At Camp Phoenix, we're told that it's not their fault. Fat girls do not love food: fat girls are not greedy. Magazine articles report that fatness is strictly due to genetics. It's been proven with double-blind tests, it's been illustrated with obese white mice (remove this part of the brain, stick a pin in that one, and poof! they gorge on the mouse-trap cheese until their intestines pop). Together, the counselors study all the freak-show daguerreotypes from infallible medical records. The camp leader insists to us that fat girls are victims: trapped inside complicated bodies that just can't respond to rice cakes and stationary bicycles the way their classmates' bodies do.
I nod and make notes, I suck my pen. But I don't believe it, not for a second. I've been a counselor for five years straight. At Camp Phoenix, at least, it's a lot simpler than glitchy thyroids. The campers have devoted their virgin adolescent bodies to food the way nuns devote themselves to Jesus Christ. They love food with exactly the kind of slavering, blinded, doped-up adoration that thin people suspect of them: these girls are cartoon-strip punch-lines, mouths unhinging like snakes' jaws to take in sandwiches stacked high as their hairlines. I watch them and I hate them.
I've never not been hungry.
There is a new counselor. I don't remember her as a camper. She's in the cabin across from mine, and the morning before the campers arrive, I watch her from my window while I brush my teeth. She's beating out mattresses on the beach. The new counselor is immaculate, custom-designed for a teenage-summer-camp-sex-romp. Her legs are infinite and amber: she has a fat white ponytail, long hands, and a spine like rosary beads down her back. Beneath her bikini straps, I can see a gloss of copper freckles along her shoulders, as fashionable as animal print.
I find Pepper after lunch. Pepper is sharing the cabin with the new counselor (last year she was stuck with Candy, a humorless bulimic who ate it to excess, resulting in weekly plumber visits and two of the campers being sent home after following her example with their ants-on-a-log and fat-free yogurts). "Is the new counselor a drastic transformation?" I ask.
Pepper scrapes the tuna off her plate. "She says so, but she's from some other camp. I think that one in Michigan where that girl died during cardio interval?"
"What's her name?"
Mitzi is emerging from the restroom, her hands still glittering wet although I hear the automatic dryer. "She calls herself Sunshine. It's kind of stupid."
I call myself Bets. "I always thought we'd escape without a Sunshine."
"Well." Mitzi shrugs. "She seems OK, I guess. I mean she seems sweet, right?"
"How much did she lose?" I ask Pepper.
"She says," and Pepper drops her ravaged apple core into the trash can very carefully, not looking at either of us, "she lost one hundred and ten."
We're silent. That is one-eighth of a circus pony. That is one-sixth of a baby grand piano. That is a whole other separate human being. That's just less than Pepper; that's slightly more than Mitzi; that's exactly me.
In the recreation room, right next to the recumbent bike, there's a framed montage of the drastic transformations. I'm in the middle and there are still ten empty spaces, waiting for future campers to shed their cellulite and commit to life as a thinner, happier, healthier you! In my before-photo I am thirteen years old and my lower legs spring apart below the knee, pushed by the dimpled corpulence of thigh: my grin is a disparity of wire and enamel, pillowed by flab. I still own those yellow elastic-band shorts. When I step into them now, they puddle around my feet. My plaque is spit-polished: BETS LOST 81 POUNDS!!! Pepper is a few spaces ahead of me (73!!!) and Mitzi, 49!!!, is one space beyond me. As thinner, healthier, happier us, we have returned, obediently and unquestioningly, to Camp Phoenix.
Before I was a counselor, I was just fat. I came to Camp Phoenix four years straight and returned each time with a raw gut from colonics, poison ivy rashes on my calves: I'd spend the next few weeks gorging myself, with a dogged lack of pleasure, on everything they'd taken away from me.
When I was thirteen there was a counselor named Super-Star who demonstrated that a full three of her legs could fit inside just one of my own. She had kneecaps prominent as doorknobs, long brown muscled thighs: when she held her leg against mine, her skin was soft enough to make me swallow my carrot stick the wrong way.
