By People Staff
June 27, 2005 12:00 PM

Abby Ellin was never even close to obese. But growing up with a weight-obsessed mom and an anorexic sister, she got the message that size mattered. In her new book Teenage Waistland, Ellin, now 37 and a journalist in Manhattan, looks back at her 16th summer, the first of six she spent at fat camp.

It’s weigh-in day at Camp Colang, in the Pocono Mountains. Every Sunday after breakfast, we trudge to the building that houses the scales. These weigh-ins are structure that we fat people need. As the camp director tells us, we’re heavy because we have no discipline.

One of the friendly food advisers motions me into the [weigh-in] room. “Step on the scale,” she says. I suck in my breath. “You’ve lost three!” she says, and I let out a whoop.

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?” If the verdict is good, we’re thrilled. If it’s bad, no one needs to ask—tears stream down our faces.

When you step on the grounds of a fat farm, the outside world ceases to exist. [My friend] Stephanie calls it “fat goggles”—the unique optical illusion created at fat camp. When you’re surrounded by people who weigh 200, 250 lbs., everything seems small by comparison. Those who weigh 180 are at the lighter end of the spectrum.

A fat farm is also a place where extra flab no longer distinguishes you from the crowd. Call out “Hey, Fatso!” and 50 people will turn around. There’s something comforting about this.

On the first day, while I unpacked, my counselor Suzanne hovered over me. Food smuggling did happen: A 10-year-old had stuffed Hershey’s Kisses into his tuba. The chocolate was later confiscated (read: inhaled) by his counselors. I never understood this behavior. We were there to lose weight. Why sabotage it? But then I realized that most campers weren’t there of their own free will. Most had parents who couldn’t bear to look at their fat children.

Camp Colang didn’t try to address the real reasons we were fat. Oh, we had rap sessions twice a week, but no one took them seriously. So what did we focus on? Food. My friends and I spent hours mapping out what we would eat once we got out. Sometimes, we acted on our longings. Once, after I gained half a pound, my counselor Elaine, a three-year veteran who had lost and relost 60 lbs., told me, “Your body’s getting used to the diet. You need to give it a jolt.”

At 11 that night I snuck into the parking lot where Elaine kept her Chevy Nova. We sped off to the Grand Union, terrified and elated. Elaine and I filled our cart with Mallomars and chocolate-chip cookie dough. We didn’t even wait to get to the car before tearing open the packages. Within an hour I was left with a pile of wrappers and a bout of diarrhea. But it worked. The following week I’d lost 2 lbs.

There was a black market of food at Colang. Money-hungry counselors knew that campers would pay $5 for a Snickers bar, $2.75 for a bag of chips. [Food] was all we thought about, and I would argue that those of us who didn’t have eating disorders when we arrived at camp certainly had developed them by the time we left.

For me, camp was a bastion of mixed messages. On the one hand, I was healthier—physically. But psychologically I was getting sicker. Not only did I start smoking after my first summer there, I also chewed wads of sugared gum, which my counselors bought for me. Once I plowed through 18 packs of Bubble Yum in less than three hours. (Today most camps ban sugared gum, though of course kids manage to get it.)

And competition was fierce. Unfortunately, the most popular kids were the thinner ones. My 350-lb. friend Maria, for example, was often teased because she snored, because she walked so slowly, because she was just so goddamned fat.

We battled for boys—boys we would never even have sniffed at elsewhere. At socials, the skinnier girls got asked to dance. I had more boys interested in me that summer than I ever had before—or since, actually. Despite this rivalry, we did share a bond. To this day, some of my closest friends are from camp.

Here was the real problem with fat camp: It ended. Once you return to the macaroni and cheese and McDonald’s, you’re going to encounter a lot of temptation. No place can change a lifetime of learned habits in two months.

The first year, I lost 15 lbs. in nine weeks. My grandmother saw me and cried, “Hello, skinny!” I never felt so omnipotent and proud.

The euphoria lasted about three days. I didn’t get the lead in the school play; guys didn’t pummel my door for dates. I was terrified of eating. Camp didn’t liberate me from my weight problem, from my obsession with food. I grew addicted to these places like a bulimic grows addicted to laxatives. I used camp as an escape.