I spent the first 15 summers of my life at overnight kids’ camps in Maine. My parents had been long-time camp counselors before I was born, continued to be involved with camps during my childhood, and eventually owned and ran one of their own.
I’ve been a staff brat, a camper, and a camp counselor. I even wrote a whole novel inspired by my childhood camp experiences. So you could say I’m pretty passionate about camp, and the value I think it brings to young people’s lives: the chance to gain independence, try new things, cast off the expectations and assumptions of peers and family, and be a part of a small, close-knit community.
Camp is also a chance — and an opportunity — to get by without some of the comforts of home, including the way you normally dress and look. Camp means flip-flops and t-shirts and beloved sweatshirts and damp bathing suits. It means less-than-perfect hair because you went straight from the lake to dinner and didn’t have time to dry it, or because there are 10 other girls waiting to use the bathroom. Sure, on dance nights you take the time to doll yourself up so you can snag a slow dance or two with that boy you’ve had your eye on. But the rest of the time, it’s about coming as you are. In fact, that’s part of the point.
At least, that’s what I think. And what I was brought up to believe. So I was dismayed (and a little ape-shit) to read this recent article in the Times about girls as young as 12 getting their legs and nether-regions waxed, eyebrows plucked, and hair straightened before heading off to camp. An excerpt:
” “It’s about grooming and cleanliness,” said Elizabeth Harrison, an Upper West Side mother and a founder of a public relations firm, who took the older of two daughters, Charlotte, for a full leg and moderate bikini wax last year at age 12 before she left for camp in Maine. “Last summer, she started to sort of say, I’ve got a lot of hair on my legs.’ It seemed like a natural and smart thing to do so she wouldn’t have to worry.”
To which I say: Worry about what, exactly?
About the horror — the horror! — of shaving your legs under a dribble of possibly lukewarm water while you knock your elbows and knees repeatedly against the metal walls of the cramped shower stall? Or sitting on a towel in the middle of your cabin with a couple of other bunk mates and a bucket of warm water shared between you while you lather up and giggle and shave your legs together? Or — God forbid — letting your legs get a little bristly because you’re too busy swimming or playing soccer or doing crafts or roasting marshmallows to notice or care that much about what you look like?
I did or witnessed all of the above in my camp years. And granted, I’ve always been a pretty low-maintenance gal. Not to mention a late bloomer (in fact, the sitting-in-the-middle-of-the-cabin scenario was one I witnessed when I was twelve and not yet shaving, and recall being slightly intimidated by/jealous of). But I was at camps that saw their fair share of Upper West Side (and East Side) Manhattanites. And they were all down with the roughing it (relatively speaking) approach, too.
Are those girls now the mothers bringing their daughters to the salon for pricey waxes before they head for the woods? If yes: What happened? Did they forget how liberating, or at least eye-opening, it was to spend a few summer weeks not having to worry about being perfectly coiffed and squeaky clean?
More important, why are they sending their daughters the message that in order to feel comfortable and accepted at camp — yes, something all kids are nervous about — they should do things to their bodies they wouldn’t do at home? How about encouraging them to be themselves? To figure out, on their own, how to be comfortable in their own (possibly a little hairy) skin? Even if it’s hard sometimes?
“It’s about making sure your child is comfortable,” said Bobbi Brown, the makeup entrepreneur, who has written two books for teenagers. “If she’s going to be in a bunk with all these girls, and she feels insecure because she hasn’t taken care of the hair on her lip or her legs, you know what? You do whatever you can do to make her feel good when she gets there.”
You know what? I disagree. I think navigating the awkwardness and insecurity of being in a bunk with a bunch of other girls on your own is part of what camp is all about — and what makes it a valuable, character-building experience. And I think we do our kids a huge disservice by trying to anticipate every single, perfectly normal difficulty they may face at camp (or anywhere, for that matter) and try to fix it in advance by throwing money and depilatory chemicals at it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go roast me up a marshmallow or something.