Becky Mitchell strained at the bench press. One. Two. Three. Four. Hissing under her breath, she counted off each stretch of her 17-year-old, 221-pound body.

"They found two candy-bar wrappers in here the other day," she said. "So the weight room was off limits for awhile."

Five.Six. Seven. Eight.

She looked up, her damp face a mask of pain and determination. "My stepfather suggested I come here. He said I'd be happier with myself if I were thin." She paused pressing her frame against the machine. "Maybe he's right."

Welcome to Camp Murrieta: home of "Skinny Italian Dressing" and "Cabbage Kiev," where 52 girls are spending their summer sweating and slimming to the tune of $1,900 which their parents gladly forked over.

From Venezuela, Somalia, Mexico, California and Washington, D.C. they came -- forsaking frozen Milky Ways, French fries and Fritos for seven weeks of celery curls, jumping jacks, swimming laps and pumping iron. It's the battle of the bulge, the fight to go light.

Welcome to "fat camp," where the only winners are losers.

"For many of them, this is the last resort," said camp director Jo-Anna Smelser, a platinum blond dance instructor at Virginia Wesleyan College, where Camp Murrieta is currently ensconced in somewhat austere surroundings.

"The parents bring them into the office and say 'Where did this child come from? It's not mine. Do something!'" Smelser said over dinner of Salisbury steak (with no-fat gravy), sliced cucumbers, salad and a scoop of dietetic ice cream. "I never realized what a handicap it is to be overweight."

But the campers, aged 9 to 18, do know what it's like. Most of them are chubby, some are obese. All share the same scars, shoulder the same burdens: always being the last one picked for a team, avoiding mirrors, two-piece bathing suits and anything sleeveless, surreptitiously sneaking food, "munching out" on chocolate chip cookie dough, pizza and puddings enduring the insults of others.

"My brother calls me 'Blubber,'" said Tiffany Klapper, a freckle-faced 11-year-old from Springfield, Va. "They call me 'Meatball,'" said Lori Levin, a 10-year-old New Jersey girl with Bo Derek braids.

The campers finished their meal and cleared the tables. Time for the evening jog.

"At school I'm humiliated all the time," said Levin. "They stuff things in my bookbag and say, 'Hey, Lori, eat it. You eat everything.'"

Her companions chime in with a litany of slurs: "Fatso," "Beachball," "Thunder Thighs" and "Earthquake," as in 'Watch out, Earthquake's gonna sit on you.'"

"How do you feel? Embarrassed," said Tiffany Klapper. Another camper shrugged her shoulders. "What can we say? We're fat. They're skinny."

On a recent day trip to the beach, 15 miles away, a group of campers were greeted with "mooing" noises by several teen-aged boys.

"That didn't bother us," said one girl. "We just said, 'Hi! We're from the FAT FARM!'"

faces flushed with a healthy glow, they warm up on the lawn near the red brick dormitory.

For most of them, it is the first time they are actively participating in sports.

And while they share the same indignity of bulging bellies, flabby thighs against flabby thighs, they also share the same bittersweet dream.

"I can't wait to get home," said one plump teen-ager who told her friends she was going to tennis camp this summer. "Every night since I've been here I've had the same dream. I'm on the plane, wearing a white blazer, white skirt and white shoes. The plane lands and I step off. All my friends are there waiting. They look up and see me. Somebody says, 'Oh wow, look at her!'"

Camp Murrieta is one of more than two dozen weight-loss camps for children across the country. The campers are placed on a strict diet, their caloric intake limited to between 1,100 and 1,300 calories per day.

Aside from an active sports program, the camps also offer behavorial modification sessions designed to alter bad habits such as eating too fast, "munching out" in front of the television and using food as a reward.

Nutrition is also taught, and some psychological counseling is made available to determine the deeper roots of childhood obesity, perhaps the most difficult and painful problem faced by millions of young people today. t

Approximately 10 to 40 percent of school-age children are overweight and the proportion is steadily rising, according to recent studies.

