Teenage Waistland

It's weigh-in day at Camp Weigh-a-Lot, a fat farm in the Pocono Mountains

My stomach rumbles beneath the sheets, from hunger or nerves or both, and I awaken with a jolt. Normally, I would rather lounge in my bunk bed until noon, but today's different. It's weigh-in day at Camp Weigh-a-Lot, a fat farm in the Pocono Mountains. This is what I've been working toward all week, and the sooner I wake up, the sooner I find out if my efforts have paid off. It is the summer of 1984, and I am 16 years old.

Every Sunday after breakfast—it's the same every week: scrambled egg and mini-bagel ("egglet and bagelet"), a pat of margarine, a four-ounce glass of OJ and a cup of skim milk—we trudge the hundred yards to the triangular-shaped building that houses the two doctor's scales. We strip down to our bathing suits or T-shirts, tossing our sweatshirts and jeans aside. Health regulations apply; everyone must wear shoes. We slip on rubber thongs or Ked sneakers —no one wants to add unnecessary pounds.

Before stepping into the closed-off room where the scales are (privacy is of utmost importance), a counselor hands out index cards with our vital statistics, updated each week: the amount of weight we've lost, and the measurements of our arms, legs, waist, thighs, calves and bust. My friend Stephanie glances at her card. "If I don't lose at least two pounds, I'll die!" she moans. I nod sympathetically. Last week, she only lost half a pound—half a pound—and she was all set to return home to Manhattan, where she could at least have her own room and a hot shower. This is her fourth year at camp, and she's promised herself it's her last, as she does every summer.

We wait in line until one of the friendly Food Advisors motions me into the room. The tension is as thick as a chocolate milkshake. "Step on the scale," she says, and slides the metal bar to the number it was the previous week. She slowly moves it to the left. I suck in my breath ... one pound, a pound and three quarters, two pounds, two and a half ... "You've lost three!" she says, and I let out a whoop.

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A few minutes later, Steph comes out. She is smiling; she's lost two pounds. "Last week, I must have been bloated from my period," she says. We give each other high fives. We've both just aced our exams.

When I get back to my bunk, my friends gather, curious. Although competition is frowned upon ("You're only competing with yourself!" we're told), whenever anyone emerges from the weigh-in room she is greeted with a chorus of "How'd you do?" and "How much you lose?" If the verdict is good, we're thrilled to admit it. If it's bad, no one even needs to ask—tears stream down our faces.

Indeed, sometimes the scale doesn't cooperate. Once, after I gain half a pound for no apparent reason, my counselor Elaine, a three-year camp veteran who has lost and re-lost 60 pounds, decides to take matters into her own hands. "Your system needs to be shaken up," she explains. "Your body's getting used to the diet. You need sugar to give it a jolt."

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I've never heard that kind of logic before, but it sounds good to me. At 11 o'clock that night, I slipped on a hooded black sweatsuit and snuck into the parking lot where Elaine keeps her Chevy Nova. We sped off to the Grand Union, terrified and elated. Elaine was, after all, risking her job. She could get fired for taking a camper off grounds and, more importantly, feeding her. I could get kicked out of camp with no refund.

Elaine and I pull up to the supermarket. I wait in the produce section, huddled against a wall, while she scopes the store for other camp people. It has been weeks since I've been in the real world; I feel like a paroled felon about to commit grand larceny. I am convinced "fat farm defector" is scrawled all over me and that the cashier knows I am engaged in Highly Illegal Activities.

Happily, no alarms sound and Elaine and I calmly fill our cart with Mallomars and chocolate-chip cookie dough and Three Musketeers and Reese's Pieces and the requisite six-pack of Diet Coke. Elaine pays the bill while my system gears up for the big jolt. We don't even wait to get into the car before tearing open the packages. Within an hour, I am left with a pile of wrappers and a bout of diarrhea.

But it works. The following week I step on the scale: I've lost two pounds.

Not everyone sneaks away from camp like I did to pig out. Other kids raid the dining hall in the middle of the night, stealing jars of peanut butter, loaves of bread and—the all-time coup—Weight Watchers ice cream. They hide the food in the rafters and throw a party. And what goes on at a fat-camp party? Excessive chowing, discussions about excessive chowing, or a hearty combination of the two.

There's also a black market of food, an underground ring of food smugglers. Money-hungry counselors know that campers will pay $5 for a Snickers bar, $4 for a hoagie, $.75 for a bag of chips (inflation has since elevated the price). They know the campers are desperate, that we live for the day when we can go out and buy our own piles of goodies.

As it happens, our camp is one of three specialized camps in the area: one for mentally challenged kids, one for juvenile delinquents and then us, the Fatties. As my friend Sean jokes: "Welcome to the Poconos. Watch your money, your toys and your food."

Abby Ellin is the author of "Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can't) Help," from which this is adapted.

Tags: memoirs