Sleek Sam Kitzis steps up to the scale. He is young and brave, which is to say fully clothed. His friends nod in admiration. His girlfriend sighs and lets go of his hand. "I hope I lost something," Sam says. "I should have."
Four years ago, his first year at camp, Sam weighed 190 pounds. He was 9 years old. "My waist was 40 inches," he says. "I was just a big fat Orca."
Now he is 13 and looks older than his years, except for the braces on his teeth. All the girls agree he is a hunk. His shoulders are broad. His girlfriend is 17. They have been going together two weeks. She says they are in love.
At Camp Kingsmont, you weigh in at the beginning of the summer and weigh out at the end. Sam Kitzis is weighing out, going home.
A hush falls as Sam's counselor bends to adjust the weight on the scale. It stands in the middle of the dining hall, next to the water cooler and across from the serving line, a reminder and a judge. Some scales gleam with hostility. This one is different. It is an old-fashioned professional kitchen scale: solid, accurate, irrefutable. The platform is gray, the slide gold, the weight hanger black. The fine print says: "Fairbanks, Cap. 1000 LBS."
Sam Kitzis holds his breath.
"One sixty-nine," the counselor says triumphantly.
That's 21 1/2 pounds lost in three weeks and two days. Sam Kitzis leaves for home with half the clothes he brought with him and a smile as wide as a Whopper.
This is not a good time to be a blob. There are crueler fates, but try telling that to a fat kid. In this decade of calipers and calories, America has gotten thin with a vengeance. And fit!
"Fat is out," Kitzis says.
"It's bad to be a fat kid anytime, but particularly in the '80s," says Michael Smith, 14, who lost 25 pounds in three weeks this summer. "Everyone's getting so sticky about everything. It seems you have to be almost perfect."
If you define obesity as 20 percent over typical weight, "then about 10 percent of American kids are classified as obese," says David Freedman, assistant professor of public health at Louisiana State University. And the National Children and Youth Fitness Study released last fall concluded that American kids are significantly fatter and more out-of-shape than they were in the 1960s.
So they come to Kingsmont -- Trim Down Camp for Boys, Slim Down Camp for Girls -- to lose pounds and inhibitions, to gain friends and self-respect. In the first three weeks of the summer, 340 campers lost 5,144 pounds. An oaktag chart from last summer hangs in the dining hall, one of those thermometer graphs they use at telethons to measure donations. This one measures pounds. In 1984, Kingsmont campers lost a little under five tons. Owen Corbin contributed 34 pounds to the cause. He knows what it is to be young and fat in the '80s.
"You feel alienated because you're around all these people who aren't as big as you are," he says. "You feel you're a couple of steps behind, that they're superior to you. Even though you don't want to admit it, you feel you're a second-class citizen. You really feel you're a nobody inside that big body."
Sometimes, he thinks -- they all think -- there is a skinny person inside trying desperately to get out. "It's there," he says. "You can't make it to that skinny person. Something always stands in the way. A lot of times you fantasize, 'What if I was skinny.' You picture yourself in nice clothes with all the women flocking around you. Actually you picture yourself as a gigolo. I look like a big football jock, muscular with a well-toned body."
He is 18 now, an assistant counselor. His first summer at Kingsmont, he says, "I was about 4-11 and weighed 168 pounds. I was a big meatball, a fat porker."
At Kingsmont, everyone is weighed every Saturday, a day of trial, tribulation and rejoicing. Corbin figures he has been on that dining hall scale 50 times in the last six years. "It can give you a lot of happiness and upset feelings," he says. "Sometimes I think, 'Can't I get weighed on a regular scale?' They weigh 500-pound steers on that. In a way, you think you're cattle being weighed in.
"It's very plain. It says, 'I tell no lies.' It means business."
Breakfast: 2/3 cup cereal (Raisin Bran 130 calories, Rice Krispies 106, Corn Flakes 84, Cheerios 110), 3 ounces yogurt (125 calories), 4 ounces apple juice (47 calories) or orange juice (48 calories), a half-pint of skim milk (120 calories). Total: 390.
Kingsmont is snuggled up to the Berkshire Hills in western Massachusetts just across the New York state line, sheltered by the mountain for which it is named. The bunks are white with red trim. Everything else is green for miles. The air is clean and sweet -- and tinged with the scent of sugar-free gum.
