How America's oldest fat camp — and the inspiration for Disney’s "Heavyweights" — became the symbol of a health intervention that enjoys worldwide popularity despite no evidence that it improves anyone's health.
Michael: Welcome to Maintenance Phase, the podcast that would never take you out of where you're comfortable and make you feel bad about yourself.
Aubrey: Oh, I like it.
Michael: Because we're nice.
Aubrey: We are nice. I'm Audrey Gordon.
Michael: I'm Michael Hobbes.
Aubrey: This month, if you join our Patreon, your bonus episode will be our first ever annual Griftie Awards, where we are giving awards for the best and mostly worst of health and wellness in 2021.
Michael: Gwyneth gets involved, Nicki Minaj's cousin's balls get involved.
Aubrey: It is a rump of a time.
Michael: But today, we are talking about no, no, no, no, I'm not going to tell the whole thing again.
Michael: Fat camps.
Aubrey: We are talking about fat camps. Mike, tell me what you know about fat camps?
Michael: Very little, actually. Couple of years ago, I had an idea to do an article on fat camps. The idea was, I was going to go to a fat camp and live there. But once I started reaching out to fat camps, perhaps, unsurprisingly, they didn't want me to go. Nobody would acquiesce to having this random journalist going there asking kids questions and like, doing archery. So, it didn't get very far. But it always seemed like a huge tragedy to me. Because when you hear the phrase 'fat camps,' you think of something like a normal summer camp but with fat kids. Like a place where they can feel comfortable with themselves. We know that weight is the number one reason that kids are bullied. So, the idea of somewhere that actually helps to heal that a little bit, and form a community, and create some solidarity between fat people always seem like something that has the potential to be really lovely. But the problem is that, they're not fat camps. They're not camps of fat people. They are weight loss camps, they are bootcamps for children.
Michael: What is your experience?
Aubrey: I don't know if you and I've talked about this. I went to a fat camp.
Michael: Shut up.
Aubrey: I went to a fat camp that was a day camp. So, it was not a sleepaway camp, which means that I was spared a lot of the worst of it and we will talk about some of the worst of it. When I was in grade school and it was a fucking shame factory.
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: When I was researching the book, I tracked down the workbook from the fat camp that I went to, to see if I wanted to write about it. The workbook had all of these stories in it, which were mostly just like, "Clara, this fat girl gets teased at school for being fat." And she has a conversation with a magical cookie jar, and the magical cookie jar tells her that she needs to just stop eating as much, and she needs to lose some weight, and then, other kids will ease up on her.
Michael: Oh, no.
Aubrey: It was like, overwhelmingly there were stories about physical solutions to social problems. The problem was never like, "You need to ask that person to treat you better or you need to get an adult involved."
Aubrey: It was always like, "That will stop when you lose weight."
Michael: That cookie jar now has an Instagram account. Just thins though.
Aubrey: Part of why I thought it would be interesting to talk about fat camps is, it does feel very illustrative when we allow bullying of kids.
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: When are we willing to excuse bullying of children?
Michael: It's bad unless they deserve it-
Aubrey: Yeah, exactly.
Michael: -is my understanding of the general ideology.
Aubrey: Yes, correct. And because there is this belief that you and I have talked about extensively, that is pretty well debunked that like, weight is entirely within an individual's control, we extrapolate that and apply it to children, and extend the same kind of logic of this idea of an adult responsibility to maintain your weight, then, gets projected onto kids.
Michael: Which is super fucked up because kids are not responsible for anything.
Michael: They're not responsible for their parents' incomes, they're not responsible for their parents' education or food choices, they're not responsible for their school lunches.
Aubrey: Yes. The flipside of that is that, people will also talk about this is that, people will project that onto parents as well and be like, "Well, okay, then that it's the parents' individual responsibility."
Michael: Yeah. That's also not great. There's a lot of bad moralizing around parenting, often, from extremely limited information.
Michael: [crosstalk] You will hear people say like, "I saw a mom at the grocery store and she was buying soda for her kids." It's like, "Okay, well that's literally the only thing that you know about that person."
Aubrey: Yes. There were so many dead ends [laughs] in this research and content wise.
Michael: Oh, [laughs] I'm thinking of the biggest content note-
Michael: -imaginable right now.
Aubrey: So, we're going to be talking about calorie counts and weights today. You can't talk about fat camp without talking about those things. So, take care if those are going to be hard for you to hear. There will also be a couple of mentions of sexual assaults. We are talking about some pretty distressing treatment of children throughout this episode. So, heads up there. I think it's generally pretty tough when it comes to this stuff. Like, I live in it a lot and I absolutely had to take some breaks to cry.
Aubrey: Yes. This one, I was like, "Oh, my God, everything feels horrible."
Michael: It's been a while since we got back to our roots and just straight up telling people not to listen to the rest of the show.
Michael: We're back to the classic frame.
Aubrey: Turn off your podcast now.
Michael: So, where do we dive into this story?
Aubrey: So, first things first. For folks who genuinely have not encountered fat camps as a thing, fat camps are programs. They're often short-term residential programs for adults or children that promise to deliver short-term weight loss that usually comes from really intensive exercise programs. Some of the places that I looked at reported six hours a day of intensive exercise programming.
Michael: Oh, my God.
Aubrey: It often involves major calorie restriction. So, a number of these were around 1,100 or 1,200 calories a day, somewhere around 1,500 or 1,800 calories a day, but pretty significantly restricted diets.
Michael: How old are these kids or how young do fat camps go?
Aubrey: The youngest specific age that I saw mentioned in the literature was they talked about a seven-year-old.
Michael: No way. Kid that young?
Michael: So, they are him to the biggest loser, basically.
Aubrey: That is one version of fat camp. Most of the fat camps that are open and operational today are very, very careful to go. We're not a fat camp.
Michael: Oh, of course.
Aubrey: We're a weight loss and weight management camp. We're not like what you think. It's the same thing as Noom being like, "We're not a diet," where you're like, "Okay, you are but you know that people aren't going to go for this if you call it a diet."
Michael: What is the duration of these camps? Because you said the one that you went to was just a day camp. Like your parents would drive you there in the morning and pick you up in the evening. But then there's also ones where you're in slasher movie in the woods with lifeguards and stuff, too, right, like residential camps.
