A pro-fat camp for women? Sign me up.

A pro-fat camp for women? Sign me up.

There we were — a bunch of fat women hanging out at a pool, unashamed and splashing around freely. We swam happily: diving, giggling and playing. Our bodies — of every size and shape, with beautiful curves and rolls — were on full display. “You know what the good thing about being fat is?” counselor Molly Brubaker asked. “You f***ing float.”

Growing up, I remember seeing other fat women at public pools. Even in the hottest weather — and despite their proximity to the pool — they would always keep their coverup or a towel on, making sure that their bodies were constantly covered, avoiding the gaze of others. I’d watch as they would inch themselves into the pool, bit by bit, careful to not draw attention or make a splash.

Here at Camp Roundup, though, these women walked freely to the pool — uncovered and unafraid that someone might see their body jiggle or their bathing suit move slightly out of place. Without the fear of judgment, the women ran into the pool, the water erupting followed by the sounds of cheering.

Camp Roundup, a summer camp experience for fat women that was conceived of by a pair of friends, Alison Rampa and Erica Chiseck, was held for the first time this year in Newark, Ohio. The duo was inspired to create the camp after listening to an episode of the “Maintenance Phase” podcast that tackled the twisted history of fat camps. In the episode, hosts Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon spoke about how, for decades, fat camps have shamed children for their bodies, resulting in eating disorders and the spread of beliefs that diets are effective and being fat is inherently bad. Though weight loss camps are marketed as solutions to childhood obesity, they actually spread unhealthy calorie restrictions, fad diets and intense workout sessions. As of 2019, roughly two dozen fat camps were still operating across the United States. After learning about the history of these camps, Rampa and Chiseck wondered how different their lives might have been — and how different life might be for their own children one day — if there had been a camp for fat celebration.

Within six months, their idea for a more pro-fat camp experience came to fruition and Camp Roundup was born. At this camp, adult women could come as they for a positive experience. As a fat woman myself, I immediately wanted to go.

As a visual storyteller, I have seen time and time again the lack of fat representation in the media. I wanted not only to attend this camp, but to capture the under-documented experiences of fat joy and liberation.

As a child, I didn’t have a great camp experience. When I was 11 years old, an adult counselor called me “butterball” for an entire summer. At the time, I thought the nickname was funny and endearing. When my older sister heard the name, she clued me in. Only then did I realize the counselor was actually calling me fat — and making fun of me. Suddenly, all the memories of making bracelets, eating s’mores and laughing with friends were overshadowed by learning that the adult who was helping to care for me was actually bullying me. I was a child being fat-shamed before I even knew what it meant.

There is a lot of weight a fat person carries — not only physically, but emotionally. The constant reminders from strangers, friends and even loved ones that we are larger than them — and larger than society deems okay — is devastating. One of the Camp Roundup campers, Alicia Buda, reflected, “You don’t realize the weight of [those ‘reminders’] on a day-to-day basis … how much stress it is, and how much it takes away from your day-to-day life.” If you’re wondering what is the best way to tell someone who is fatter than you that you’re concerned about them and their health, the answer is to do nothing and say nothing. They know they’re fat and they know your concerns because society tells them every single day.

Society places so much focus on weight and, as a fat person, it takes so much mental strength to combat this fat-phobic focus. At camp, we spent hours diving into some of these topics and had compassionate, honest conversations about them. We talked about body mass index and how it was made by mathematician Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetele in the 1830s using a completely arbitrary formula — not science — and yet somehow it is still used in modern medicine. Campers shared how it felt to have their health judged by their weight because, as a fat person, people tend to presume that we are unhealthy due to our size. We discussed how people believe we owe them our “health” when, in reality, that’s up to each individual and how they choose to live. We also spoke of familial trauma around diets and intentional weight loss.

An important topic discussed was the difference between body acceptance and body positivity. It was clear that all of the campers were on different paths, all having achieved different levels of self-acceptance in a world that continually tears them down. Linda O’Donnell shared her feelings of body neutrality and how hard it is for her to promote “loving your body at every size” when she isn’t there yet, mentally. “I worry that I am not setting a body-positive experience for my child. It’s difficult being in that neutral zone and working toward it with glimpses of positivity. I want to set them up to be on the positive end, but I can’t be a role model right now.”

The camp drew around 30 women from six different states, ranging in age from 21 to 64 years old. It didn’t seem to matter what age anyone was: despite the generational gap, we all bonded over our experiences of being fat and the freedom that the camp allowed for just a few days. We shared meals together on ’70s-style school lunch trays, we made hemp bracelets and did a scavenger hunt — the yellow cabin won. An instructor named Cat Ruehlman led mindful yoga and talked to campers about the importance of reflection and self-awareness. “We are taught a lot [about] how to look as a body, but we aren’t taught how to feel as a body,” she explained as she walked around with a Tibetan singing bowl, letting the tones resonate and sink into each of us.

At night, we huddled around a campfire and made s’mores. We also shared our own version of ghost stories: tales of the horrors of not being listened to by our doctors, and the blatant medical fat phobia we’d each experienced. Poet Rachel Wiley read a poem from her book, Nothing is Okay, titled “Fat Joke.”

“Fat Girl walks into the doctor’s office and says ‘Doctor, it hurts when I move my arm like this, what should I do?’ and the doctor says ‘Have you considered weight loss surgery?’

“Fat Girl walks into the doctor’s office for a flu shot / and gets a lecture about BMI.”

The poem goes on to explain the girl is tired of only being diagnosed as fat, so she stops going to the doctor’s office. It concludes with the Fat Girl saying, “I am deserving of existence, I am deserving of care, I am deserving of ‘First, no harm done.’

“World says, ‘That is the best joke we’ve heard all day.’ ”

The words struck a chord in each of us, our eyes welling up with tears as we exchanged nods of understanding. The discussions continued with women speaking about the lack of options in clothes for plus-size bodies, including inconsistent sizing and not being able to try anything on in-person due to larger sizes not being properly stocked in stores. We’d all had experiences with crazy fad diets and growing up knowing statistics like the number of weight watcher points in a cheese stick. Our parents packed us hard-boiled eggs for school lunch while other kids ate pizza. Many of us struggled with disordered eating as a result of toxic diet culture.

It rained nearly all weekend, mother nature joining us in shedding a few tears for all we’d been through — and all we would continue to go through once we returned to reality. On our last full day together, as we gathered in the pool under the cloud-filled sky that drizzled down on us, the sun made an appearance for just for a few moments, and campers remarked how they could have stayed there forever, floating freely, surrounded by nature, with calm encompassing us all.

My fellow red cabin mate Teri Collins spoke to me about how validating it felt to be seen and acknowledged at camp for the weekend. “To have a place where women can go and be themselves and show all of themselves and not be afraid of judgment or laughter, humiliation, embarrassment — I mean, that’s huge.”

I bonded with these women, a majority of my lived experience recognized by the campers in a way I don’t think my straight-sized friends back home could ever possibly comprehend. There was no need to justify feelings or explain them — there was a unilateral understanding of the lived experience of being fat.

On our last night together, the campgrounds echoed with laughter and singing. The women got ready in their cabins, pulling on stockings, gluing on sparkles, and swigging back shots. We cheered each other on as we flocked to the dance floor in space-disco outfits. The energy was high and the sisterhood was felt as we all screamed along to Abba. The night ended with us around picnic tables eating snacks and taking pictures with new friends. The party reverberated the joyful feelings of the weekend. I remember looking around me in awe: Never before had I been surrounded by so many fat women, and never had I seen fat women so free.

Jackie Molloy is a freelance photojournalist and writer based in New York City.

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