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Why I sent my daughter to fat camp: a mom’s confession

I can’t recall precisely when my daughter started to gain weight.

It was sometime after my divorce, when I played the devoted single mom, staying home on weekends, watching sappy movies and comforting myself with chocolate cake. I shared, of course, because that’s what good mothers do. We sat side by side – my daughter and I – each with a fork.

By age 11 my daughter had metamorphosed from curly-haired nymph to slow-moving, surly pre-teen. She wore black clothes, hid out in her room, watched copious amounts of TV, and lost contact with most of her friends. Also, she’d developed this thing about food texture. Suddenly, Myla couldn’t tolerate anything spiky, coarse, or liquid-filled – in other words, vegetables and whole grains made her gag.

Grocery stores confounded me. I would pick up item after item, calculating whether Myla would eat them. Too often I capitulated, filling my cart with Golden Grahams, whipped Yoplait yogurt, and Kraft macaroni and cheese.

I tried staying home, instituting family dinners, and buying healthier snacks. It was nearly impossible to find things for Myla that didn’t contain corn syrup or trans fats (the food industry’s top ingredients for silken “mouth feel”); my shopping trips became twice as long. And none of this mattered, because Myla had other sources for junk food – such as the $20 bills her grandparents slipped her. I’d enter her room to put away laundry and wade through a carpet of discarded wrappers and cans.

Now 13, Myla was a beautiful girl with a glowing complexion, lush hair, and Bambi-brown eyes. She was an honor student, getting A’s and B’s. She was also five-foot-four and weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 185 pounds.

When the time came for her yearly physical, Myla refused to undress or be examined. She crossed her arms over her chest and glowered. The pediatrician was furious with me. Why, she asked after pulling me into her office, was I allowing my daughter to become asthmatic, pre-diabetic, and depressed?

I was trying not to. But at the same time, I was terrified of messing her up. I’d gone through an anorexic phase myself, following a crash diet when I was 14. So I never talked to my daughter about food or calories. I tried to make physical activity fun. I took Myla shopping only after I’d scouted stores to make sure they carried her size.

But it seemed I was still doing all the wrong things.

We were walking around the lake near our home one April night – one of our compulsory mother-daughter bonding excursions – when Myla looked down at her feet and muttered, “Mom, I want to go to fat camp.”

“Really?” I asked, appalled.

I’d read articles on “fat” camps where teens gathered to trade tips about purging (e.g. eat something colorful first, so you can see when you’ve vomited everything up) and to talk obsessively about food. I imagined these places restricted calories to POW levels and bred in children a fear and loathing of food. My second concern, to be honest, was money. I’d just left my full-time job in order to work on a book and was already forking over thousands for my son’s upcoming freshman year of college.

“Sweetheart, I don’t think you need a camp,” I began in a bright voice.

“Mom.” Myla glanced briefly at my Lycra-clad legs and looked down again. “I want to go some place where there are people like me.”

The next day, I googled “weight loss camp.” Most of them were in California, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania and, with airfare and tuition, cost upward of $10,000 a month. Then I clicked on a link at the bottom of the page and went to an amateurish site framed in blue. Camp Endeavor – Weight Loss Camp Near the Famous Wisconsin Dells. I signed her up for two weeks.

When Myla called at the end of week one, she sounded happy. My once dour, stoic girl was talking about friends and swimming parties. It was a particularly torrid summer, and I asked how she was faring. “We pull together,” she told me, this girl who typically complained when the temperature went above 50. “We share our fans and spray each other with water. Somehow, when I’m here, the weather doesn’t bother me at all.”

Myla loved her counselors, especially the brawny young man who’d recently returned from a tour in Iraq. At camp, she was surrounded by two groups of people: lithe role models – mostly athletic college students – and kids whose obesity was severe. In this community, Myla was the mean.

