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Influencer MeatyMollie reveals her experience in a Fat Camp

For most of us in the UK the idea of summer camp is synonymous with American TV and film, something that ultimately we don’t have much first hand experience with. The lucrative world of weight loss camps is one particular aspect of the summer camp experience that has always fascinated me. My curiosity was indulged back in 2020 amid the first lockdown when I came across videos from a creator called @MeatyMollie on TikTok. In a series of addictive videos she recounted her experiences of going to a weight loss camp and the ways camp impacted her body image and exposed her to a variety of new experiences (both good and bad). I was lucky enough to chat with Mollie recently to find out more.

Trigger Warning: This article discusses body image, eating disorders, and self harm

So before we begin, what is the appropriate terminology for camp?

I’m not really sure but I call it fat camp. Some people try to give it a politically correct name like weight loss camp or fitness camp but everyone knows that they’re all different names for fat camp. I’ve heard it called image enhancement camp too.

Summer camps in general don’t really happen here in the UK, can you explain a little about the general point of them and why they’re so popular?

So I went to summer camps for two years, somewhere you sleep away and others where you don’t. The YMCA will do some summer camps and takes kids out of cities and into nature. Most American kids go to some kind of camp, some of them will go to specific camps like Bible camp but most of us go to a general summer camp. They’re a way to give kids time with peers and parents time away from their kids. You form tight cliques with friends over the summer and lots of people go back to the same place year after year and have lifelong friends from their camps.

Fat camp offered me an opportunity to have a regular camp experience because the playing field was levelled and I was able to just be a normal kid, I wasn’t the fat girl there because everyone was bigger.

Can you explain the ethos of a fat camp and the methods they use to get you to lose weight?

Basically, their ethos is ‘being fat is bad’, they tell you that your parents are disappointed in you and you should have low self-esteem. They also tell you that to solve this you must eat very little and do lots and lots of cardio. There is a mentality that there is a parallel between fatness and health, you can’t be fat and healthy, and being skinny is the pinnacle of what health looks like. This weight load mentality coupled with some of the culture of a regular camp with the weight loss mentality is very confusing. We would be doing mad cardio and rationing splendas (a sugar replacement) but we would also be going to the lake and doing normal camp activities.

“Their ethos is being fat is bad, they tell you your parents are disappointed in you and you should have low self-esteem”

Mollie on the ethos of weight loss camps

For the people running the camp the goal was obviously to make a financial profit and many kids had been pressured into attending. There was no attempt to help kids create a sustainably healthy lifestyle. You’re in a bubble outside of the real world and your only goal is to lose weight. There was a massively fat-phobic culture and we were taught to see fatness as the worst thing and as something to be fixed. They had no thoughts about the deeper culture and structural issues surrounding fatness. There were no therapeutic services offered and no emphasis on being more than just a fat person. They equated thinness with being a good person. There was no fat positivity. 

Do they have any success?

It definitely does not work and ultimately it hurts you. For a start, just doing cardio alone is a poor way to lose weight. It works in the short-term while you are in the fat camp environment because you’re working out for 4 hours a day and only eating 1200 calories. Of course, by the end of the summer you’ve dropped a lot of weight, it would be impossible not to on that kind of regimen.

The issue is that you aren’t able to sustain this at home when you have school or college. It was simply not manageable outside of camp. Kids would lose weight and then gain weight back very quickly after they went home, and even gain more. Realistically, it would make poor business sense for them to teach sustainable weight loss. They can make more money by getting crazy results at the end of camp and banking on the joy that people have from being praised for how much they’ve lost and hoping they’ll do anything to keep that up, and that’s why people who go back year on year. They don’t help you create any plan to maintain your weight loss and they adopt a one size fits all approach. We had no individual dietician or bespoke approach for each camper.

It can become almost like an addiction and the euphoria of losing weight makes people return to the camps. There was no learning, only a lack of freedom or control of your own diet. You simply eat less and move more. I developed an eating disorder following camp because I was no longer losing 3 lbs a week. There were more complicated issues going on within this but the pressure to keep off weight was a huge contributing factor. I internalised the fact that I could not control myself around food and camp really damaged my relationship with food. When you’re rationing splenda that has barely any calories your understanding of food and how you interact with it can become warped. I do think it is possible to have an ethical weight loss camp but the one I attended was not an ethical place despite being considered one of the best in the USA.          