Aubrey: The longest one that I saw was a 12-week program. So, it'd be like all summer.
Aubrey: Nine weeks is generally the longest. That 12 week one was kind of an outlier. The shortest one on the residential end was two weeks, I think.
Aubrey: Currently, there are about two dozen summer fat camps in operation in the US that was as of 2019, I should say not currently. So, who knows who made it through the pandemic.
Aubrey: As of 2013. The "wellness tourism industry," fat camps are a part of that, was worth $494 billion globally. So, it is worth knowing that these can be extreme cash cows for the people who operate them.
Michael: What are people paying to send their kids? Like normal civilians, what are these camps costing?
Aubrey: The one that we're going to talk about today, the cost is between $2,500 and $10,000 depending on which location you go to, how long you stay, $2,500 for two weeks in Arizona, $10,000 is for seven weeks in California.
Michael: That's a lot. So, I mean, these are rich parents and rich kids, fundamentally.
Aubrey: It's also worth noting fat camps have been around in one form or another since at least the turn of the century. Their earlier incarnations were mostly called fat farms.
Aubrey: I have some pictures for you of 1930s fat farm. It was one of the most famous ones called Rose Dor Farms.
Aubrey: it was located at a dairy farm in upstate New York. I'm so excited to show you these. Okay, so, thing one, here is a motto that was posted at Rose Dor Farms.
Michael: This is from Rachel Hollis' Instagram.
Michael: It says, "Exercise is necessary to meet modern standards of grace and figure beauty, inquire about our delightful gym classes." So, it is saying exercise is necessary to be beautiful, basically.
Aubrey: Yeah, and to be a woman.
Aubrey: I have some fun exercise pictures as well.
Michael: Oh. [laughs] It's not a great photo. It's three women doing pushups, I presume. But then the photo is shot of like just their butts. So, it looks like a rap video.
Aubrey: [laughs] Yeah.
Michael: Oh, and also, they're wearing high heels.
Aubrey: They're wearing heels in every picture of Rose Dor Farms.
Aubrey: They're all wearing shorts and t-shirts like, they're going to work out, and then fucking heels and their hair is set, and they're wearing makeup.
Michael: Yeah. They're in a grassy field in these heels.
Michael: And the heels are like kind of muddy.
Michael: That's the grace and beauty they're talking about.
Aubrey: But also, all the heels match.
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: They're like, "Here's your standard issue fat camp uniform of short-shorts, a cap sleeve t-shirt and heels."
Aubrey: So, the other thing to know is fat camps are most present in the US, but there are also fat camps in the UK. There's like a burgeoning movement to do. NHS run fat camps in the UK.
Michael: Oh, don’t do that.
Aubrey: There are also fat camps in Australia, in Canada, in Qatar, in Denmark, in Japan, all over the place.
Michael: Yeah. I remember when I was doing research for my article that never happened. Somewhere, they said that fat camps were the fastest growing segment of the summer camp market.
Michael: There's rising demand which makes sense, and also because people are willing to pay more for these specialized camps, it makes sense that more camps would be getting into this just because they can charge people more essentially.
Aubrey: Yeah, totally. One of the pieces that I read said on average, it costs $1,500 more to send your kid to fat camp than two other summer camps.
Michael: It should cost less because they're feeding them less.
Michael: They’re not doing pizza and hot dogs. Like, we'd a church camp.
Aubrey: It feels important to lift up that fat camps are not just like nefarious parents making mean decisions on their children's behalf. These kinds of desperate measures are born of a system that doesn't just judge fat kids, and fat parents, and parents of fat kids, regardless of their size. In some cases, it threatens custody.
Aubrey: There have been a number of cases in the US where children have been removed from their homes because of the kids' weight and a belief that the kids' weight is proof positive of parents' neglect. Earlier this year, there was a case in West Sussex in England, where two kids were placed in foster care as a result of their weight. They were using Fitbits that had been given to them by the British equivalent of Child Protective Services. They were signed up to weightwatchers, the whole family was but the kids hadn't lost weight.
Michael: Yeah. It's awful.
Aubrey: It's fucking horrible. I'm going to send you a quote from the judge that feels really illustrative to me about how we think and talk about fat kids and parenting fat kids.
Michael: Okay. Everyone agrees that this is a very sad and unusual case of a loving family where the parents meet many of the basic needs of the children. But the local authority has been concerned that the parents are not meeting the children's health needs. The case was such an unusual one, because the children had clearly had some very good parenting as they were polite, bright, and engaging. Fuck this.
Michael: So, everything is fine, except the kids' weight.
Michael: And we have to take the kids away from their loving and bright and cool parents, nice work.
Aubrey: Yep. Good. Clearly doing a good job but they have fat kids.
Aubrey: And if they have fat kids, it must be because of an invisible deficiency in their parenting that is only evidenced through the size of their kids' bodies.
Michael: It's also so fucked up because I don't know what the fate of these children are, but the idea that taking children forcibly from their parents is somehow better for their health is demented.
Aubrey: Two things I would say. One, smart money says, those kids are not going to get thinner as a result of being put in foster care.
Aubrey: The thing two is, what a fucking roll of the dice. You've got great parents who are nice to you, and who you presumably love and who presumably love you. And now, you are a fat kid who's just like a fucking walking target going into some stranger foster parents' home, who might be nice like your parents, and might be terrible and might have weird shit about fat people. You know what I mean? Like, it's not great.
Michael: Why can't they now have a mandate to force these children to lose weight. So, it's like, "Okay, great. They're now in foster care with an eating disorder" in the best-case scenario basically.
Aubrey: So, on an aggregate level, this appears to be pretty bad in the UK between 2009 and 2014, 74 fat kids were removed from their homes, just a result of weight. In 2016, NHS Scotland officially recommended setting up state funded fat camps, and in 2021, the NHS in England set up a pilot program of 15 fat camps around England. The prospect of state run fat camps makes me so fucking impossibly sad.
Michael: It's such a mockery of this wave of "evidence-based policy" that we've been getting the last decade, that this would work to meaningfully and reliably reduce long-term weight loss in children is a joke.
