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2000s Archive

Free to Be Me

Originally Published August 2002
At a camp tucked away in the foothills of the Berkshires, kids come to grips with the seductive power of food.

There are two main rules at Camp Kingsmont: no sex and no throwing up. The first rule is de rigueur wherever teenagers are on the loose, but the second restriction is particular to Kingsmont, a "weight management" camp, tucked away in the Berkshires, for children between the ages of 7 and 18. In this particular program, the word fat has been excised from the vernacular like a tumor.

"This is not a fat camp," says Michael Ellerin, the camp's co-owner and director. "We don't do before-and-after photos." He describes it more as a place to heal the spirit than the body. Kingsmont campers have weight issues. "But don't make assumptions about what that means," says Betsy Gertz, a registered nurse who spent a summer working at the camp. "They end up here because of conditions ranging from Tourette's syndrome to dyslexia. But for all of them, food is a cushion." Photographer Mary Ellen Mark and I have decided to spend a week at the camp to meet the kids who, for better or worse, are youthful experts on the seductive power of food.

According to Keith Zucker, co-owner/director and resident guru, the average camper loses 30 pounds in the course of a summer. Zucker arrived at the camp for his first summer at the age of seven. He kept coming back for 16 years, then, in 1991, he bought the place, when he was just 23. Zucker doesn't seem to like the press; he doesn't show up for a scheduled interview—and keeps his distance the whole week. Ellerin, infinitely more friendly, explains the Kingsmont drill, required for all, which includes workshops on relearning how to eat and on how to use free time, weekly weight and heart rate checks, and using a small waistline monitor, about the size of a watch, that counts individual paces taken, miles walked, and calories burned each day. Every camper's progress is recorded. "The goal is to motivate the kids to change their attitudes and habits," explains Ellerin. "Counting pounds alone won't work. The danger is that kids will drop the weight here and gain it right back when they go home."

In this atmosphere, Snickers bars are strictly black market. There is no comfort food at Kingsmont, but there are other comforts, apparently sufficient to bring campers back year after year. Kingsmont, it turns out, is the one place where these children can leave their troubles behind.

A world unto itself, the camp is located in West Stockbridge, a small yet sophisticated village in the foothills of the mountains. As with most summer camps, coming upon Kingsmont is like discovering a lost settlement. A network of primitive paths snakes up and down hills and through the forest, leading to clusters of wooden buildings on a lake with a small beachfront. The main attraction here is a floating trampoline, which hurls campers into the cold, fresh water.

I watch two very large boys, maybe 12 years old and 20 pounds overweight, climb into a rowboat. One is very frightened; he doesn't know how to swim and needs a lot of encouragement from the peanut gallery onshore just to get into the boat. His companion boasts of expertise. Each boy is stuffed into an orange life jacket up to his neck, his head protruding from his protective shell like a turtle's. In the process, the boys launch the boat, almost accidentally, and the inevitable happens within seconds. Two soggy heads pop out of the lake and squeal in horror as the counselor shouts, "Put your feet down—you can touch!"

I assume they're going to abort this mission altogether. Instead, the boys drag the boat to shore and get right back in, chatting about their combined weight, the balance of the boat, and where they should sit. Then they nervously repeat the entire performance, this time successfully, to the sound of great cheering from the sidelines. Welcome to Camp Kingsmont.

When I first arrived, I wondered if campers would even speak to a reporter from Gourmet, a magazine that puts good food on the shortlist of human necessities. As it turned out, the kids were eager for attention—from anyone. They lined up to be photographed by Mark and were so open about their feelings that by the end of the week I felt protective of them. In an attempt to put myself in their shoes, I decided to attach a monitor to my own waistline and shed the weight of my preconceptions about Kingsmont. Then I joined the kids on their daily routines.

