Camping at Lake O-Hara

Fat Camps: A Sad Artifact of Obesity Misunderstood

For 53 years, Camp Shane was a place where parents sent kids with overweight and obesity. It called itself “a summer weight loss camp…not a fat camp.” But no more. The camp shut down on July 13 with the owner telling reporters that the problem was a staffing shortage. At the time, the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood was opening an investigation of “concerns about the health, safety and well-being of children enrolled at the summer youth camp.” Whether you call these places weight loss camps or fat camps, they are artifacts of obesity misunderstood.

A Simple Formula

These camps work on the belief that obesity is a simple problem. It can be solved by eating less, moving more, and losing weight. That’s it. In an exhaustive report on the iconic Camp Shane, David Gauvey Herbert describes this simple proposition that made a lot of money for Selma Ettenberg:

“There was an elegance to Selma’s business plan. ‘My mother, who couldn’t cook a decent meal, made a fortune from not feeding children,’ Lesley says. Selma reported that boys and girls lost an average of 35 and 25 pounds, respectively, in seven weeks. On pickup day, parents sometimes walked right past their own kids, then burst into tears upon recognizing them. ‘My parents love me now,’ one boy told a reporter. ‘They don’t pick on me anymore.’ But Camp Shane was essentially a crash diet, and kids often gained the weight back by Thanksgiving. The following June, many returned to lose it again.”

Setting the Table for Misery

Herbert’s reporting reveals some good intentions and alumni of this camp who have positive memories. But it is also full of people, now adults, who cringe when they recall their experiences there.

The fundamental problem is the excessive focus on weight loss while denying the physiology of obesity. Pediatrician and obesity medicine physician Fatima Cody Stanford describes the issue:

“These ‘camps’ thrive on people who have a desire to make sure that their kid is lean. But they don’t have any understanding about obesity as a disease and how this inherently sets their children up for failure throughout life. I’ve had many patients who have gone to these types of camps progress to have obesity throughout childhood and into adulthood.

“It establishes that they are abnormal and that they have control of their own destiny as it relates to their weight status when we know that so much of this is beyond their control. It hurts me to see this practice continue because I know that I will ultimately end up seeing these patients later and they will have low self-esteem associated with not being able to ‘conquer’ their weight in this manner.”

The full tale of Camp Shane’s 53 years is a bit of a soap opera – engaging, convoluted, and ultimately sad. But we are not sad to see this place fold. We only wish the misunderstanding of obesity that fuels such places would disappear, too.

Click here to read Herbert’s excellent reporting on this camp. For additional reporting on its closure, click here.

Camping at Lake O-Hara, painting by John Singer Sargent / WikiArt

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September 3, 2021