Michael: We know from The Biggest Loser that when you send people off to a ranch, they lose weight at the ranch, and they come home and they gain all the weight back.
Michael: Even if you hate fat people, even if you are proudly fat phobic, this is not the solution.
Aubrey: Totally. So, on the one hand, we've got this idea that like, if a kid is in a loving home but they're fat then that is insufficient parenting, but if they're fat and in a strict tome that punishes them for being fat, that's somehow better and more responsible of the parents. I wanted to take a look at, this is from a documentary in the UK. We're going to watch a little clip about kids getting ready to go to fat camp. We are going to watch a couple of minutes of this. So, apologies/get ready.
Female: We've been to the dietician, we've been through the hospital, we've been to the doctors, I know how to cook, we fry nothing, we don't use fat for cooking, we ate reasonably healthy diet. So, why does she gain the weight? I think it comes down to a lack of exercise.
Male: If she was to do a little bit, even me, I was definitely said, game of tennis at the park, game of netball with the girls. She'd better bit off.
Female: She has to be badgered. Otherwise, she would be lazier than what she is.
Male: So, how do you feel about that?
Female: That's what we're here for. We're here to persecute her.
Male: Sometimes, unfortunately, it goes a little bit too far, doesn't it, for you? You get a bit upset?
Girl 1: Yeah.
Male: You have your moments of hating me?
Female: [unintelligible [00:16:10] that's what you are.
Girl 1: [unintelligible [00:16:14] out with him now, but he does. Sometimes, he gets really annoyed at me because he goes on and on about it.
Female: What sort of things does he say?
Girl 1: There is just [unintelligible [00:16:29] never do sit down, and I never go out, and I haven't got any friends, and I can't do anything, and stuff like that.
Boy 1: I'm not a horrible person, I'm not horrible to anyone, but people are horrible to me just because I'm a bit overweight. I could stay up for an hour and I think about it'd be brilliant if I was thin or something like that and do everything what everyone else does and it'd be probably the happiest time in my life when I finally get that.
Michael: Well, now, I have to adopt two random children from the UK.
Aubrey: I know. I was just like, "What a fucking horror show?"
Michael: I don't know. It feels like they're documenting an act of abuse.
Michael: Like, for parents to be saying this about their kids. It's like bad enough. But for them to be saying it on national TV, in that scene where that little girl is in the kitchen and her parents are speaking so horrendously about her. There's this moment where her dad is talking about how she never moves, and then, she like looks at the camera.
Michael: That's so sad to me that she's aware of the fact that this is only going to lead to more bullying for her.
Aubrey: From her peers and from her fucking parents.
Michael: And from her parents.
Aubrey: In the research that I have done, I came across maybe a dozen like full length documentaries, or documentary episodes of TV series, or whatever about fat camps, and they all do this shit. They all film parents saying fucking horrible things in their kid's presence, they all include first and last names, they all include the weight of the child. It just makes you feel really powerless when your parents are like, "Your body isn't right and you need to fix it."
Michael: To blame a child, like her parents are blaming her.
Aubrey: It's truly awful and it is worth noting. She is built like her parents.
Aubrey: And I say that not to be like, "What a couple of hypocrites," which is usually the line. I don't think that's helpful, because I don't think that most people can control their body size and the way that we like to believe that they can, but it does feel instructive that this kid looks like her parents. It might not be that she's doing something wrong as their mom noted, she's cooking in a particular way, she's not using fat, she's not frying anything, she's doing all this stuff, she's exasperated, and it's like, "We're doing everything right but she's still gaining weight. What do we do?" I'm like, "So, that might be a sign that it's not actually about individual behaviors, my guy. "
Michael: Yeah, exactly.
Aubrey: But there's not really an alternative being offered at this point.
Michael: And it sounds like the alternative is sending her to some short-term bullying cabins out in the woods, where they're going to be shitty to her. She's probably going to lose 15 pounds and then, she's going to gain back 25 because that's what always fucking happens.
Aubrey: So that actually gets us into the next thing that I wanted to talk about in context world and then we get to dive into this particular fat camp. I wanted to take a look at the research around fat camps and there's been quite a bit. Overwhelmingly, these studies that have been done into fat camps trumpet the success of weight loss camps for kids has an effective intervention in the war on childhood obesity. The overwhelming majority of these studies measure success based on two measures.
One, what was their weight on day one and what was their weight on the last day of camp, and two, what was their BMI on day one and what was their BMI on the last day of camp?
Aubrey: I found two studies that did any kind of follow up after camp was over.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: One of those follow it up 10 months later, and it showed that 90% of campers had regained significant amounts of weight in the following 10 months. But the way that they framed it up in that study was, their BMI stayed at or below what it was on day one of camp, even just by like 0.5 of a BMI point. So, they were like, "success." Look at all these people who weighed less than when they started fat camp and I'm like, "Okay, but we're talking about one pound a year later."
Michael: And also, their parents spent like $15,000. [laughs]
Aubrey: That is such an expensive pound.
Michael: Yeah. [laughs]
Aubrey: And anecdotally, a number of camp owners have said that about half of their campers each year are return campers.
Michael: Well, there you go.
Aubrey: Right, right. Which they're like, "It's great. They keep coming back, because it's great," and I'm like, "So, what?"
Michael: I don't even know what the paradigm is supposed to be where this would induce long-term success. Because the whole thing is that you're sending them away to camp to kickstart their weight loss and learn skills that they can then take back with them. But the thing is, the camps themselves are totally unsustainable lifestyles.
Michael: These kids are not going to go home, and exercise for six hours a day, and eat 1,100 calories for a long period of time. And then, the idea of skills that you're teaching and information you're imparting education at these camps, so they can then apply when they go home. It's also bullshit because everyone knows most of the things about "healthy eating." People know fruits and vegetables. Don't eat fried foods, the desserts. Everyone knows the basic architecture of this.
Michael: And also, a lot of these kids when you send them back home, they're not preparing their own food.
Michael: I don't know how old these kids are but they looked about like, I don't know, 13, 14, probably, their mom is still going to be cooking meals, and a lot of these kids are not necessarily in control of their own finances. So, they're not buying their own snacks. This doesn't make any sense that this would actually work.
