The packing list for summer camp is minimal: ten T-shirts, four pairs of shorts, two pairs of jeans, one nice outfit, and so on. Practical, perhaps, but flawed in assuming that we’ll rewear enough to stretch between laundry days, or even that teenage girls will be content with the same ten T-shirts for close to a month in the mountains of Northern California.
Even as a girl who wears a uniform five days a week, who hates shopping and cannot figure out what, exactly, makes an outfit match, the list is inadequate. Throw in the skirt I know I won’t wear so I can cross that off, then stack an extra four pairs of pants on top because my thighs are too big and I’ll be thinking about that every minute I wear shorts.
What the packing list doesn’t prepare you for is all the dressing up you’ll do at camp. But once you’ve been there you know. Most girls don’t wear the same nice outfit every Friday night. Then there are color wars. A dance or two. Themed programs. And sometimes your cabin will decide to dress up for no reason at all. Girls bring extra clothes just to lend to their friends, to coordinate and match with each other, because dressing up is fun. Isn’t it?
We’re never alone at camp.
The days are long, and every hour is scheduled. We wake up together, go to cabin and camp-wide activities together, eat meals together. Even when everyone else is asleep, you can feel their presence, hear the even breathing, the creaking of old furniture as someone shifts in the night.
Shower hour is especially chaotic. We rush to the bathrooms in small groups, holding our towels with one hand and shower caddies in the other, trying to beat the lines. In and out in five minutes, then back to the cabin. Girls blow dry, straighten or curl, style their hair and each other’s. They put on makeup. They swap clothes and opinions. This time is more effective than any team-building exercise. It’s organic.
I shower. Get dressed. Read or listen to music until my hair is mostly dry and I can brush it. I don’t wear makeup and I don’t know how to do anything with my hair. No one wears the same size as me. I don’t know how to be a part of this ritual.
The pool is loud, filled with laughter, shrieking whistles, and the slapping of wet feet against the concrete. Aside from the mandatory swim test at the beginning of the summer, I spend most swim time in a shady corner by the fence with whatever friend or friends will join me. I’m too uncomfortable to be in a bathing suit in front of my peers. Worse than that, I don’t even want to swim with shorts and a shirt over it. I’m embarrassed to be embarrassed.
A few times I get pushed into the pool with my clothes on. I don’t mind; I love being in the water.
One day, when I’m actually swimming, Sadie comes up and asks if she can borrow a pair of my shorts to swim in. She and I don’t talk much, but she’s the only girl bigger than me here; actually, she’s the only other fat girl, and I’m acutely aware of that.
“They won’t fit you, will they?” says another girl in the pool, a good friend, but painfully tactless.
“I wear the same size. They don’t come any bigger,” Sadie tells her.
And I don’t question how she knows what size shorts I wear; instead, I tell her where she can find a pair, which ones to take. It’s not a fun exchange. I don’t feel any sudden kinship with her. But I can see now the way our fatness connects us: she’s just as aware of me and my body as I am of hers.
The next year a friend convinces me to wear a bikini top to the pool one day. She and I are the only ones in the cabin when she gives it to me to try on. I step into a corner and turn around. Look at the size.
“I don’t think this will fit.”
“Sure it will.”
I put it on. It’s tight, but technically fits.
She tells me I look fine, but I know that can’t be true.
Still. I walk down to the pool with her. It could almost be normal, except I’m on edge the whole time. I know people would never outright stare, but I can’t fight my anxiety with logic. I’m constantly looking around for anyone that might be looking at me. I don’t stop until I’m in the water.
And even though I know I won’t wear it again, I wait as long as possible to give it back.
Our clothes are always out in the open. We don’t have drawers, only shelves next to our beds. We leave our wet clothes on the porch to dry. Usually just towels and bathing suits, but camp is unpredictable and the weather can be too, so sometimes the porch is crowded with clothes and shoes.
It’s my third year at camp. I’m listening to music and when I look up, I see the thinnest girl in our cabin standing by the door, wearing a pair of jeans that are far too big for her. It’s almost comical. She’s holding the waistband with both hands to keep them up. She looks like an extreme weight loss after photo, wearing her old pants so you can see just how far she’s come.
It was an innocent mistake; she grabbed them off the porch, thinking they were hers. But she doesn’t just take them off. She says something about it, and now a handful of girls are watching her, making comments that are alternately oblivious and dismissive.