Although the "fat camps" do produce results, often helping a child to shed 25 pounds or more, experts say the long-term benefit is still inconclusive.

"It's hard to believe that they can make an impact," said Dr. Gilman Grave of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "We're homing in on the theory that behavorial therapy is a short-term solution to a long-term problem."

Bruce Copeland, a clinical psychologist at Washington's Children's Hospital, agreed. "The problem is, what happens when the kid leaves the camp?"

Grave theorized that, "When you leave you would expect them to revert to previous behavior. It happens all the time."

It happened to Jackie Duval.

Last summer, the 14-year-old from Takoma Park came to Camp Murrieta and lost 35 pounds. Camp director Jo-Anna Smelser pulled out her "before" and "after" pictures and showed them to a visitor. "Do you believe it?," said Jo-Anna. "Isn't she adorable?"

The "after" picture shows a stunning Chris Evert-Lloyd look alike, wearing tight pants and a form-fitting blouse.

This summer, Jackie came back. Not only had she gained back the 35 pounds she had shed last summer, but had added 15 more pounds to her frame. "I couldn't believe it when I saw her," said Smelser, shaking her head.

Jackie's father, Dr. George Duval, a Navy physician, said his daughter had managed to stick to her diet for the first few months last fall. Then, when the holidays came, she started eating again. Duval, who was visiting the camp for a few hours last week shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know what happened," he said.

Dr. Alexander Roche, of the Fels Research Institute in Yellow Springs, Ohio, has conducted many studies of childhood obesity. "The general picture in treating obesity is that it's a miserable story," he said. "The whole family has to change its lifestyle."

According to studies by the National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism and Digestive Diseases, children tend to imitate overeating parents. Once the pattern is established, it is virtually impossible for one member of the family to break that pattern. solution to a long-term problem."

Bruce Copeland, a clinical psychologist at Washington's Children's Hospital, agreed. "The problem is, what happens when the kid leaves the camp?"

Grave theorized that, "When you leave you would expect them to revert

Smelser remembers the time she went to Norfolk Airport last summer to pick up a camper. She found the girl and her mother at the pastry counter of the airport coffee shop. The mother was hastily stuffing chocolate eclairs into the girl's mouth.

Camp counselors also recall Parent's Day last year when the campers were reunited with their families for a restaurant meal out. Severl campers returned to the campus, complaining that their parents insisted on feeding them fattening foods.

"The reward system starts very early," said Smelser. "If they're good, you give them a lollypop. Depriving them is punishment."

It is 8 p.m. on a muggy July night. Instead of a weenie roast, the girls at Camp Murrieta -- 20 of whom are from the Washington, D.C. area are indulging in a behavioral modification session with the camp nutritionist. The younger girls sit on the floor, cross-legged, rosy-cheeked and chubby. They are asked to state their goals: why did they come to camp?

The answers are candid: "to lose weight and to have fun doing it," said one. "To change my whole life," said another.

The older girls respond. "To wear nice clothers" or "to get a date to the prom." Said Barbara Underwood, six feet tall and 247 pounds. "To stop buying my clothes at Lane Bryant. That junk's expensive."

The group breaks into giggles.

The campers are asked to keep a food diary of what they eat, where they eat and why they eat.

"Boredom," said Susan Cooley, a 12-year-old, strikingly beautifuly blond from Athens, Ga.

"Depression," said another camper.

A lively discussion of the whys and wherefores of overeating follows, rewarded by a snack of "Apple Smiley Faces" (apple slices spread with peanut butter, dotted with raisins) and one can of diet soda.

All the candy machines have been emptied, and the soft-drink machines are stocked only with Tab and Fresca.

Campers are allowed to buy one can of diet soda a day with money doled out by the canteen. When the campers arrive all their money is taken from them. Their mail and packages are inspected.

Recently one camper received a "care" package from home: a bag of sugarless gum. The counselor confiscated the loot to be handed out one piece at a time.

"You can't cheat in this place," said 17-year-old Joanne Casey from Bethesda, Md. "You're here for a purpose," said another girl. You're only cheating yourself."