Aubrey: Yeah. So, this is also one of the tropes that comes up when they talk to owners of fat camps and directors of fat camps when they go, "Oh, hey, it looks like some of the kids regain the weight." The response from people who run fat camp says, "Well, that's because their parents didn't follow up."
Aubrey: "And their parents didn't change and the family system needs to change." I'm like, "Well, if the family system needs to fucking change, first of all, it fucking doesn't." And even if that premise were true, then fucking make an intervention about the family system changing and not shipping your kid off to fucking fat camp.
Michael: This is the thing is like, you're saying, the thing you're suggesting as an intervention doesn't work. And then, the person in charge of the intervention is like, "No, no, no, we need a different intervention."
Michael: It's like, "Great. Bye."
Michael: What do I need a fat camp for if it's all about the parents?
Michael: There's also like, presumably, psychological damage and other negative outcomes that come from losing weight and gaining it back.
Aubrey: Oh, Michael, oh, Michael, you're like a human segue. It's so perfect.
Michael: I'm like a mid-rant and you're sending me Skype notifications for the next [crosstalk] to read. [laughs]
Aubrey: So, this is from a physician, Caroline Wellbery, in American Family Physician in 2006. This was a quote that underscores exactly what the fuck you were just talking about.
Michael: Ooh. She says, "Even the weight loss camps are a popular intervention, few studies have evaluated their effectiveness. The results of two studies showed some weight loss in campers and another showed no weight change."
Michael: So, basically, this is another fucking thing with this field is, there's all these interventions that are being touted. Like the NHS is thinking of setting up state run fat camps on the basis of what evidence. Oftentimes, when you actually look, there's like a study or two or something that's really low quality, and there's all these uh, ooga noises from the methodologies of these extremely trash studies. I don't know in this case. But oftentimes, they're funded from whatever industry is trying to sell the intervention. And then, you always find this thing of like, "Oh, obesity is such an important issue. We need to move fast on this even though the data isn't there." It's like, "Well, then what are we moving fast on the basis of?"
Michael: And also, it doesn't even seem like there's that very much interest in finding out whether something actually works or not.
Aubrey: Yeah. It works in the long term. It's enough that something is able to take some number of pounds off of a small number of kids in the short term. People are like, "Great, it works. Let's run with it." There's no consideration of all of the studies that I read. I'm going to say two dozen studies maybe on this. One mentioned eating disorders and weight stigma.
Michael: No way.
Aubrey: Everything else was just like, "How much did they weigh on day one, how much do you weigh on the last day? It works. Let's run with it."
Michael: Dude, me and you have read so many diets that is for the show. One thing I can say with rock solid certainty is that, short-term weight loss is the easiest fucking thing in the world. [laughs]
Michael: Every diet gives short-term weight loss. So, it's weird for these studies that this discourse even still exists. That it's like, "Oh, it worked after six weeks but we don't know in the follow up." It's like, everything works at six weeks.
Aubrey: Well, and we haven't even fucking figured out why people are fat.
Michael: We have a bunch of theories, there are something like 60 different types of obesity that researchers have pinpointed that all have different causes and different effects. It is bananas to be like, "Okay, we don't totally know what the origin of the problem is. We don't know where it's located, we don't know whatever, but we definitely know how to fix it. Go to a fat camp."
Michael: That's such an interesting point, too, because you could imagine, I mean, for fuck's sake, never a fat camp. But you could imagine some intervention being effective at improving health habits, if you did some diagnosis beforehand.
Michael: There's no other screening going on. It seems like of whether this thing is actually what the kids need.
Michael: It also seems like they're just funneling in all of the kids that can pay.
Aubrey: Yeah. There are a number of stories in these fat camps.
Aubrey: Michael, this is 90 minutes of my life that I will never get back. I watched the fucking MTV, Fat Camp's documentary from 2006.
Michael: Dude, I've seen that. I've also seen that.
Aubrey: It's so fucking horrible. You just watch all of the kids that are less fat fucking bully all the kids who are more fat.
Michael: I know.
Aubrey: One of those kids is type 1 diabetic and she's being homeschooled because the side effects of her medication are so intense, which means she hasn't been around other kids, and she's like a little bit mystified by the social dynamics because she hasn't been in them in a couple of years.
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: Everyone is fucking horrible to her. This was not going to be part of the episode, but now it is, because now I'm talking about it and I'm so fucking mad. There are also two people who date, and they dated last year at fat camp, and then they both come back. The dude in the couple keeps being like, "Oh, look at how fucking fat Marissa got. I can't even look at her anymore, blah. Blah. Blah." But then, will also give her letters that are like, "I'm still in love with you and I still have feelings for you in any mean things that I say because I'm sad that I'm not with you anymore."
And then, she takes those fucking notes, and reads them aloud to her friends, and they make fun of them, and she outs him as being bipolar like, these documentarians, no fucking joke were like, "How can I show these teenagers at their worst?"
Aubrey: But in particular, so, one of the fattest campers at Fat Camp in this documentary is this girl named Dianne. There was a review in The Washington Post of this documentary and they were basically like, "It's great. You should watch it." The way that the reviewer describes the fattest camper is "there's also Dianne, whose mother works at the camp, who tends to deal with most problems by weeping profusely, and who bears an unfortunate resemblance to serial killer, John Wayne Gacy."
Michael: What the fuck is that? What is that sick burn of a child?
Aubrey: What should I do with this platform? Oh, I should dunk on a fat, disabled eighth grader.
Aubrey: Cool, dude. What a great fucking idea, you dick.
Michael: I'm just imagining you throwing your TV into the dumpster and setting it on fire. How silly it was.
Aubrey: I absolutely looked at like heavy bags on Amazon.
Michael: Yeah. [laughs]
Aubrey: I was like, I feel like I need to do like a bunch of fucking punching.
Michael: Have you ever been so mad at a website that you throw your phone across the room.
Michael: You are like, "Fuck this website." As if like it, that's where it lives. [laughs]
Aubrey: Have you ever had this experience? Do I have this experience every time I'm researching an episode of the show? Yes, I do.
Michael: Fuck this column from 21 years ago.
