Not surprisingly, camps like Kingsmont are just one aspect of the booming diet and weight-loss industry. Americans spend more than $40 billion each year on diet books, diet foods, gym memberships, and other weight-loss strategies, according to www.marketresearch.com. It’s hard to say how much of this money is spent by, or for, children and adolescents, but the growing number of overweight children certainly constitutes a lucrative market.
Kingsmont, established in 1971, doesn’t bill itself as a weight-loss camp, but as a “lifestyle-change program,” combining physical activity, nutritional education, self-esteem building, and fun. However, there are no illusions among its campers and staff about what exactly “lifestyle change” means. Asked by a counselor why I was writing about Kingsmont, I told her I thought this was a very interesting topic. “What,” she asked. “Fat camp?”
A CIRCLE OF REPETITION
Despite its nutrition classes, its restricted-calorie “camper diet,” and its weekly weigh-ins, Kingsmont feels distinctly like camp, as I discovered during a visit last August. Campers whisper to each other about secret crushes. Walls are decorated with pictures of heartthrobs cut from teenybopper magazines. Counselors can “gig” campers at whim, compelling them to climb onto a chair and sing a song during lunch or perform other embarrassing but secretly fun stunts.
In some ways, it is precisely because it is a weight-loss camp that Kingsmont has such a relaxed atmosphere. “You’re all here for the same reason,” says Dana, a counselor and Kingsmont ‘lifer.’ “You would never get made fun of because you’re fat. And that’s so comforting.”
Because almost everyone is overweight, fatness becomes a sort of inside joke, fair game for poking fun, whereas in mixed company the subject might be too sensitive. Camper Jennifer Stone, 13, recalls a trip campers took into town the previous summer to see Fourth of July fireworks. “An ice cream truck passed by, and you can imagine fat kids and ice cream,” she chuckles. “It was not pretty. Everyone at the camp got on their feet and chased the ice cream truck.” The speech that Kingsmont’s owner, Marc Manoli, gave afterward has become the stuff of legend, and ribbing, among the campers. “Sometimes,” they intone to one another with mock-seriousness, “you have to let that ice cream truck pass you by.”
Indeed, no matter how much Kingsmont encourages campers to let loose and have fun, that struggle is never far from their minds. All of the kids I spoke with during my two days there knew exactly how much weight they had lost, almost down to the pound. Weekly weigh-ins reinforce this emphasis. During the summer’s last weigh-in, kids were weighed and measured, and their new stats recorded in a binder. A counselor snapped the “after” portion of this summer’s “before” and “after” photos.
This weight-reduction process is meant to offer positive reinforcement and encourage kids to feel proud of their accomplishments. But it had some unintended consequences. When a kid’s self-emphasis shifts from overall healthiness to weight loss per se, that’s when an unhealthy relationship can develop between that kid and food, or that kid and his or her body. As an 11-year-old girl told me, she sucks on Oreos to get the flavor and then spits them out, so she can avoid “all the fat and stuff.”