"It's like a fake world for seven weeks," says Rodney Kouri, 14.
"It's a fat world for seven weeks," says David Guffey, 17.
They live in sweet distortion. What's fat? What's thin? It all begins to blur after a few days on the 1,200- to 1,500-calorie-a-day diet. "When you leave the camp, it's like everyone looks anorexic," says Bari Beloff, 15, of Potomac, Md.
At Kingsmont, there are campers with stretch marks on their arms and campers in the Mini Slim program who look like they don't need to lose anything at all. No one calls anyone names. Fatso. Blimp. Slob. Wibble Wobble. Jelly Belly. "Michelin man," says Mike Christie, 18.
At home, "they call you chubby," says David Katz, 8. "They say your stomach shakes a lot -- a-boing, a-boing."
"The good thing about this place is that no one can call you a fat pig," says Paul Malley, 14.
They wear bikinis. They fall in love. They don't worry if a counselor says, "shirts and skins." They exercise that inalienable teen-age right -- wearing each other's clothes. Forenza! Benetton! Guess! It's a sweet liberation to be able to borrow a pair of jeans when you're 13 years old and weigh 200 pounds.
"I just like being able to fit in my own clothes," says Dave Gatewood, 16.
Fitting is the important thing. Fitting in. "The only time you can be yourself when you're overweight is when you're with your close friends and family," says Jennifer Roberts, 15. "At dances, you hide away. Here you can jump around. I mean, I always knew who I was. I just never could show it."
It is 4:15 in the afternoon. Campers gather on the hillside under shaded pines for the afternoon snack -- a Granny Smith apple -- and a nutrition class. The summer is nearly half-gone. Some campers, like Sam Kitzis, who signed up for the first half, are packing to go home. Others are about to arrive. The majority are preparing to see their families for the first time since they left home.
"What weekend do we have coming up?" asks Ann Garapic, the athletic director and dietitian.
"That's right," she says. "And we feel a little anxious when we go out, especially the first time."
Today is the day for tips: How to eat with your parents without pigging out. "Let's take a Big Mac," she says. "Any idea how many calories are in a Big Mac? It's about 580. What did we have for lunch? 509. What usually happens an hour after you eat at McDonald's?"
"You have a sundae," a kid replies.
They talk about empty calories, about the relative merits of french fries and baked potatoes, about trimming the fat from a steak, about splitting portions.
Dick Rohrbacher, one of the codirectors of the camp, joins the discussion. He weighed almost 225 pounds when he was in seventh grade. Now he is slim and wears a button that says, "I Love Hugs."
"You've all heard your parents say, 'Be good and eat,' " he begins. "The message is, 'If you don't eat, you're not good.' That's not what the parents meant, though that's what the child heard. You have to realize that food in the trash can is better than food in your stomach sometimes.
"You need to be powerful and positive. It's time you stand on your own two feet and say, 'I'm not going to go through life fat.' " He pauses. "This weekend is a big test."
"Any questions?" says Garapic.
"What's for lunch on Saturday?"
Lunch: 1 taco, 3 ounces hamburger, lettuce, tomato, cheese, taco sauce (187 calories); salad bar with 1 ounce dressing (70 calories); 1/2 cup cherries (70 calories). Total: 327 calories.
At Kingsmont, food is the number one topic of conversation. Food is their obsession, their friend. Nachos! Snickers! Fries! They talk about them as compulsively as they once devoured them. One evening just before curfew, a thin assistant counselor returns from town and announces he's been out eating ice cream. "Oh, God," says a camper. "Is it still on your breath?"
Cheating is a major topic of conversation. Camp buzzes with the news that a cabin search turned up some Reese's Pieces and Hershey Kisses wrappers. Campers report being offered $5 for their dinners. And late at night, just before curfew, three girls head for a rendezvous with a Snickers bar. Stood up by their source, they return to their cabins and settle for a piece of fruit.
Martha Norris runs the kitchen and keeps it locked tight. She knows what she has. She knows that Kingsmont campers average nine pounds of tomatoes an hour. She knows every trick in the book. Every Sunday morning, the kids are allowed to pick their own breakfast up to 390 calories. It is an exercise in learning portion control. "We used to have kids go back and change their clothes and say they haven't eaten," Norris says. "I had a vendor offered $25 to bring in a pizza last year."