Aubrey: Mike, I'm on my eighth iPhone this year.
Aubrey: So, I was going to say more about the research. I think the main thing to know is like, it's all short term, it's not particularly illustrative of those long-term effects. Almost none of the media that I've heard there's one book that I found that was focused on the actual camper's experience. Everything else was, just did they lose weight or did they not lose weight? If they did, it worked. It's good.
Michael: Again, where is the interest in this?
Michael: There's so many studies. It's like, they gather the fucking quantitative data and they do their statistical things, but there's no actual endeavor to understand the phenomenon.
Michael: It's like, "We found this thing, we got a graph, we got enough to publish." But it's like, "Well, did we fucking learn anything?"
Aubrey: I will say, there were like a couple of studies that use some existing tools to measure overall self-esteem and said that average self-esteem increased for campers over the course of camp but they don't ask why. It could be that they're feeling better about themselves, because they're actually able to be around just other fat kids for the first time. It could be that they were in an environment that was entirely focused on weight loss, and then did the one thing like temporarily lost weights.
Aubrey: There's this idea that's like, "Fat camp is good. It makes you have higher self-esteem." And it's like, "Well, fucking hang on. How long does that part last, too, and under what conditions?"
Michael: Well, exactly. It says to me is that, they're creating an even stronger link between the kids' self-esteem and their weight.
Michael: This is the cycle that everybody goes through, you're envisioning this new life for yourself. And then, inevitably, when you start gaining the weight back, because you're a human being and this is what human beings do. Because your self-esteem is now even more closely coupled to your weight, it's even more devastating to go back to the previous weight that you were at. It's like, what is the point of doing this to fucking children, when maybe, just leaving them at the same weight would actually be better than losing 25 pounds and then gaining 25 pounds?
Aubrey: That's right. So, what we have in terms of looks at the long-term impacts are accounts from adults who went to fat camp as kids. There are some adults I read-- I don't know a dozen personal accounts of adults who went to fat camp. Some folks did speak highly of their time at fat camp. They talked about things like being seen as romantically desirable for the first time in their lives. They liked being around other fat people and not feeling excluded and different in that way, although, the fattest campers at fat camp reported having those same feelings.
Aubrey: That only worked for people who were not the fattest people in the room. Their talk abouts were breaking the isolation and realizing they weren't alone in how they were feeling about being a fat kid or their experiences of being a fat kid. But again, all of this is happening in a setting that is explicitly entirely focused on producing thinness.
Aubrey: I'm very glad that there are people who have had good experiences, I will say, the folks who spoke most highly of their experiences were entirely people who present to me as thin adults.
Michael: Oh, interesting.
Aubrey: It's a very small sample size. It's not scientific in any way. But I was just like, "Oh, notable. Like, notable." The people who feel good about it are the people who did what it wanted them to do, which is become thin adults.
Aubrey: The flipside of that is, a number of people talked about fat camp as their gateway to a restrictive eating disorder. Campers and counselors both talked about developing binge, purge behaviors when they were at camp, and hiding food, and falling into a bunch of disordered eating patterns.
Michael: Well, I would love to hear from the owner of a fat camp, what the distinction is between exercising six hours a day and eating 1,100 calories at a fat camp and doing that not at a fat camp? Because if you're not at a fat camp, that's a fucking eating disorder.
Aubrey: But if you're not a fat person, that's an eating disorder.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. It's disordered eating. Of course, they have disordered eating after they go to the disordered eating farm.
Michael: Jesus Christ.
Aubrey: I'm going to send you one more quote. So, many of the adults and kids who talked about going to fat camp talked about how most of the kids there had really, really rough home lives that were often made worse by deeply judgmental parents. So, some kids asked to go to fat camp, the majority, majority, majority were sent by their parents. So, this is a quote from a former fat camper.
Michael: It says, "Most of the kids were sent there against their will by ashamed, very wealthy parents. Almost every girl in my cabin had a story about something wretched that a family member had said to her about how her size was reflecting poorly on the family. The overwhelming sentiment was that kids at the camp need to be fixed rather than helped or supportive. Shocking twist. Everyone is here because their mom is the mom from Titanic, tightening the corset."
Aubrey: [laughs] So, before we got on mike, Michael made another Titanic reference which makes me just think, "Did you watch Titanic last night?"
Michael: There's only one movie in my life. It's Titanic at all times.
Michael: I watched it last night, every night, I love that movie.
Aubrey: [laughs] That's me, but with like Muppets Most Wanted.
Aubrey: I like Ty Burrell. He was French Interpol guy. He's great.
Aubrey: Okay. That is the very generally dark context that we're walking into.
Michael: Now, I'm all worked up.
Aubrey: I know, dude.
Michael: All of the emotions that you went through in the last three weeks, I'm now experiencing in like an hour and a half.
Aubrey: I fucking know.
Michael: I feel like I've been on a roller coaster.
Aubrey: This is why it was like, we can only do one clip because every fucking clip is this level of like, just naked bias.
Michael: I know, yeah.
Aubrey: Okay. So, today, Michael Hobbes, we are going to talk about one fat camp in particular. Have you heard of Camp Shane?
Aubrey: It's named Camp Shane because it's named for the word 'Sheyn' S-H-E-Y-N, which is the Yiddish word for beautiful.
Michael: Oh, okay.
Aubrey: So, Camp Shane is one of the most famous fat camps in the country. It is the first co-ed fat camp.
Aubrey: Camp Shane is credited by the screenwriters as having inspired heavyweights. The slogan for Camp Shane, I'm not fucking kidding, is "learn, laugh, lose."
Michael: Oh. That's actually pretty good. [laughs]
Aubrey: Their secondary slogan is "Weigh better than a fat camp," where weigh is spelled W-E-I-G-H.
Michael: Oh, course. It's like eat, pray, just kidding, don't eat.
Michael: I'm just going to be workshopping slogans for the rest of the episode. I'm done listening.
Aubrey: I like it.
Aubrey: So, as I'm talking about this, I'm using the past tense because earlier this year after 53 years in business, the most famous fat camp in the country, I would argue, abruptly closed. The owner told parents and media that they were closing because they were short staffed and didn't have enough staff who were willing to work under COVID protocols. In the month since then, a very different, very complex, and very dark story has unfolded. About like, hey, it might not have just been about staffing.
