Teenage Waistland

Abby Ellin, a journalist and former fat-camper whose parents’ attempts to “save her” from fatness proved counterproductive, has had a lifelong interest in figuring out how they might have done it better, and an abiding compassion for overweight kids. In Teenage Waistland she shares the story of her own adolescent struggle with food and weight, and journeys with hope, skepticism, and humor through the landscape of today’s diet culture.

She visits camps and community programs, and talks to experts, kids and their parents, seeking to answer these questions: What can parents say that kids will hear? Why don’t kids exercise more and eat less when they’re dying to be thinner? What treatment methods actually work? Willpower, or surrender? Shame, or inspiration? Teenage Waistland is ultimately clarifying and provocative for anyone who’s ever wrestled with weight issues. One size does not fit all when it comes to weight loss, and the better we understand that, the more likely we are to be able to help our kids.

Read an excerpt: Ho-ho’s in paradise



Aka “fat camp confidential”


“Abby Ellin’s “Teenage Waistland” addresses a different but no less serious health problem, teenage obesity. When she was a teenager, Ellin’s parents shipped her off to fat camp, but her weight issues (a mere 30 or so pounds of heft) pale when compared with those of her subjects, all morbidly obese. Ellin interviews a host of teenagers and their parents in an attempt to discover what might help these kids lose weight. She takes a look at fat camps, boarding schools, weight-loss programs, parent workshops, support groups, and surgical procedures. The interviews with her teenage subjects are poignant, and, to her credit, Ellin avoids easy answers.”

Boston Globe



My stomach rumbles beneath the sheets, from hunger or nerves or both, and I awaken with a jolt. Normally, I would rather lounge in my bunk bed until noon, but today’s different. It’s weigh-in day at Camp Colang, a Weight Watchers camp in the Pocono Mountains. This is what I’ve been working toward all week, and the sooner I wake up, the sooner I find out if my efforts have paid off. The tension is as thick as a chocolate milkshake. It is the summer of 1984, and I am sixteen years old.

Every Sunday after breakfast—it’s the same every week: scrambled egg and minibagel (“egglet and bagelet”), a pat of margarine, a four-ounce glass of OJ, and a cup of skim milk—we trudge the hundred yards to the triangular-shaped building that houses the two doctor’s scales. We strip down to our bathing suits or T-shirts, tossing our sweatshirts and jeans aside. Health regulations apply; everyone must wear shoes. We slip on rubber thongs or Ked sneakers—no one wants to add unnecessary pounds.

These weekly weigh-ins are rituals, structure that we fat people need. As camp director Tony Sparber often tells us, we’re heavy because we have no discipline; we need some kind of order in our lives. The scale is our god, the Weight Watchers food program our Bible, “Skinny arms!” our mantra.

Before stepping into the closed-off room where the scales are (privacy is of utmost importance), a counselor hands out index cards with our vital statistics, updated each week: the amount of weight we’ve lost, and the measurements of our arms, legs, waist, thighs, calves, and bust. My friend Stephanie Winston glances at her card. “If I don’t lose at least two pounds I’ll die!” she moans. I nod sympathetically. Last week she only lost half a pound—half a pound—and she was all set to go home to Manhattan, where she could at least have her own room and a hot shower. This is her fourth year at camp, and she’s promised herself it’s her last, as she does every summer.

We wait in line until one of the friendly food advisors motions me into the room. “Step on the scale,” she says, and slides the metal bar to the number it was the previous week. She slowly moves it to the left. I suck in my breath . . . one pound, a pound and three quarters, two pounds, two and a half . . . “You’ve lost three!” she says, and I let out a whoop. Given the cost of a week at camp, each pound costs, more or less, $200, so weight gain would have been a financial loss. When I get back to the other room, my friends gather, curious. 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?and How much did you lose? If the verdict is good, we’re thrilled to admit it. If it’s bad, no one even needs to ask—tears stream down our faces.

A few minutes later Steph comes out. She is smiling; she’s lost two pounds. “Last week, I must have been bloated from my period,” she says. We give each other high fives. We’ve both just aced our exams.


Most of us know that, at its core, losing weight is a physiological process.  You ingest fewer calories, you lose pounds.  Period.  If psychology — and, to a certain extent, biology — didn’t enter into the picture, of course, we’d all be thin.  The beauty of the fat camp is that it is an environment that eliminates psychology and free will and focuses mostly on the physiological piece: an artificial universe where every meal is preprepared, regulated, and monitored.  It is almost — but not completely — impossible to deviate from the rules.  If you stick to the program, you will lose weight.

That, at least, is the hope of campers and their parents: that fat camp will be a one-time fix, and that the camper will lose enough weight in one pop to be motivated to stay thin forever; that it will provide a crash course in nutrition—or, at least, a two-month hiatus from weight gain, giving everyone involved a respite from the anxiety and battles.

But what fat camp doesn’t address are the emotional and familial components that contribute to obesity—at least, not in any real way. Camps provide technical information on weight loss, but they don’t adequately address the emotional issues. For most kids—for most people—technical information isn’t enough.


Here was the real problem with fat camp: It ended.  Oh, I lost weight — it’s impossible not to with an enforced program — but once you return to the real world, to the White Castles and Whitman Samplers, to the macaroni and cheese and McDonald’s, to the refrigerator and school lunch and neighborhood delis, you’re going to encounter a lot of temptation.  It takes a lot of inner strength to withstand it, which most adolescents simply don’t have.  No place can change a lifetime of learned habits in two months.

The first year, I lost fifteen pounds in nine weeks. (Not quite what I’d hoped, alas; the plan was to get underweight so I’d have ten pounds to play with.) When I returned home for my senior year of high school, I was lean and muscular and strong. My parents didn’t recognize me when I stepped off the plane. My grandmother saw me and cried, “Hello, skinny!” Friends suggested I get mono more often. I never felt so omnipotent and proud.

The euphoria lasted about three days. After everyone got over their initial shock, things drifted back to normal. Though I may have been a few pounds lighter, I didn’t get the lead in the school play; guys didn’t pummel my door for dates; and my popularity didn’t automatically skyrocket. It was an interesting lesson, one I still grapple with today. When something goes wrong my first instinct is to blame it on my weight, even though I’m in fairly good condition. (So many women I know do the same thing—and, conversely, they feel that things are okay as long as the scale reads a certain number.) But it makes sense. It’s a lot easier to swallow, being rejected for what I look like than for who I am. It’s a lot nicer to think a man doesn’t want me because I’m not a size 2 than because he thinks I’m boring. Or antagonistic. Or unappealing. Or just not his type.