Activists like the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination’s Lynn McAfee are entitled to question the medical dogma that emerges in this cultural atmosphere. The fat movement is also right that overweight people — kids especially — could stand to be reminded that they are valued members of society. “The only time that people who are fat are taught to feel good about themselves [is] when they’re losing weight,” says McAfee. “That’s a setup for a really bad life.” These activists are right to recognize that the diet industry preys on insecurity, and that dieting can often be more psychologically damaging than healthful.
On the other hand, a knee-jerk opposition to weight loss may be a naïve strategy. As Kingsmont’s Bharati Shapero says, “I think it’s great to empower yourself to love your body. [But] in promoting love for your ‘phat’ body at the expense of having a healthy body, I don’t agree with that.” Obesity is a risk factor for certain diseases, and while the links between fatness and disease (as opposed to the links between fatness and risk for disease) may need more definition, that doesn’t warrant ignoring the risks altogether.
In many ways, a place like Camp Kingsmont incorporates the best of both worlds. In an environment where everyone is overweight, kids can be themselves without being judged or ostracized. However, many of the kids I met there, who had unhealthy relationships with food and with their own bodies, offered examples of what can happen when young people are taught to diet. The “lifestyle change” shtick also seemed a little disingenuous. Lifestyle change is not necessarily measured in pounds or inches, and yet this seems to be the primary yardstick of success at Kingsmont. If the goal is weight loss — which, according to the medical establishment, is a laudable goal — why not just acknowledge it?
It’s also very difficult to deliver a lifestyle change in seven weeks. A real lifestyle change program for an overweight child would have to involve the whole family, as did Jenna Broccolo’s, and would have to be ongoing. Putting the emphasis on eating healthfully and exercising would help to redirect adolescents’ emphasis from changing their bodies to taking care of their bodies. This strategy won’t always help kids to lose weight, but it could enable them to establish a healthier relationship with their bodies. Then, later, if they need to drop some pounds for health reasons, perhaps it wouldn’t be so fraught with emotional baggage.
In fact, a camp like this could be a positive thing for anyone, regardless of weight. As McAfee puts it, “We could all use a healthy lifestyle camp, couldn’t we?”
Beth Schwartzapfel can be reached at beth_schwartzapfel@ yahoo.com.