Michael: Yeah. Whenever management blames workers for the company failing, it's never the workers.
Aubrey: That's right. So, the biggest story, the story that really blew this open was a long read in Bloomberg written by someone named David Gauvey Herbert, who spoke to over 60 former campers, and counselors, and staffers. So, the story here starts with a family. The two people that we're going to spend the most time with are Selma Ettenberg, who was the mom in this family and the founder of Camp Shane, and the other person we're going to spend the most time with is her oldest son, David Ettenberg. She started Camp Shane in 1968. She did a bunch of media around the opening of Camp Shane and got a ton of coverage in its early years, and I am going to send you a quote about that coverage from this Bloomberg piece.
Michael: It says, "The resulting coverage could be casually vicious. "Nobody loves a fat kid, an ex-fattie finds," read a New York Daily News headline from 1972. Her objective is to make a human being of a child who enters camp looking like a glob a Detroit Free Press reporter wrote two years later. "My parents love me now", one boy told the reporter, "They don't pick on me anymore."' So, again, parental bullying [laughs] is the theme of this fucking episode in this entire sector.
Aubrey: Yep. So, Camp Shane started out as one camp in Ferndale, New York that served 20 campers its first year. Over the years, it grew to many states. It served over 600 campers at its height. Each of them are paying about $1,500. So, adjusted for inflation, the camp is raking in about a million dollars a year. So, Selma is getting rich off of this camp.
Aubrey: In terms of the actual program at Camp Shane, what folks were put on with a 1,500 calorie a day diet, food did not have salt because of water retention issues.
Aubrey: There were no snacks, there were no sweets. If there was a field trip to a nearby town, when the campers returned their bags were searched to make sure kids weren't sneaking in foods,-
Aubrey: -packages sent to the camp were also searched. There was one story of someone who was like, "My mom sent me maxi pads because I was on my period and a counselor made me open them in front of her to prove that they weren't candy."
Michael: Oh, wow. Good God.
Aubrey: Which is just like-- I don't know, man. As a teenager who's having a period, especially if you're on your fucking period, are you kidding me? No. Thank you.
Aubrey: So, they're doing all this shit to limit the amount of foods and the kinds of foods that kids have access to, but at the same time, the owner was recruiting thin counselors overwhelmingly. The owner at the time decided that they didn't actually need to be on the restricted diet that the campers were on. So, she had a separate pig out room is what it was called-
Aubrey: -right next to the main dining hall that campers could see.
Aubrey: And it was just full of whatever fucking kind of food thin counselors wanted to eat. If campers hit their goal weight, they were sometimes allowed to go into the pig out room as like a reward.
Michael: This makes no sense.
Michael: First of all, it's an acknowledgement that people can't live like this on any kind of long-term basis. Because if they could, then the counselors would live like this too. And secondly, your reward for restricted eating is you get to eat as much as you want? That's like a really bad paradigm to teach the kids. It also seems like weirdly counterproductive to whatever the fuck you're doing there. It just seems like it's going to teach these kids to eat nothing and then binge.
Aubrey: That's exactly right. It's like, "Food is a reward that you get from being thin, which you get from not eat it."
Aubrey: So, you get to eat after you not eat enough.
Michael: Yeah, it doesn't make any sense.
Aubrey: So, in addition to all of that, campers are regularly weighed, measured, and photographed. They're usually photographed shirtless, or in a swimsuit, or an underwear. We're talking about folks that we saw in the clip that we watched were like, one was 11, and the other one, I think, was 13. This is not a time when you want to be mostly disrobed in front of your peers, especially, if you're a fucking fat kid. It's just like, "No, no, no, no."
Aubrey: Selma was widely understood by pretty much everybody who came in contact with her to be a very intense and very polarizing figure. There was a song at the camp to the tune of bingo that went, "There was a bitch who ran this camp and Selma was her namo."
Michael: Oh. [laughs]
Michael: Wow. Foul mouth kids in the 70s.
Michael: [laughs] Oh, my God.
Aubrey: She was super fucking intense in her management decisions. She had three children, who in their adulthood, she would talk to them about taking over the camp. When her daughter, Diana gave birth to her first child, Selma got extremely angry.
Aubrey: Because she was like, "You were supposed to work at this camp and now, your attention is divided." So, she fired her daughter and cut off her health insurance.
Michael: She's cutting toxic people out of her life, 2020.
Aubrey: Selma. Girl boss, Selma.
Michael: She made that resolution and she's stuck with it.
Aubrey: So, David, the eldest stays on at the fat camp and his sister takes that really hard and there's a long-standing rift between the two of them as a result of it, where she's like, "You just watched our mom fucking fire me and got off my health insurance?"
Michael: Yeah. Abusive parents are very good at pitting kids against each other.
Aubrey: Selma sounds like a masterclass in that to me.
Aubrey: So, by the late 1980s, so Camp Shane has now been around for 20 years, David confronts his parents and says, essentially, they have got to handover ownership if they want him to stay on. He's passed up other job offers. He's not doing other things. They agree. But in pretty short order, Selma seems to get cold feet or have second thoughts or whatever, and she files a lawsuit to invalidate the earlier agreement. So, she is suing her son.
Michael: That's like a good first date weed-'em-out question. Like, how many legal actions are you in the middle of against your children?
Aubrey: [laughs] Sue your kids.
Michael: Two? Okay.
Aubrey: So, David ended up buying the camp from his parents for $1.2 million in 1991. So, this whole court battle drags out over several years. In the end, the courts upheld the sale, and David became the owner outright of Camp Shane. But that did not stop Selma from having huge fucking feelings and resentment about that. In 2000, the IRS started investigating Camp Shane's financials and David's financials in particular.
Michael: Oh, my God.
Aubrey: Both of the kids, both of Selma's kids, David and Leslie, the other daughter, believe that their mother reported them to the IRS.
Michael: Dude, it's weird to start a business, and then sell it to your son, and then try to ruin it.
Michael: It should look like a foundational principle. It's a little weird.
Aubrey: So, as all of this is happening, Camp Shane just keeps growing.
