In the original MTV documentary, campers at the beginning of the summer are seen telling each other how good it felt when they returned home the summer before and their friends praised them. “Last year I came here and I lost 20 pounds,” one girl says. “When you come back to school, the first day everyone’s like ‘wow…you’ve lost, like, another person.”
If Horn could look back and tell his younger self something about his time at weight loss camp, it would be that his life wouldn’t magically improve if he lost weight as he imagined it might.
“I have spent most of my life thinking [that] once I lose weight, I’ll be able to do all these things, will be this person, all this good stuff will happen,” he said.
He says he didn’t want to attend the first two times, but chose to return for the third summer. Like Schwartz, Horn likened his experience at camp to being in prison — but he also found a form of solace. What ostracized him in his regular life was something to bond over at fat camp. And, Horn, who is transgender, said he met lots of other queer kids at camp.
“I went in thinking it was going to be this awful experience, but really I had never in my life felt so accepted and felt so loved,” he said. “It really was that everybody was the fat kid, had been that fat kid at school.”
Some accounts of fat camp speak to what Horn felt — being surrounded by people who look like you can provide a sense of acceptance not otherwise found. And reviews of the most popular camps are largely glowing. (It should be noted that many reviews appear to be left by parents of campers, not campers themselves.)
Despite what he called a “net positive” experience because of the bonds he formed, Horn said being sent to fat camp still felt like a punishment.
“I was devastated the first time I got sent. I was used to going to other summer camps… [but this] was presented as a last resort,” he said. “It was pretty devastating.”
Mann said that, even more than the potential long-term changes to metabolism that calorie restriction can bring, weight loss camps can also pose a social and mental threat.
“The whole thing is very weight stigmatizing,” she said about weight loss camps. “There’s lots of research on weight stigma that shows it has all kinds of negative consequences.”
Weight stigma not only isn’t effective in making people lose weight, it makes fat people less likely to get healthcare when they need it because of fear of discrimination. Long term effects of weight stigma, Mann said, can also be economic, as fat people are less likely to get higher paying jobs, and mental. “ Weight stigma affects people throughout their life and doesn’t do any good,” she said.
Schwartz, who’s now a filmmaker, said the stigma she felt at camp has certainly stuck with her. It shows up in her work, when she writes about her experience at camp, and in more insidious ways.
“I just don’t think anyone, kids, need to be focusing on their body so intensely like that. When you’re younger and you think that way, you develop these thoughts about yourself for the rest of your life,” she said. “I still have moments when i’m walking into a room and go back to that same place of, ‘how can I make myself the funniest,’ or something so I stand out differently than my size.”