One girl, however, did manage to gain weight last summer," Smelser said. "She was always so helpful in cleaning up the cafeteria after meals. We discovered she was eating all the leftover food."

Candy sold in the campus bookstore is also forbidden. "They come in and drool over it," said assistant manager Mike Evans. "But they know better than to try and buy it."

Do they miss any foods? "Chocolate cake," said Susan Cooley. "I've been craving a piece ever since I got here."

"Chocolate cake with pudding in the middle and coconut on top," said Mary Ann LaMariana a 10-year-old from Florida who said she eats the most "during the depressing parts of soap operas." She smiled ruefully looking down at her protruding stomach."There are a lot of depressing parts."

Television is not available at Camp Murrieta. Indeed most of the campers associated their eating "binges" with watching television.

Asked what they would be doing if they were at home, Susan Cooley answered, "Sitting in front of the tube watching soap operas and stuffing my face."

The rest of the group nodded in agreement.

The conversation turned to the boys' soccer camp, which has invaded the campus for two weeks. Because of a tight schedule, the girls from Camp Murrieta are forced to share the cafeteria with the boys, who are served mouth-watering coffee cakes, macaroni and cheese, chocolate-cream pies and overflowing cups of soft ice cream.

The weight-watchers had eyed the sinful selection at dinner and turned away in disgust. "I wouldn't eat that if they paid me," sniffed one pudgy camper.

Betsy Hall, assistant camp director, gathered up a few empty soda cans and turned off the lights.

"It's quite an experience," she signed. "You end up either thinking about food all the time or not at all."

Dr. Sandra Kopit Cohen, a 28-year-old psychiatrist at Payne Whitney Clinic in New York, recalled her summer at a weight-loss camp 13 years ago.

"It was like a concentration camp," she said. The best thing, she said, was "playing with other fat kids. Sunddenly, for the first time in your life, you can be the best kid on the team. What it gives you is a great chance to do things and not feel self-conscious. It didn't change my life in a major way. What it did give me was self-esteem. I also realized being fat was my choice."

Thirty pounds overweight, Cohen was the second thinnest girl at the camp. She kept the weight off for nearly two years, then gained some of it back again.

"The camp was pretty funny," she said. "A lot of the people were neglected rich kids. They bribed counselors to bring them food. Instead of sneaking cigarettes in the bathrooms we'd have pretzel parties."

The camp also took away any camper's aspirin or medications. "Apparently, the kids were eating it," she said.

Cohen's sister was creative with her "care" packages. "She'd send me one M & M in the mail, every day. She also took thin pieces of rice paper, soaked them in sugar water and mailed them."

One aspect that Cohen felt her camp lacked was determining the emotional and psychological reasons for overeating. "They didn't address that at all," she said.

David Kempton, executive director of Camp Murrieta, which has seven locations across the country, said, "They may overeat out of frustration, boredom, anxiety, a need for love. We try to get to the problem."

Some of the children have emotional problems stemming from broken homes, and others said they were alone a lot at home.

One girl said she began putting on weight nine years ago, when her father died.

"These kids are special," said counselor Dena Bailey. "They're so loving."

Dr. John Spargo, owner and idrector of "Seascape" on Cape Cod -- which opened in 1959 as the first summer "fat camp" for children in the country -- said, "It's hard work. It's not easy. It's not like a regular camp."

Asked to explain the proliferation of such camps, Spargo said, "There are a lot of overweight people. There's a need there. Also, people think it's a good way to make a buck."

Spargo said he recently opened a camp nearby for bedwetters. "Misery likes company, it's that type of thing."

Indeed, the specialty camps are more expensive than average summer camps, but parents are willing to spend the money.

At Camp Murrieta, the average weight loss is approximately 25 pounds and the fee is $1,900 -- that's $76 per pound.

"It's money well spent," said Vicki Klapper, whose daughter Tiffany is spending the summer slimming. "I guess you have to face the fact that the society we live in values a slim image."