Dear Camp Counselor,
As you know, I picked up my daughter from overnight camp over the weekend. When I arrived at camp, I was greeted by a huge smile and long hug. I think she grew an inch while she was away. She looks forward to the 2 weeks she spends at overnight camp more than any other time of the year. She loves the rock climbing, swimming and kayaking. She loves the camp traditions, friendships and the feeling of freedom she has when she’s at camp. Most of all, though, she loves the teenage and young adult counselors. She looks up to you and watches your every move. That’s why I’m writing you this letter. You may be surprised that one of the first things she told me about camp was that you were on a diet. She explained that you were getting ready to “look good in your bathing suit” for an upcoming post-camp tropical trip. She said you were counting your steps and talking about what you were not eating. Did you know she was listening? Did you know she looks up to you and wants more than anything to be a camp counselor one day? She wants to be just like you.
I don’t think your intent was to teach young girls about dieting or to introduce the idea that making yourself smaller is a good idea. I don’t think for a second that you were trying to cause the 11 years olds in your cabin harm. I assume you spend your summer at camp because you love children and love camp. You and I both know it’s not for the money. Because of your love for children and camp, I want you to know and understand that when you have twelve 11 year olds under your care, negative comments about your body or about restricting food need to be kept to after “lights out” or written in an email or letter home. You are in a pivotal position to have a lasting impact on these girls’ lives. All people in influential positions that work with children, camp counselors, parents, and educators, need to understand the impact of diets and restrictive food messages on our children. I believe if you understood that, you wouldn’t have talked about your pre-beach diet to the girls in your cabin.
You may wonder why I’m so concerned about a camp counselor modeling dieting behavior. My concern is multilayered. I am a Registered Dietitian that specializes in eating disorders. I unfortunately see first hand the harm our diet culture causes people throughout their lifetime. I’m concerned because dieting is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. We know that adolescents that diet are more likely to exhibit eating disorder behavior 5 years later. Many people who diet fall into a lifetime of diet cycling. You may be too young to have fully witnessed or experienced the diet cycle, although I know many teenagers who have. The diet cycle first sucks you in with the promise of feeling better. Then, you lose weight and get praised for the weight loss. When you’re on a diet you miss out on important things in life, because your brain focuses on food, the basic need you are lacking. The diet ends and the weight comes back and oftentimes more weight than was lost (because 95% of diets fail). Then, the shame hits. Many people spend their life in this cycle feeling as if there is something wrong with them, rather than the intrinsically flawed diets. We know that this weight cycling and the shame involved is what is harmful for people’s health. Not to mention, diets suck the joy out of life. I want something different for my daughter and her fellow cabinmates.
I’m also concerned because diet messages can have a huge impact on adolescents' self esteem. Did you know you had a particularly vulnerable age of campers in your cabin for messages of body hatred and dieting? The girls in your cabin are going through or about to go through puberty. Did you notice your cabin photo — all of your girls were all lined up in two rows in front of the mountain view? They were of many different heights, shapes and sizes. Your cabin picture looked really different from the cabin photo of the 7 years olds and from the photo of the 15 year olds. There’s a biological reason for that. When girls go through puberty their body fat percentage increases by 120%, compared to a decrease in body fat percentage for boys. It’s normal for their bodies to become more round prior to their first period. However, this is just the age they start to hear about dieting or trying to change their bodies. They don’t have to hear that at camp.
I’ve heard the statistic that 2 in 3 13 year old girls are fearful of gaining weight and 1 in 3 do not like their current weight status. Think about that, girls are fearful of gaining weight when they need to be gaining weight. Gaining weight, particularly fat mass, is what their bodies are meant to do so that they can become women. These girls need to hear that bodies are to be trusted during this time that their bodies are different than they have ever been in their life. They need to know it’s important to trust their hunger especially because their nutritional needs are higher than they have ever been in their lives. When they run, climb, dance and play at camp they need to do that because it feels good, not because they “should” or a step counter tells them to do it more. However, when they hear a trusted counselor wanting to change her body to "look good," how do you think that effects their vulnerable minds?
I certainly don’t blame you. You, too, are swimming in this diet culture of ours. You may have had a parent, teacher or counselor model to you about diets, weight loss or body hatred. You may think diet talk is commonplace and didn’t think a thing of it. How are you to know any differently when so many people spend time criticizing their own bodies or talking about their latest diet? I don’t blame you and at the same time I want to provide you with this knowledge because you can make a difference. It’s possible to change our culture so that girls and boys grow up to not question their bodies. Camp is a place that can and needs to be free of diet talk. Camp’s mission is to teach character values and it’s greatest asset is that its isolated from our larger culture. If camp counselors are empowered with the knowledge of how diet’s harm and how to talk about their own bodies and food around children, than you all could make an even bigger difference in these children’s lives. I’m happy to talk to you more about this. I think these topics need to be a part of camp's staff training each summer because you work so intimately with children. If you're interested in reading more about the harm diets cause children, read my post about Weight Watchers marketing to children.
I thank you for all you did for my daughter those two weeks. I hope my letter is not accusatory, but rather interesting to you. I truly do believe that we can stop the cycle of body hatred, dieting, and shame with this generation of children. I believe that it’s possible when my daughter is a camp counselor, it won’t even cross her mind to try to change her body for a bathing suit, but rather she'll enjoy her wonderful body that helps her do all the amazing activities at camp.
Your camper's mom