A week after that, I retrieved a child who’d changed. I found her wearing a sheer t-shirt and loose jeans, perched on a picnic table, arms slung around the shoulders of two other girls. Also, she’d lost 12 pounds.

Once home, Myla talked about the hunger-fullness scale that ran from one to ten. She ate a wider variety of foods – including, for the first time, vegetables – and cooked using a book of recipes provided by the camp.

I’d love to say the fix was permanent, but it wasn’t. Over the next few months, Myla reverted to her old habits, only this time, it was worse. It was purposeful. Her shame seemed to have doubled, because she could compute the outcome for every bad choice. Some time in August, she removed the refrigerator magnets with encouraging slogans (See the difference! Lose the weight, gain a life.) she brought home from camp.

By fall, Myla was back to watching TV for hours each day. She used her Christmas cash to buy potato chips, Twizzlers, and Coke. At the outset of 2008, my daughter was heavier than ever, depressed, and isolating herself:again. I took her to counselors, talked to her teachers, and briefly considered anti-depressants. She refused, ultimately, saying they’d only make her fatter. That winter was particularly bleak.

She turned 15 in the spring of 2009 and declined a party. No one would want to come, she told me. I opened my mouth to argue, then closed it. There was nothing I could say.

I made an appointment with Myla’s pediatrician to have her vaccinated for HPV. This time, when the doctor pulled me aside, she was less angry than shaken.

“Your daughter weighs almost 230 pounds,” she said, showing me the confidential medical records. “I’m going to test her blood sugar. If she doesn’t have diabetes now, she will soon. You absolutely must do something.”

A few days later, I told Myla I’d signed her up for camp. It was because of my own travel schedule, I lied. I had an assignment that would take most of June to complete, so I needed a place for her to stay. At first she refused to go – it won’t work, she said.

“Just have fun,” I told her. “Don’t think of it as a place to lose weight.”

In May, Myla and I received a letter telling us how to prepare our home for her return. “Clean your room before you leave,” the letter advised. “We find it’s easier to stick to healthy habits in a place that’s orderly and neat.” Parents were advised to clear the kitchen of all processed food. That meant all of Myla’s favorites: breakfast bars, frozen pizzas, even store-bought bread.

Once again, I dropped Myla off in late June for the two-week session. A week and a half later, I received a call from camp. Myla was having a wonderful time, the director told me. She was active, engaged, popular, and losing tons of weight. Would I be willing to let her stay for the full session if Camp Endeavor was to pick up 80 percent of the cost?

I asked to speak to Myla, whom I’d last glimpsed sending me silent death rays. But when my daughter came to the phone, again I heard a happy, buoyant teenager on the other end of the line.

“I would love to stay,” she said sweetly. “Thank you.”

When I picked Myla up after a full month at camp, I literally did not recognize her. Her face was more angled, her eyes more prominent. And she was standing straight, surrounded by a crowd of kids – sleek, confident, suddenly mature.

I have no idea whether it was Camp Endeavor that changed Myla’s life or if she simply slogged through the pit of adolescence and came out the other side. My gut says it’s a combination of both.

Eight months have gone by, and my daughter remains the girl she was last July in the Dells. She’s still large by CosmoGirl standards, but I couldn’t care less because she is healthy. She makes wholesome food choices – scrambled eggs and grapefruit for breakfast rather than sugary cereal – the majority of the time. And she exercises without being asked. Her moods go up and down, but in a normal teenage way. She no longer talks about being depressed.

Most importantly, the lessons she learned at camp stuck. At five foot eight and a size 16, Myla is proud and completely comfortable in her own skin.

I can’t say when my daughter began to gain weight, but I do know when she stopped. Obviously, fat camp isn’t a panacea. Myla’s first experience is a common one – returning to a life full of easy, cheap junk, most kids don’t stand a chance. But eventually, surrounded by people who understood and accepted her, my daughter changed so she can now deflect the environment. She has armor now – but it’s the kind that makes her free.

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