That year, I became the most successful loser in the history of Camp Phoenix.
The next day the campers arrive and I am designated, with Sunshine, to greet the buses. We stand side by side, in standard-issue baby-blue ankle-socks, our shorts pristinely bleached and the size of dinner napkins, plastic whistles around our necks. Our t-shirts show the food pyramid. Sunshine's breasts are bigger than mine: the whole-grains are emphatically swollen, the fruits and vegetables are interrupted by her nipples. I haven't actually spoken to Sunshine yet. We've been here nearly a week (scrubbing down the refrigerators, attending the training sessions on Sensitivity Vocabulary and Plateau Avoidance) and, though we sit across from each other at meals, we mostly talk across and around each other. Sunshine smiles constantly, in a directionless and obedient way, like a little kid being told to pose for a dozen relatives at once. She has a candy anklet on today. Sunshine irritates me.
I can't look at her without imagining myself attached.
We can hear the chunk and rumble of the approaching bus. Sunshine holds her palm over her eyes, clamps her clipboard flat against her chest like body armor. "I've never done this before," she says, unexpectedly. "Are you nervous?"
"Oh. No, it's easy, really." The windows of the bus are spotted with pale, round faces, bobbing like moons behind the grime. "Just take all their snacks, check their socks and pockets. And smile a lot. And don't say the word 'fat.'"
The fat girls disembark slowly, clutching the rails, one small overtaxed sneaker in front of the other. They are beaded with sweat like dough rising. They have patches of wetness beneath their arms. I tap my skinny fingers against my thigh, smile close-lipped. I know I'm being observed, studied like an advertisement for a wish-come-true. The fat girls just can't believe my body. In the brochure, I tell them: I used to be just like you! They always ask me if it's a lie.
The campers line up and that's when I see the Pretty Faces for the first time.
Every night, Mitzi and I play the game. "An average bowling ball weighs sixteen pounds," says Mitzi into the humid darkness, "so I've lost three bowling balls."
"I've lost two bicycles," I say.
"I've lost half an encyclopedia set."
"I've lost a love seat." I scratch a mosquito bite near my navel. The skin is doughy; I need to start doing crunches again. "Do you think Sunshine really lost that much?"
"Sure, I mean. Why wouldn't she?"
I think of my body, the slackness and puckers I can still record with my fail-safe fingertips. Here's the thing about lost weight: it does not just fall off. It does not shed away like the husk of a snake, it does not land in meaty gelatinous slabs to be scooped into the garbage can. One week it's there and then you put certain things in your mouth and make certain movements with your limbs and next week there's air between your thighs. The weight is not lost. It's been sucked back inside you, clogged around your organs, crushed behind your bones, nascent and watchful. With one false move it will fill out the slack again. An extra cookie, say. A morning without hammer curls. A lack of a cat-call. A whispered insult.
The thing about Sunshine is, she moves as if she's been skinny her whole life. There's not enough scared in her body. "I'm just saying. I don't know about her."
The Pretty Faces wear nametags saying so in place of their names, but they don't need to. When the campers line up (an even dozen this year), already in their yellow shorts and Camp Phoenix t-shirts, the Pretty Faces are the ones who make me feel all at once ugly. The rest of the campers look at Sunshine and me with the spooked, liquiescent eyes of animals, but the two Pretty Faces look at us and bite down yawns. They're the kind of fat girls who baffled me in middle school. Their fatness is a single flaw, crowded into near-irrelevance by their high cheekbones, their pin-straight hair, their lashes dense as fur, their expensive ruby-red manicures. They're the kind of fat girls who get asked to winter formal and have the luxury of turning the boys down.
Sunshine starts the welcome speech, and her voice is a punch of enthusiasm. I forget to smile. The campers listen, polite and wary, shifting from foot to foot. The Pretty Faces stand with their hands on their hips. They keep catching my eye.