You mentioned you developed an eating disorder in part due to your experience at camp, was this fairly common with campers? How did the camp respond to mental health concerns with the campers?

A lot of the kids there were mentally ill, and a lot of them had eating disorders. The way the camp dealt with this was abhorrent. They would take you to the camp director and threaten expulsion and removal without refund. The camp cost a lot of money and a lot of families were probably feeling the cost of the camps pretty heavily so it was a massive threat. To get expelled meant you just cost your parents a lot of money for nothing, or at least that’s how they presented things. They weaponised mental health and eating disorders against campers. I was punished for my mental health issues and was put on lockdown. What lockdown means is that they make you go to a shed with camp counsellors (despite the name these are not mental health specialists) and just sit there. You aren’t allowed to bring a book or talk or anything really, it was clearly a punishment and it made you feel so ostracised and embarrassed. They offered no mental health support at all and it felt as though they saw your problems as an inconvenience.

What tactics and unethical practices did you experience at the camp?

There were two kinds of counsellors; former campers, and college students studying nutrition and similar stuff. They offered only surface level nutritional classes that didn’t delve into things like macros, but simply taught you that food such as gravy was bad and food like bananas were good. The camp slogan was ‘you will leave in the best physical and mental state of your life’.

You state in your videos that it was a hard decision that you made, not your parents. How common is it that campers attend of their own volition vs their parent’s choice?

Most of the older people (15/16 years old) were there out of their own volition, the younger campers (7/8 years old) were mostly being made to go.

You discussed on your Tiktok that the camp encouraged you to starve yourself to prepare for an end of camp trip to a waterpark?

So the most popular clientele was 15/16 year old girls who were called the ‘senior’ girls. We were divided into two groups, A (more experienced girls) and B (larger and newer girls). There was a clear division and the much larger campers who were treated quite poorly, thinner girls were treated far better. No counsellor was saying that to you need to skip meals for the waterpark trip but the experienced girls would encourage you to not finish breakfast because pictures were being taken. There was a limited opportunity for us as 15 year olds to take bikini photos feeling body confident and it was amped up to be such a big deal. For a lot of the girls it was the first time they were wearing bikinis and there was an encouragement to do extra cardio. It was not discouraged by the camp. It goes back into the camp’s ethos that thinness is the best thing ever and that you’ve got to do what it takes to get there.

You also discuss that there is a lot of sex going on at the camp and that this is poorly monitored by the staff, can you expand on this please?

Camp evened the playing field for kids who perhaps were not receiving that kind of attention back at home. For the girls it was a badge of honour, these athletic guys who were conventionally hot wanted us and that was totally new for us. This wasn’t not widely policed by staff, it was a don’t ask don’t tell policy. It was discouraged and there was some gender division but it wasn’t hard to get around. Quite a few of the counsellors were former campers so I suspect they turned a blind eye to give us that experience of experimenting that they probably had when they were campers. Fat camp was where I was first able to explore my sexuality, and in particular, explore my attraction to women as well as men. Back home nobody was really open about that side of things.

“The experienced girls would encourage you to not finish breakfast because pictures were being taken”

Mollie on the culture between campers and body image

Do you think that the concept of a fat camp can be ethical or not?

I think so, yes, but I don’t feel like the one I attended could be reformed. There could be a camp that provided a dietician and helped create a structured environment. The best way to do it would probably be a day camp because they could still experience the real world and have a way to practice some control outside of camp. Maybe a 1 to 2 week long camp could also work if the focus is on self love and making some healthy life choices but as it stands at the moment fat camps are not ethical.

Mollie did make it clear that she had limited experience of weight loss camp as she only attended one summer. Many of the campers there would attend year after year. We are grateful to have spoken with her and to have such a candid look at the world of weight loss camps and their impact on the body image of young women. Find Mollie here.