By Jennifer Huget
Thursday, June 24, 2010; PG14
If you're curious about what it's like to be an overweight teenager, tune in to ABC Family's new series "Huge."
The series, debuting Monday at 9 p.m. and starring Nikki Blonsky of "Hairspray" fame, follows a group of overweight teens at a summer weight-loss camp. Based on Sasha Paley's young-adult novel of the same name, the show has funny moments, but it's actually pretty grim. You can't skirt the fact that the young actors are overweight. Being fat has apparently caused the characters pain on top of the usual woes of adolescence, and you have to wonder whether the actors have endured the same.
I'm rooting for the characters to succeed at slimming down. But can weight-loss camps really make that happen? Depends on whom you ask.
Ari Stidham, 17, who plays the character Ian on "Huge," says he has been overweight since childhood and morbidly obese since he was 13 or 14. He found some value in the outdoor-adventure-style weight-loss camp he attended in his home state of California when he was 15. In that setting, he told me, "the problem doesn't go away, but [you] can open up and be a teenager rather than a 'fat' teenager."
Michael Bishop is executive director of Wellspring Camps, which runs weight-loss programs for teens and others at 12 locations in the United States and abroad. Unsurprisingly, he believes his camps work, even for those who don't want to be there.
Take Blonsky's character, who in the first episode says: "I don't want to change. Why should I?"
Some of that might be bluster, but Bishop says: "Most people who come to us have some level of resistance. They've all tried to lose weight and failed."
That's in part because helping teens lose weight can be trickier than helping adults, says Evan Nadler, co-director of the Obesity Institute at Children's National Medical Center. Their psychological, self-esteem and fitting-in issues often add up to a "much more complicated mental-health situation," he says.
"Adolescents are still growing developmentally and physically," Nadler notes, adding that "most obese adolescents are actually malnourished. They're eating the wrong calories, and they don't get a lot of vegetables, fruits, the nutrients they need."
Camps such as Wellspring's try to turn that around. Seventy percent of Wellspring campers are able to keep off the weight they lost one year after leaving the program, Bishop says. (That statistic is not independently verified and, according to data on his Web site, the average camper arrives 70 percent overweight and is still about 40 percent overweight six to 12 months after leaving.) The regimen involves setting goals, making a plan and working every day toward those goals, he explains.
Still, it's not clear that camp is always the best long-term solution to teen obesity. For one thing, four weeks in a Wellspring program costs $6,490.
When shopping for a camp, Nadler says, parents should also look for one that, like Wellspring, includes a nutritionist, a physical therapist, a trainer and a child psychologist to deal with the mental-health aspect of weight loss.
Stidham, who is 6-foot-1, says he lost 30 pounds at his summer camp but, like several of his fellow campers, has regained the weight. The day we spoke, he told me, he had weighed in at 344 pounds.
Stidham says being on "Huge" is giving him and the other actors "an opportunity to look at ourselves and our health problems. We want to be around to see the show be successful."
Although the producers have imposed no rules about the cast's weight, Stidham says, "I don't want to go through life with weight as an issue."
Shedding pounds, he says, "is more about self-discovery than weight loss. If you force something on somebody, it's not going to turn out the way anybody wants."