"So, girls! Listen up! A big part of success at Camp Phoenix is following our healthy diet plan!" Sunshine is bingeing on exclamation points. She claps her hands. "So right now Bets and I are going to take all the food you've brought from home! Don't worry," she adds, "you'll totally get it back at the end of the camp."
That is not true and not part of the speech, but I don't correct her. The campers are too shy to complain yet. They back away when we approach their luggage, forming a semicircle, like at a public dissection. I grab a Care Bears duffel bag and unzip. Sunshine and I plunder through pockets, beneath the plastic baggies of socks and underwear: we root through tampon boxes and baby blankets, framed portraits of dowdy parents. We pull out candy bars and potato chips and ramen noodles, chocolates and pastries and microwave popcorn. I'm damp with sweat. Typically, this is my favorite part of the initiation, but I'm distracted by the Pretty Faces. I'm sure they own the two pricey-looking suitcases, rattling with opulent buckles.
Sure enough. When I reach for the nearest of the suitcases, one of the Pretty Faces steps forward. She has an authority I've never managed myself, no matter how low the numbers of my life (pants size, calories per day, bathroom scale) manage to drop. "It's OK, honestly," she says. "I didn't sneak anything to eat."
"Well, but." Sunshine keeps smiling. "We have to search every suitcase!"
"No, I didn't bring anything, really. And I hate people going through my stuff." The Pretty Faces take their suitcases by the handles. They're wearing blue eye shadow, which, I notice, just matches their luggage. "We won't tell or anything."
I stand, gravel clinging to my knees like shrapnel. I brush it off. Still kneeling, Sunshine gazes up at me, not even sweating, serenely waiting for my response. I just bet Sunshine was a Pretty Face, back in Michigan. She was never like me: one of the fat girls who had to suck ice cubes for dessert and practice isometrics until her vision blurred, just to arrive at the dimmest promise of prettiness.
"It's fine, whatever." I rub my neck. "But you know you'll get in trouble if we find you with any food outside the mess hall." My voice is unconvinced.
Sunshine and I lead the campers to their cabins. I'm crumpling inside with panic. Walking ahead of the fat girls, my back feels as open as an anatomy lesson. I know the campers are watching my thighs, checking my calves, analyzing my ass. For the past five years I've enjoyed this walk: my body is a dangled carrot. I am the fat girls' reward for following all the rules (Role Model Seminar). But, today, I think of the Pretty Faces and I am sure my thighs are beginning to rub together. I can feel the cellulite springing into place, multiplying like toadstools beneath my flesh. I stumble.
There's a murmur from the campers, a blurted giggle, a hush. Sunshine looks over at me. "Everything all right?" she whispers, loudly. Her face is gentle with unconcern.
Last year I won the Tip-Top Counselor award. It's documented in the recreation room, near the free weights. I'm surrounded by campers, half their size, a third their size, holding my arms out in an awkward parody of a hug or maybe Christ suffering the little children. I helped the girls lose forty pounds altogether. I motivated them with my can-do attitude, I led by example. I still get letters from some of those campers. The letters are marked with puffy stickers and tell me how much weight they've lost, how they just remember my tips and tricks. I allowed the girls to hug me when they left, hard damp full-on hugs. After the feel of all that flesh against my own, I went behind the cabins and I threw up until saliva leaked from my nostrils.
The morning after the campers arrive, Mitzi makes us pancakes. We pillage the stash of confiscated food. Mitzi adds chocolate squares, caramel chips, a whole package of Heath bars. She fries bacons, ribbons of pearlescent fat sparking in oil. She scrambles eggs with whole milk and four different kinds of cheese. I set out a stick of butter (softening beforehand, so it doesn't scar the tender surface of the pancakes) and a jug of orange juice pulpy enough to require a spoon. Pepper contributes from her cabin: thumbnail-sized powder-pink marshmallows, contraband cereals with toothy cartoon mascots, fat jars of peanut butter, fudge sauce so thick it clogs at the mouth of the bottle. When we sit down for breakfast, I stack the pancakes five deep (one for each week of camp, one to grow on) and swamp them in grade-A maple syrup until they're nothing but a mass of spongy sweetness.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see that Sunshine has taken only one pancake. She spreads the butter on deliberately, in a smiley-face, the way I always did as a kid. The butter starts melting right away.