"When I was a camper, a guy had a CB radio and radioed in for a pizza," says Caton Cobb, who is now a division leader. "Last year, there was a kid who bought Reese's Pieces and sold nickel bags of them. I busted him. He bought a big bag of it and broke it up into little pieces and sold it for $5 or $10. He probably made $100 to $200 before we nailed him. I don't think he got rid of his whole stash. He was a real skinny kid."
Some of them dream about food. "Hamburgers!" says David Katz.
Food coupons dangle from the rafters along the boys' bunkline: Mrs. Richardson's Hot Fudge, Save 25 cents." Ethan Gordon, a slim assistant counselor, sleeps in a Cracker Jacks sleeping bag and keeps an old picture of his fat self in the window to show everyone it can be done.
"I want to be small enough to fit into my mother's wedding dress," says Crystal Hoffmann, 12. "It's hanging in my grandmother's closet."
Jill Hoffberger of Baltimore is a student and a model. "I take it as a health spa," she says. "I have to lose a little weight quick and this is the place to do it. I have to get to 125 to model. For what I want to do it's worth it. I've been here before. They do a good job. They teach you how to keep it off but most put it back on. You're here so long and you haven't had a candy bar. As soon as you get home, you pig out. I allow myself one pig-out, then I go back on my diet."
This is her fourth year at Kingsmont, the first year she signed up for the half-session. "I'm 17," she says. "I have a great life. My mother is into me modeling more than I am. She said I had to go. She is really into looks too much. All she cares about is how thin you are. We're like sisters. She wants her daughter to be the most gorgeous thing in the world. She wants her to be perfect."
They talk about the diets they've tried -- Weight Watchers, Pritikin, Beverly Hills -- the pounds they've lost and gained. They talk about refrigerators stocked with temptations and about broken homes where one parent helps them diet while the other bribes them with food. And they talk about why they eat. "Because it's there," says Nickki Witkin, 14.
"I'll eat my depression away," says Paul Malley. "It's like food is my best friend."
"I almost took a scissor and cut the fat off," says Kara Wood, 13. "I was really thinking about that."
Kingsmont was founded by Lloyd Appleton, whom everyone knows as "Doc," and Dick and Janet Rohrbacher. They met at West Point when Appleton was a professor and Rohrbacher a cadet. They talked about starting a camp one day and in 1968 they did. Why a weight camp? "There was a need," Appleton says.
Kingsmont has no weight requirement. "Whether it's five pounds or 50 pounds makes no difference," says Rohrbacher, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on obesity in adolescents. "Look at the girls who become anorexic. We're not dealing with quantitative judgments here. The 20-pounder could go out and commit suicide if it isn't treated."
A full summer costs $2,995; half, $1,995. Rohrbacher estimates that for the first year, 50 percent of the campers keep off the weight they lose. "I'd bet you 25 percent never regain it."
This year, one-third of the campers are repeaters and half of the counselors are former campers. "We get criticisms of weight camps that kids come back year after year," Rohrbacher says. "We don't look at a kid who comes back as a failure."
One measure of success is slowing down the rate of gain. "What would happen if the kid didn't lose 40 pounds that summer?" he says. "That's the point society has yet to learn."
They send campers home with recipes and a telephone number for a winter hot line they can call when things get rough. Appleton says they call when "it comes along 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon and they get home from school and Mamma isn't home and they're lonely or bored. I feel as though we fail when they go home and blow up again. I'd like to do the job strong enough so they can go home and hold it."
"The question is how many come here knowing if they gain weight back, they can come back?" says Steve Teagle, 17, an assistant counselor. "Some people are too dependent on camp."
Some are defeated by inflated expectations. "I thought, 'I'll get all sorts of friends,' " says Kara Wood. "But nothing changed."
The goal is to help them break down inhibitions and gain enough self-esteem to keep off the weight they lose. To help banish self-consciousness, there is an afternoon clinic called "Being a Fool and Really Enjoying It" and an annual "Beautyless" pageant.