The occupants of each bunk are given a weekly schedule of activities—field sports, rope climbing, horseback riding, archery, and weight lifting—which moves them around the 225 acres of the camp. (Just to get to any activity involves a hike, so kids begin to lose weight right away.) The day begins with breakfast—pre-beaten eggs (with or without ham), Cheerios with skim milk, an orange, and a choice of ketchup, margarine, or Smucker's; one condiment is allowed with each meal. Zucker himself is in the kitchen at every meal, personally serving the food and greeting each camper. No seconds are allowed. At lunch and dinner, there is always salad, considered a "free food." The kids, to my amazement, appear blasé about the menus—a carefully selected 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day, depending on each child's energy needs—planned by a staff nutritionist and prepared, at the time of my visit, by Hanrow Hartley, a young, enthusiastic chef from New York. "I make every meatball by hand," Hartley tells me. The volume on food is turned way down, transforming meals into something of a ho-hum, if not bland, occasion.

"The only problem is the raisins," says Cindy, a 14-year-old camper, as we eat tuna sandwiches dotted with the wrinkled fruits. "They put them in everything, even the shepherd's pie."

I spend my days trying to soak up the atmosphere and chat with the kids. Water activities rule, either at the lake or in the swimming pool. (The tennis courts are almost always empty.) One morning, we catch a particularly raucous boys' basketball game. The kids, who look to be around ten years old, are stealing the ball from one another, randomly shooting, and generally playing their own version of the game. The counselor in charge is blowing his whistle now and then, offering instruction. "Hey, fat mess!" shouts one boy at a buddy when he fumbles the ball. "Damn, you're fat," he scolds. The other boy, a roly-poly kid from Texas, just laughs. They all laugh. "Only the fat campers can call each other fat," explains Ellerin, who's observing the game. "It's their privilege."

Not all Kingsmont campers appear to be overweight, but many are veteran overeaters. In the cafeteria, the girls casually chat about bulimia and anorexia, eating too much or too little. Everybody is refreshingly frank about their personal struggles. While I watch the basketball game, Andrew, a gregarious 16-year-old from Connecticut, comes to check me out. He's a total charmer, with an easy smile, who tells me that he's been coming to Kingsmont for four years and has lost a total of 80 pounds during that time; today, he looks about 20 pounds overweight. I congratulate him. "It changed my life," he says, beaming. "When I graduate from college, I'm going to be a stockbroker and make lots of money," he adds, letting me know that in his newfound svelte state, he's prepared to conquer the world. (He also wants to know whether I have any Coke or other soft drinks in my car.) Andrew invites me to visit his cabin, where the oldest boys live. It's an invitation I've been waiting for.

At rest hour, when all campers must be in their bunks, Gertz and I climb the hill to the cluster of boys' cabins, which is on the opposite side of camp from the girls' bungalows. I am informed that clandestine visits at all hours are par for the course, despite the distance. From the outside, Andrew's cabin looks like a bunker, guarded by two boys hanging out on the front steps. As we approach, one shouts, "Get dressed! Company!" Inside, the place smells like old sneakers and dirty laundry.

Ten boys share the cabin, along with two counselors. (There's a four to one ratio of kids to counselors at Kingsmont.) Andrew puts on some music and shows us photographs of his family. (One picture also features the dog he had to leave behind, a handsome terrier mix.) Another boy, Tony, who appears to weigh about 350 pounds, is lying on his side precariously, as if he might fall off the edge of his narrow bed. "I really miss my family," he comments, sadly. This is his first summer away from home.

Leaving the cabin, I stop to chat with a young man named Danny, who turns out to be the bunk counselor. He tells me that he, too, was a camper here for several years before becoming a counselor. After graduating from high school, he immediately joined the navy. "The day I was released from service, I came back to camp," he says. This turns out to have been just a few weeks ago. "You came here before going home?" I ask. He nods. Apparently, Kingsmont is his home.

