Awesome or awful? Fat camp scholarships

Essay contests invite children to win a summer of free weight loss.

Published August 18, 2008 9:35PM (EDT)

Ah, fat camp -- the setting of so many young adult novels and MTV documentaries I had almost forgotten it continues to exist outside of the pop-culture realm. But as Stephanie Saul's New York Times piece "Priced Out of Weight Loss Camp" points out, the yearly diet-and-fitness retreats are very much alive. I had always assumed that kids were forced to attend fat camp. As it turns out, several children and teens are desperate to go, even though their families don't have the money to send them and health insurance won't cover their stay. For them, some summer programs (which normally cost around $1,000 per week) are offering scholarship programs, with funds awarded not to the kids demonstrating the greatest need but to winners of essay contests.

Saul reminds us of the child obesity epidemic's growing severity, and it's fantastic to see young people concerned about their health. The words of one essay contest winner, a girl who is already at high risk for Type 2 diabetes, are heartbreaking: "I would rather lose weight than to die from being overweight." But something about weight loss camp scholarships still bothers me. Part of it is the nature of the programs themselves. While I'm sure they teach healthy habits and provide a nurturing community for kids who may feel like outcasts in school, they also tell children there's something wrong with them and imply that they don't deserve to have the kind of fun summers their peers are enjoying. And, as Saul notes, studies have found that two-thirds of campers regain all or part of the weight they lost once they return home.

What really bugs me about the scholarships, though, is that the essays -- and their writers -- have been used for marketing the for-profit camps. As Saul writes, the campers "bare deeply embarrassing moments and personal problems" in their pieces. Given the everyday torture that awaits many overweight children (the same girl quoted above also included the sentence, "Sometimes, if I’m walking down the street, I can hear people talking about me and staring at me," in her essay), this feels patently unethical. So when Tony Sparber, the owner of one camp, assures us, "Most of the kids we deal with these days are very excited about being on TV and the newspapers and representing the camp," I just don't buy it.

Though Saul does a good job of exploring the pros and cons of fat camp scholarships, she fails to point out the effect her own piece might have. She calls out the camp for subjecting its scholarship kids to televised interviews without acknowledging the embarrassment she may have caused to the teenager she features. Readers of Saul's article learn the girl's real name, read her application essay and, as one Salon staffer noticed, even see photos of her in her swimsuit. It's all well and good to wonder whether the camps and the media are teaming up to humiliate these kids, but to ignore your own place, as a journalist, in this kind of exploitation is just plain hypocritical.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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