“Whose are they?”
“You’re so skinny though, anyone’s jeans would look huge on you.”
“What size are those?”
I’m laying on my bed, stomach turning, listening to every word and pretending not to be.
She takes them off, puts them back, and finds her own jeans, at least five sizes smaller.
I wait until that night, then collect my jeans from the porch. I never leave my clothes out to dry again.
Our camp experiences mature as we do. Girls come back each summer with more stories of boys they’ve met, sharing experiences, asking and comparing how far they’ve gone. I’m present for so many of these conversations, but rarely, if ever, am I a part of them. My body shame has grown with me, fed by offhand comments, jokes and media consumption that reflect my own worst fears. Fat bodies aren’t desirable; they’re a punch line.
Couples appear overnight. As a group we start covering for people who want to sneak off together for a little bit.
I kiss a boy a few times. And a girl. Neither experience means anything. Neither feels significant.
But I mention kissing the boy to someone, and she mentions it to the whole cabin a few days later. I’m on my bed, on the opposite side of the cabin, when all those faces turn toward me. They’re surprised, of course, but excited, and even girls I don’t talk to much have questions. I’m suddenly interesting because a boy is interested in me.
A boy who will soon, in trying to say that he likes me, insult me and my body in such a casual way that he won’t even realize he’s done it.
I loved camp. It connected me with people I never would have gotten the chance to know otherwise. It connected me with myself. There’s a reason I kept going.
But when I look back, many of my strongest memories are ones I wish I could let go.
I still remember the number on the scale of every first day of camp. The relief I felt the year a severe ear infection kept me from going in the water. When the person passing out camp shirts looked at a group of us and decided we would all be fine with the same size and I knew immediately that I would never wear mine. The loneliness that always snuck up on me.
Every year I came home exhausted, smiling, full of stories. Every year I dropped my bags on the floor and unpacked.
edited by Yvonne.
Allison, this is excellent, thank you!
“I’m embarrassed to be embarrassed.” I can remember feeling like this growing up, and still feel it sometimes. Leaving your clothes out, wearing a swimsuit, getting free t-shirts, all these normal things brought so much anxiety. Your piece captures the feeling beautifully.
Loving to swim but dreading wearing the swimsuit, walking to the pool, being looked at. The universal fat girl experience. This hurt in all the right places, I love this piece, thank you!
“No one wears the same size as me. I don’t know how to be a part of this ritual.”
This piece resonated with me so much, especially these lines. Thank you for articulating parts of my summer camp experience.
I’m English so never had a camp experience. But I did go to an all girls school (though not a boarding school) and I can relate to a lot of what you’re talking about. I hated non-uniform days.
Oof there is so much truth in this piece.
I never went to camp as a kid (although I’d be lying if I didn’t experience many of these same things at A-Camp as an adult). But sleepovers, school groups, etc. all have that same thread of having an experience where you’re just missing out on something, on some ritual, that feels both huge and insignificant at the same time.
this is poignant and brave and cutting and good. thank you for this.
I relate to so much of this, just touched me so deeply. There is something healing about seeing your own experiences reflected back, and so beautifully written too. Thank you for writing this.
Thank you for sharing this!!!! <3
Thank you so much for writing this, for sharing something that still feels so uncomfortable when I remember my own experiences at camp. You capture that odd duality of both loving camp and wanting to return, while simultaneously feeling so lonely and isolated and unable to relax the whole time. I really appreciate the sense of solidarity, even retroactively, in reading this.
oooooof. I was also one of the chubbiest kids at camp for multiple years, so this really resonated with me. thanks for putting this into writing for us.
HOO BOY, I could have written this. I went to camp once and (because I had a choice) never returned because of everything you’ve described here. Bless you for articulating this so well.
I’ve never read anything before that paralleled dysphoria and trans-ness so closely. Thank you. I’d like to read more of your stuff, or just talk about it, so please hit me up on my insta or something if you’d like!
Thank you for sharing this. It is excellent writing.
Thank you sharing this, I’ve never done camp but it was similar in high school. I couldn’t imagine it being day in and day out though. I’m glad you had really good experiences, but yeah, when I started reading the paragraph that begins, “Our clothes are always out in the open”, I felt the dread at what was coming up. Just wanted to say, I see you and thank you and you write so ridiculously well.
Thank you for writing this. It reminded me so much of myself at summer camp…Beautiful.