the difference is a sense of entitlement. People who were never fat as kids feel entitled to more, I think. Fat kids turned adults always worry that they will be picked last. I don’t think it’s the same when you get fat later on.

kleins99: Of the people I know who died, I don’t think of them as how fat or thin they were. I remember the life, their personality, the things they said that stuck. And instead of focusing on improving those things about ourselves, filling up on wisdom, learning more, living out loud, we go to the salon for a seaweed wrap. It’s ass-backward.

And I was obese, but really only that first summer at camp. Everything is of course relative, which is why I hate the “outfatted” game of “you have no cause to complain, I have back fat bigger than your thigh.”

aellin123: Yeah, I will always struggle, too. When your first marriage split up, did you think, “Oh man, it’s because I’m fat!” Did you think, “If only I were thinner/taller/prettier/stronger/funnier/whatever then none of the shit would have gone down?” Because that is always my default mechanism—it’s because I’m not thin enough!

kleins99: I certainly cover this in Moose, that idea of “good enough” and thinking each man would want me longer, want me more, want me back if he heard I lost a few pounds, but when my marriage ended, I was very thin. It was the one time in my life where I didn’t instinctively factor in my size. Instead, I thought, It’s because I’m a redhead. I bet he wants a brunette. Fucking looks. I thought about looks, straight off. It’s hard not to when you learn there’s another woman in the picture.

aellin123: Tell me about your book tour.

kleins99: The book tour was very moving. There were times when readers would come up to me and share their stories, both thin women and plus-sized ladies, and they’d start to cry. Which made me cry. A total chick-fest. A lot of people said they could relate, even women who never had problems with their weight. They related to having a critical father. To always wanting to please, to getting a blowout and picking out their best outfit before seeing an ex, thinking that might just make him want her more.

aellin123: Your daughter is only—what—two? How do plan on handling this whole issue with her? What happens if she develops a weight problem?

kleins99: I have boy and girl twins. They’re about 17 months old. And I’ve found what helps is listing all the things my body has done for me. I can list all the scars. When I’m able to see my body as a vehicle, as this container that takes the real me around in life, I stop thinking of it as my identity. I actually think, Pretty cool. I better move occasionally, sweat some, and keep you around. And when I’m able to remind myself of this, it’s very freeing.

Here’s a perfect example: yesterday, our neighbors invited us over to swim with the babies. SHIT! That means I have to put on a bathing suit. Which might be manageable if I were tan (helps to conceal the congeal). And I didn’t want to go. It was the perfect example of a time in my life where I was about to let my body/weight or thoughts about it color my experiences. Had my daughter been older, I wouldn’t have wanted her to ever see my hesitation about going…

The point is, I was aware I was doing it. And literally had to talk myself out the door. “I’m not going to let my weight stop me from doing things. It’s not who I am.” So I walked next door, carrying my daughter, both of us in our bathing suits. And we swam, and laughed, and I was glad I went. I don’t want to be remembered as someone who was scared to do things, or who didn’t do what she wanted because she was scared of what others might think. And when I remind myself of that, it makes it easier to live it, not just to know it.

aellin123: Do you find yourself doing things or talking differently with your daughter than with your son?

kleins99: Sure. They’re different people. I am Abigail’s closest representation and model for what a woman is. So I will have to show her, run the run, not just talk the talk. And it’s very important to me that both my children know that looks absolutely matter, but it’s not who any of us are in the end.

aellin123: Did writing Moose give you some sense of closure?

kleins99: It gave closure only in that it made me question what I’d do about raising my own children. What I’ll do one day when I hear Abigail call herself fat. What I’ll do if they want to go to fat camp. What I’ll do if they’re fat or have distorted body image issues. I wanted to write Moose not because it was about fat camp but because I wanted to really dig into the idea of identity, how as adults we navigate our childhood terrain, and what we choose to keep of our young selves and what we learn to discard, or work to reject.

It’s not as simple as saying, “I’m no longer Moose.” You have to believe it, especially once your self-esteem stops being just about yourself and is learned by your daughter. Which is exactly what I saw when I looked up at my mother: a beautiful, slender woman who couldn’t stand the sight of her own reflection. It’s why it’s so important to believe the mantras we spew and cough up as “self-helpy” because I know what a profound effect my own mother’s feelings about her body had on me, and I don’t want to screw up my kids any more than I already will just by being me.

aellin123: What do you think you would say to them if they wanted to go to camp?

kleins99: I’d say, first read Moose. And if you still want to go, read it again.

aellin123: And, finally, what’s your six-word memoir?

kleins99: ‘Divorced, engaged, pregnant: all at once.’ Because at one point, I was all of those things at the same time.


The Excerpts: Camp Edition

READ an excerpt of Teenage Waistland on SMITH.

READ an interview with Klein in USA Today, with a downloadable excerpt of Moose.

READ another take on camp, in an excerpt from Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Meets Lord of the Flies, an anthology of stories from the likes of AJ Jacobs, Ivan Reitman, Rodney Rothman, Molly Rosen, and many others.

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