"The bottom line is when you look in the mirror and don't feel disgust and hatred and shame, when you can look and say, 'Yeah, I'm heavy,' they won't want to abuse themselves," Rohrbacher says.
Activities are designed for maximum exercise -- there are no ladders in the Kingsmont pool -- and minimum competition. Everyone participates. Late at night, counselors sit at the truck stop four miles down the road, where intrepid campers have been known to sneak a burger or two, and cry as they describe the first race of the summer. "These kids grew up never thinking they could run around a car," counselor Marjorie Perelli says. And they ran three miles.
"This place gives you the mental support these kids need," says Colleen McGranahan, a counselor who has lost 110 pounds in the last year. "You can run their butts but you have to work on their minds."
McGranahan carries around a snapshot of herself taken last year so when kids ask, 'What do you know?' she can tell them. "One girl admitted she tried to kill herself," she says.
Perelli nods. "If I can get just get one kid to stop hating himself," she says.
Dinner: 3 ounces sole almondine (286 calories), 1/2 cup mashed potatoes (166 calories), 1/2 cup peas (88 calories), salad bar with 1 ounce dressing (70 calories), 1/2 cup butterscotch pudding (50 calories). Total: 660.
Aerobics class is over and the girls from the oldest division sit on the hillside overlooking the obstacle course. In the distance, children play coed football and volleyball and softball. Talk turns to Jane Fonda and her hated workout. "Let's get a bazooka and blow her up," says Kristine Hughes, 17.
"Jane Fonda and Brooke Shields," says Jameen Edwards, 18, shaking her head. "Jane Fonda does it because she didn't have anything else to do and no one put her in the movies. All those workouts are for people who are in shape. 'Put your head behind your left knee, raise your right arm and grab your left ear and breathe.' If we could do that, we wouldn't be at camp. 'Make it burn.' Lady, it burns getting up the hill."
Just about everywhere you look at Kingsmont, there is another slope. It's hard work to get just about anywhere on the campus. Kids talk about Death Valley and Bitch Hill and Heart Attack Hill.
"Take 'em down," Edwards says, rolling her eyes. "You know that song, 'The Hills Are Alive'?" She begins to sing. "The hills are alive with the bodies of fat kids."
Edwards was a camper six years ago when she was 12. The intervening years have not been good to her waistline. "While you're eating that sucker you think about what's going down your throat, not what's going through your life," she says. "Obviously if you weigh 300 pounds you should want to lose weight. I wasn't ashamed to say I was coming. It felt good saying I'd confronted my problem instead of hiding behind that ice cream sundae.
"I graduated from high school and went to college summer school. I got sick in the hospital for two weeks. My blood pressure went up and it wouldn't come down. For the last year, I realized my weight was slowing me down. I didn't have the energy to do the things I wanted to do. I got pretty tired of being at home."
Belkys Lugo, 18, came all the way from Puerto Rico for the summer. The night before she left, her grandmother made her favorite meal: chicken and rice and beans. "Sometimes I never leave home," she says. "I never go a lot of places because I feel sad. No one ever says, 'I'm going to help you.'
"They all say, 'Oh, you have such a pretty face,' " Hughes says.
"We hear that all the time," Edwards says.
Lisa Nelson, 17, lost 15 pounds at Kingsmont last summer but gained them back last winter. She wants to lose 30 this year. The others don't think she needs to lose anything at all. "I came for selfish reasons," she says. "Because I feel I can be one of the best here. I think it's a conceited attitude but it's true."
"I wish this camp would be just for fat people," says Heidi Mamos, 18, glancing at Nelson. "Excuse me for saying this but I don't think you should really be here."
Nelson shrugs. "Let's define fat," she says.
"I'm not fat, I'm obese," Hughes says.
"I'm grossly obese," Edwards says.
"We have a couple in our division who could get modeling jobs," Hughes says.
"Maybe they're skinny through your eyes but not through their eyes," Nelson replies. "I went back to school and felt just as fat as before. When you got back into the real world, even if I lost 50 pounds, I'd probably think I was still fat. You don't see the real you."
The debate continues as the sun sets. How fat is fat? How thin is thin? The talk dissolves into tears. Some drift off to dress for dinner. A little boy, one of the youngest campers, approaches. "Don't worry," he tells them. "I like you just the way you are."