Visiting the girls one day, I stop to talk to Eva, who is sitting on the steps of her bunk and shaving her legs. This is her first time at Kingsmont, and she is having the happiest summer of her life. "Usually I am alone all the time," she says. "I can't afford to hang out at the mall and eat junk food all night. That's what kids do. So I stay home."

Suddenly there's a shriek from down the hill, and we see a group of boys running toward us with water balloons and cans of shaving cream. I run for cover. Eva dashes inside to warn her mates and get ammunition, which turns out to be anything that can be sprayed, squirted, or tossed. It's a sneak attack—the boys against the girls. "Get him with Nair! Make him bald!" one girl shouts as they all let fly with powders, creams, and shampoos. Everyone is yelling, wiping their eyes and faces. The fracas culminates in toilet paper shooting through the air as the girls hurl rolls at the boys. The place is a wonderful, chaotic mess. When a counselor shows up (intentionally late?) to put a stop to the altercation, the boys turn and sprint for home. Later, at dinner, both sides claim victory.

Every afternoon at four, all the campers gather in a field for a mandatory snack. Today, it's frozen lemon yogurt and apples, intended to take the edge off their appetites before dinner. Three preteen girls come bounding down the hill from their cabin, arms linked; the girl in the middle has taped her mouth closed. Is this a self-inflicted punishment? An attempt to control her urges? As she approaches, I see the words "Kiss Me!" written in Magic Marker on the tape, suggesting another motive. I am amused; her counselor is not. Anne, a spunky ten-year-old, is giggling helplessly as she's forced to remove the message from her lips. A small group of boys and girls have encircled her, admiring her audacity. Anne invites me to visit her bunk later on as the girls dress for the Friday evening dance. Each week, this event has a new theme. Tonight, it's Halloween at Kingsmont.

The girls in Anne's bunk decide to give me the real scoop. They are all 10 or 11 years old, full of energy, and anxious to chat about anything and everything as they put on their costumes and show off their bodies to one another. "I have more rolls than a bakery!" quips Gwen, stuffing her legs into a pair of red tights that belong to a chum. Gwen will be a devil this evening. "We hear the best fat jokes," she adds, repeating a few, which elicit no laughter from the others. Anne is dressing as a white rabbit with big ears, a fluffy tail, and a slinky, sleeveless tunic. "I'm cuddly," she whispers seductively, giving herself a hug. "But I'd never wear anything without sleeves at home," she notes, pinching the flab under her arm.

"Me neither," says Jessie, who is putting on a revealing halter top. "I would get teased big time for this shirt. People call me Fatty. But I'm going to lose twenty pounds this summer." Jessie is transforming herself into a princess.

"I didn't want to come here at first, because I thought they would starve us," Sara chimes in. "But then we had Boston cream pie for dessert!" Sara tells me that she has bouts of depression. "Being overweight is horrible. I worry too much and think bad thoughts," she explains. The other girls nod. They all speak the same language.

They are definitely unanimous about their favorite camp event, a Kingsmont tradition known as Beauty List. One night every summer, each cabin selects one camper and one counselor, whom they dress up in drag to compete in a "beauty" contest. "We dressed up Luke in my pink underwear and now he won't give it back," giggles Gwen. A few parents called in to protest; the kids, on the other hand, want to do it again. In this topsy-turvy charade, fantasies are freely expressed as the sexes get mixed up, dressed up, and flaunted.

The more time I spend at Kingsmont, the more I realize that most activities lead to a physical, even sensuous, experience of the body, where the kids eagerly explore their own adolescent desires. Or, in Anne's words, "There are really nice boys here. They're not like the boys at home." What are the boys like at home? "They're conceited, mean, and skinny," she says. Her buddies seem to know the same boys in their hometowns.

Kingsmont is synonymous with a freedom that these kids do not enjoy the rest of the year. "It's a safe haven," says Gertz. "These kids come here summer after summer because they only get to be themselves for two months out of the year. They have two months to do all their touching."