When I was fifteen years old I went to Camp Camelot, a romantic name for a Fat Camp.
My family had always called me “big boned.” My classmates had other terms for me, and they certainly were not half as nice. In my elementary school gym class there was one record used for special occasions to humiliate the fat kids and all the songs had to do with being fat. I still cringe when I think of it. One song that stands out in my mind is: “You can have her, I don’t want her, she’s too fat for me.” I would be singled out along with the other fatties while we were forced to do extra sit ups and leg lifts for our own good.
Although genes had a hand in my corpulence, I loved food more than the average person, and I have always been one of those people who lives to eat. I have been a chocoholic since early childhood, a habit that started in front of the television set of my parents house. I’d wake up early to watch cartoons and eat as many Ring-Dings and Devil Dogs as I could get my hands on before anybody woke up to bust me. I would hide the boxes under my bed until Sunday night when it was my turn to empty the trash.
When I shed my “baby fat,” at the age of fourteen, I shattered all the bones in my right ankle while roller-skating. The break was so severe that I was in a hip cast for over six months and then several subsequent smaller casts; this ordeal lasted for close to a year. My orthopedist told me it was the worst break he had ever seen in his 40-year career and he prepared me for the worst–the possibility I would have a permanent limp. As luck would have it, I grew another two inches and the bones were able to bond together nicely. My big bones cooperated for once, but I was now bigger boned than ever and I had gained over 40 pounds from being sedentary for over a year. I was miserable and my parents felt sorry for me. They blamed themselves for the rusty old roller-skates I was wearing the day I broke my ankle and I did nothing to alleviate their guilt.
When I first saw an ad in the New York Times Magazine for Camp Camelot, I laughed about the prospect of going to a fat camp. After repeatedly looking at the picture of the obese girl in the “before” photo to a bikini-clad babe in the “after” photo, I changed my mind. This could be the answer to my problems. I too could be a bikini- clad beach bunny after only six weeks of Fat Camp. Sure, it might sound humiliating, but only my closest friends and relatives had to know. It would be well worth it in the end.
I showed the advertisement to my mother and made it clear that I was going to harass her about it for as long as it took. After a few days when she told me that she and my father had agreed to let me go, I was shocked, but ecstatic. I began packing immediately.
Camp Camelot was located on the campus of Southampton College in Long Island, New York during the months of July and August. Summer school students were attending Southampton College during this time, but their dorm rooms were on the other side of campus. The staff tried to make us wear the distinctive T-shirts with the Camelot insignia to distinguish us from them, even though it was pretty obvious who was who. (Although not everyone there was morbidly obese, some of us could pass for having gained the freshman forty.)
Upon arrival, the counselors arranged a “before” photo of me. The photographer had me stand on a table in my bathing suit and shot the picture of me from below. I had never photographed well in a bathing suit, but I had never seen a picture that was so unflattering. I looked like the fat lady in the circus.
My roommate was Sherri Schwartz and she had the face of an angel and the mouth of a truck driver. The first thing she said to me was that if she was as @#$%^& thin as I was she wouldn’t be there. She smoked cigarettes and had an evil streak and I liked her right away. I decided she was to be my lifelong friend. After a long night of bonding with Sherri, I assumed we would sleep until noon and join an exercise class at our leisure, if we felt like it. I was wrong.
The pounding on our door nearly gave me a heart attack, and it was only 7:00 a.m.! We were ordered to put on our Camp Camelot T-shirts and sweatpants and meet on the track in ten minutes.
They made us run around the track until we were hyperventilating, which took only once for most of the campers. I was able to make it twice before being winded; this was the first time my athletic abilities appeared better than average. Camp Camelot was also the first (and only) experience I had ever encountered where people came up to tell me how thin I was. The staff at Camelot consisted of a handful of ex-cheerleaders who seemed to enjoy being around overweight young women with low self-esteem, if only to relive the superiority they had once treasured in high school. More than once I saw them laughing at students too fat to get into the lotus position at 10:00 a.m. yoga.
Breakfast consisted of one tiny box of cereal. That was the biggest meal of the day. For lunch we were served an appetizer–a small cube of Swiss cheese and two pieces of melba toast on a piece of wilted lettuce and a few grapes for garnish. The first day there I was shocked to find that it was the entire meal! This routine made Weight Watchers look like child’s play. After lunch we were escorted to disco aerobics class for an excruciating hour and a half of jumping up and down to Donna Summer. Then we had to jog around the track until we dropped and finally, we were allowed to go to the beach for two hours before heading back on the bus for dinner. I thought surely there would be something substantial for dinner like a baked potato or a piece of bread, something to sink my teeth into. No such luck. The menu was similar to lunch, but we did get an apple for dessert.
A shuttle bus took the summer college students into the center of town. Sherri and I easily passed as students once we took off the Camelot garb. One Wednesday afternoon, we’d had it and decided to cut disco aerobics and get ourselves a decent meal. I will never forget that slice of pizza. I devoured it faster than anything I had ever eaten in my entire life.
Our next stop was to the candy store to pick up some chocolate. I jokingly said to Sherri that if we were to sell chocolate in the camp we could make a fortune and she immediately made me give her all my money. We bought twenty Hershey bars and stuffed them in our bags and headed back to Camelot. The response to the chocolate was overwhelming. We didn’t have enough to satisfy our customers, and it was no wonder, considering that everyone was practically starving. There was this one girl named Sally that didn’t have any money and wanted us to give her the chocolate for free and we practically had to rip her fat little hands off of the merchandise. I’m sure she told on us, although I can’t be positive.
Our parents were called in to deal with our punishment. I would rather have cleaned the toilets with my toothbrush than deal with my parents. The guilt that I had cultivated at home was now gone due to the exorbitant price they charged at Camp Camelot. All the months of my limping around the house were now history. They had paid their price. They gave me the “disappointed” speech and that was it. Sherri and I were to be put on probation, and that was fine with us. We didn’t want the stigma of getting thrown out of Fat Camp. Sherri and I grew apart after the “chocolate incident” and blamed each other for bad judgment.
When it was time to leave Camelot they took an “after” picture of me where the photographer stood about a mile away so you can’t really tell who it is, but it’s a much more flattering picture than the “before”. Whenever I need a good laugh I look at my before and after pictures while eating a big chocolate bar and think of Camelot.