Aubrey: In 2002, the camp was featured on that MTV show, True Life. The year after that airs, the summer after that airs, there are 500 campers at Camp Shane. It's their highest number of [crosstalk] yet. As all of this is happening, as the camp is growing, in 2006, David decides to go national and that's when he opens up these campuses in all of these other states.
Michael: Ah, okay.
Aubrey: This is also like the height of childhood obesity panic.
Michael: Oh, yeah. Dr. Phil probably sent him some kids who has bootcamp episodes.
Aubrey: Fuck man. There is also, I will say, I am a dedicated Top Chef viewer, and there is an episode from one of the early seasons where the chefs are like, challenge to make foods that fit within restricted calories for kids at a fat camp.
Michael: Oh, that's dark.
Aubrey: It's so dark.
Michael: That's dark.
Aubrey: So, the camp is growing and growing and growing, Selma is physically out of the picture, but inside the camp, things were really fucking rough. So, in 2011, a camp counselor talks about what her job was. And here's what Bloomberg has to say about it. "Her job was to run arts and crafts, but she spent much of her time comforting kids. Within the span of a few hours one day, she had a crying girl admit that she'd been cutting herself, found another purging in the bathroom, and consoled a sobbing camper who'd lost 'only 10 pounds' that week."
Michael: Yeah, because they're fucking game show contestants, so they don't know it. It's not good for children.
Aubrey: So, this counselor's pay was $550 plus room and board for 11 weeks of work. She says that while she was at the camp, she developed a real practice of binging. So, she spent her entire salary on food.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: And when she was asked about the campers, she said, "if they didn't come in with eating disorders, they left with them."
Michael: Yeah, I mean, we were teaching them to have eating disorders.
Aubrey: And they succeeded in having eating disorders.
Aubrey: There were also reports from other former employees that say, that David, the owner, instructed them to write positive Yelp reviews of Camp Shane under pseudonyms. According to these former employees, if they didn't, he said he would dock their pay.
Michael: I can't believe that the person who's shitty to children is also shitty in every other aspect.
Aubrey: It doesn't stop when they become teenagers neat.
Aubrey: I should say, it goes without saying David denies all of this, and it's like, "I would never do that."
Michael: I mean, of course.
Aubrey: Staff issues are like a real theme here. So, I genuinely looked up on like, Indeed, and Glassdoor.
Michael: Oh, yeah.
Aubrey: I looked up employee reviews of working at Camp Shane. Out of five stars, it gets 1.8 stars for pay and benefits.
Aubrey: Nearly every written review mentioned straight up not getting paid.
Michael: But at least a lot of kids didn't lose any weight and got psychologically traumatized ultimately.
Aubrey: Oh. Silver lining fat kids feel worse than ever.
Michael: Zooming out, it also harmed many children.
Aubrey: [laughs] One of the reviews says, "I signed up hoping to gain experience in nutrition and helping the children to lose weight. The food sucked, I became the lunch lady for every meal, the meal plans were put together without much thought. The sports activities were the same every day. No psychologist was provided or a nurse like the parents were promised. The company promises more than they give you and the pay sucks, especially, since you were on your feet from 6:30 AM to 10:30 PM." It was basically $1 an hour.
Michael: That's pointing at something else, too, with this the rise of fat camps as a "health intervention." That there doesn't seem to be a lot of quality control or differentiation between the fat camps.
Aubrey: The whole concept of a fat camp is built on the idea that it is children's responsibility to be fit.
Aubrey: And that, any cost, $10,000 is worth it if your kid is a couple pounds lighter a year later.
Michael: Right. There's no accountability.
Michael: Underfeeding children is quite easy. You just don't give them enough food and make them exercise.
Michael: This is the thing. It is like, if all the kids are gaining the weight back and no one seems to care, because they're all blaming the kids, they're blaming the parents, then, why would a fat camp ever improve what it's doing? Like, there's no actual feedback loop.
Aubrey: So, things back at the camp continue to worsen. In 2015, the director of the Ferndale campus, the original campus, he'd been the director for 20 years, and he left reportedly because there were some tensions with David as the owner. Like, things were getting worse and worse there. So, for the first time since the early 90s, David is in charge of the day-to-day operations again and everything goes to shit.
Aubrey: Enrollment is down, two thirds of the cabins are reportedly empty, more and more campers seem to have mental and behavioral health issues, one kid smuggled in knives to cut themselves at night.
Michael: Oh, God.
Aubrey: When I say everything went to shit, that is also literal. The camp had two septic pumps and both of them blew out one day, so the camp was flooded with sewage.
Michael: Oh, my God. [laughs]
Aubrey: Things went off the rails in the Georgia campus, too. They enrolled an autistic camper who was promised that staff would stay with him in his cabin each night, he was anxious. They did not stay with him in his cabin any night. Not even on the first night. On that first night in the absence of staff presence, the autistic camper was repeatedly raped by one of his bunk mates.
Michael: Oh, my God.
Aubrey: That bunk mate pleaded guilty to a felony charge as a result and the autistic camper's parents filed a civil suit against Camp Shane and won.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: In 2019, David sells the property that Camp Shane was on. His mother had bought it in 1968 for $50,000. He was now selling it for $6.3 million.
Michael: So, he's getting out.
Aubrey: He's not getting out. He just moves the camp to Connecticut. He moves it to a private school campus where they rent property there [crosstalk] school, and that same year in 2019, a new civil suit was filed against the camp alleging that a former camper was sexually abused repeatedly by an adult staff member.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: In 2021, Hearst Connecticut Media Group submits a FOIA request, a Freedom of Information Act request from the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, which licenses summer camps around the state. There were so many complaints about Camp Shane that the camp voluntarily surrendered its license.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Aubrey: So, all of this horrible shit is happening. All of these complaints are being filed, all of these violations are being found by the state investigation, and in July, in the middle of camp, parents across the country got 48 hours' notice that they would need to pick their kids up, and that the camp was closing for the season. So, they had two days. If you're in Michigan, your kid's in New York, figure it out.
Michael: These are rich parents. They had their like butlers do it. But still,-
Michael: -they have helicopters just hovering over the camp at all times, I assume.
Aubrey: The investigation found that they had 62 violations. Among other things, they found that the camp had issues with missing campers.
Michael: Those kids were out looking for food, those kids are hungry.
Aubrey: They had failed to train staff on administering medication. Again, a number of these kids have mental health issues.
Michael: Though, none of those kids should be in a fat camp.
Aubrey: Yep. So, those are like the categories of violations. Here are some of the actual stories. On the last weekend of its operation, a goalpost fell on a camper, that eight-year-old girl who was the camper fractured her skull.
Aubrey: Campers "were encouraged to work out until they vomited." This is where we get into baby Biggest Loser.
Aubrey: Parents would call or email the camp to share concerns about their kids' experiences and they didn't get any responses from the camp for days. Camp counselors were responsible for administering cognitive behavioral therapy.
Michael: [laughs] It sounds like a bunch of teenagers doing like psychology.
Aubrey: Yep, and they have no training in CBT.
Michael: Wikipedia, YouTube tutorials, this is how I learned to iron shirts.
Aubrey: Yeah, that's how you learn to be a therapist.
Aubrey: All of this is happening with, as we mentioned, frequent bullying amongst campers and sometimes between counselors and campers.
Michael: Oh, man.
Aubrey: It's so fucking rough.
Michael: Well, it's actually an interesting question. What's the difference between someone encouraging your kid to lose weight and bullying them? Some of the stuff, it encourages for people to be mean to kids because "health is at the end of it."
Aubrey: Yeah. I mean, this is a thing that we've talked about a little bit and that I've written about, which is that the logic of "tough love weight loss" is just the same as the logic of abuse.
Aubrey: I wouldn't be doing this if you didn't make me. I'm doing it for your own good. As soon as you shape up, I can stop.
Aubrey: You're in control here. You're making me do this and I don't like it. It really does operate from pretty similar playbooks.
Aubrey: That's thrown into even sharper relief when you take into account that we don't know how to produce weight loss for a majority of people in the long term.
Aubrey: We certainly, don't fucking know how to do that in an empirical way with kids.
Michael: We can't even get teenagers to stop playing Pokémon GO. I don’t know how to do anything with teenagers.
Aubrey: Timely reference.
Michael: That was my only [crosstalk] all I got.
Aubrey: [laughs] Timely reference.
Michael: The level of my interaction [crosstalk].
Aubrey: We're now just like the human equivalent of that Steve Buscemi, "How are you doing fellow kids?"
Michael: I have that skateboard over my shoulder right now.
Michael: Yes. That is accurate.
Aubrey: I will say like, this is all the story of one fat camp. It was a very prominent one. It was a very well-known one. But it is one fat camp. So, by no means is this like this, exactly, this is happening in every fat camp ever.
Aubrey: But I do think it's worth lifting up that when you focus an environment exclusively on getting children to change their bodies at almost any cost, and you deprioritize the lived experience of those kids, it can attract a kind of person who just doesn't care much about the people that they're working with. In some cases, it may have really profound biases, or grudges, or weird shit about fat people. Overwhelmingly, there may be folks who haven't really unpacked their own body shit and ended up externalizing that onto the people around them, who in this case are children. I think there's this sense amongst the thin people that I talked to about fat camps. It's like, "Well, you know, if it helps--"
Michael: Who knows it also doesn't help in that way? I mean, it's such a narrow way to measure health and such a stupid way to measure the wellbeing of children. But even on that one stupid measure, it doesn't fucking help.
Aubrey: Yeah, totally.
Michael: We focused everything on weight loss. Okay, great. Well, are the camps helping them lose weight? No. Okay.
Aubrey: Yeah. Exactly.
Michael: So-- [laughs]
Aubrey: At the core of fat camp, is this idea that this temporary intervention where adults whip kids into shape is going to fix whatever led them to whatever point they're at in their lives and whatever weight gain, or body size, or any of that stuff? That's like, "Hey, man, if you have abusive parents, and they ship you off to fat camp, and you lose 10 pounds in 10 weeks, and then, you come home, your parents are still fucking abusive."
Michael: It's not clear to me that this Scared Straight! approach works for anything. The idea that you can take somebody out of their home environment, submit them to some extreme regimen, and then, put them back into their home life. Just as a model of behavior change, it doesn't make any sense. It's not plausible, because people respond to things based on the forces in their own context. We do things because of what is around us on a daily basis, not what was around us five weeks ago, when some random guy I've never met before yelled at me that's going to have a lasting effect on behavior.
Aubrey: Yeah, I mean, there are some fat camps now that have been operating more recently that incorporate more acceptance, celebrate your body kind of stuff, but also are still focused on weight loss.
Aubrey: Actually, I read a great book about more recent fat camps written by a sociology professor named Laura Backstrom, it's called Weighty Problems. A number of the campers that she talked to, this book came out in 2019 so presumably this was like pretty recent, spoke really highly of their time at fat camp, and she also was like, "But also they are being taught these deeply conflicting messages about like, appreciate your body and embrace it as it is, but also change it as much as possible right now."
Aubrey: It's a bit of like an adapt to keep with the times kind of thing but without really reckoning with the inherent deep contradictions in those messages.
Michael: That's a lot of cognitive dissonance to have between kayaking and archery.
Aubrey: Totally. Essentially, her primary critique, she was like, "So, now, they're just getting conflicting messages."
Aubrey: Before the instruction was clear, it was impossible but it was clear. Her argument was, she was like, "I actually think these conflicting messages can be as damaging or more so, because you're supposed to both love your body, and change it, and hate it, and reject it, but also act like you love it. Because if you don't, then there's going to be weird social consequences for that."
Aubrey: It feels like the bottom line of all of this is just like, adults have anxieties about kids' bodies. They project them on to kids and then they make kids solve their own fucking anxiety.
Michael: Save that cognitive dissonance for goop.com. Don't [crosstalk] bring it on children.
Michael: Leave it on the internet for adults.
Aubrey: Yeah, lose weight with your, whatever. Vaginal eggs.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. Use vaginal eggs, mom.
Michael: You're a consenting adult on some level to that stuff.
Aubrey: Maintenance Phase, do's and don'ts. Don't go to fat camp. Do use Jade eggs up your business.