Mitzi is Catholic (she loses ten pounds each Lent) and makes us say grace, Bless us O Lord and these Thy gifts. Afterwards, the four of us sit and study our breakfasts in companionable silence. We can hear the campers shuffling past to the mess hall, where, three of us know, they will receive this: a five-inch lump of tepid cottage cheese, fifteen green grapes, six fluid ounces of milk (skim, like chalk mixed with water), and, for variety, a Vienna sausage the size and consistency of a severed thumb. Mitzi and Pepper and I spent half our middle-school summers sitting in that mess hall at 7:15, listening to the gummy mastication of our fellow campers and infusing the room with clandestine farts. We spent half our middle-school summers missing our mothers, hating the topography of our love handles and bra bulges and pot bellies and bat wings, wondering if the girl next to us would eat her last grape.
When the last girls shuffle by (they are discussing last night's educational video, Swapping Curses: Can Your Friends Make You Fat?), Mitzi looks around at the rest of us and smiles. "All done, then?"
I scrape pancake after pancake into the trash, followed by whole boxes of cereal and dozens of bacon strips. I wonder how the Pretty Faces are enjoying their breakfast. Sunshine is their official counselor, but I'll be seeing them at craft course (which I lead because I'm OK with scissors and glue). On the first day we always outline our bodies on sheets of printing paper and then cover the blank spaces with our hopes and dreams. Some girls have to dream for hours just to fill the void.
"The average human head weighs eight pounds. I have lost ten heads."
Mitzi snores. I lie there envisioning ten human heads growing on my neck and dropping off, one by one, like a hydra, blood-caked yellow hair and glassy eyes.
Nobody has ever called me pretty.
At the craft course I hand out scissors with safety edges, just in case the campers are taken with a suicidal impulse (it's rumored that it happened back in 1982, a girl so determined to win the Weekly Weigh-Off that she applied a chainsaw to her right leg and now haunts the mess hall kitchen, prowling for raw meat). The girls have already outlined themselves and are staring down at the nebulous wiggles of magic marker that are supposed to approximate their bodies. "Your hopes and dreams," I remind them, a little snappish. I swallow and try again. "Like, just think of what you really want from your time here at Camp Phoenix, for instance."
One of the girls, Leigh, with a stomach twice as round as her breasts, holds up her hand like a kindergartener. "Why don't you do it, too?"
She talks in the hushed, self-conscious way of someone being given a line. I glance around for a puppeteer. The Pretty Faces are watching us, toying with tubes of liquid glitter, chomping their lower lips to keep from smiling. I knew it. "I'm supposed to be helping you," I say, "I've already done this a lot when I was a camper."
My old outlines are down in the camp basement, smelling like gasoline fumes and curling sepia at the edges, patterned with rat shit. I found them when I went to get the lawnmower, once. All four of them are the very same: dozens of outlines nesting within each other like Russian dolls, crowding inwards until they reach a white space the size of a fist. I've never done the exercise as a counselor. I'd fall somewhere in the middle now, I guess. "Who would trace me?" I say, demurring.
The Pretty Faces both lift their hands, coolly languid, like parade-float queens. Of course. "We already know what we want to do with our outlines," the taller one says, and the one with blonde hair adds, "We're doing hearts and stars and stuff."
"Well. Well. Well, OK," I say, because by now all the campers are ignoring their pipe-cleaners and watercolors and looking at me, and there's something animal in their eyes again, "I guess it would be OK, just this once. Sure."
When I lie down on the paper I can feel the chilliness of the concrete, seeping into me like moisture. I hold stiff, my thighs opened and my hands fanned out so that each finger can be traced separately. I'm surprised: my tailbone is a sore knot against the floor. My vertebrae ache singly and specifically at each juncture. "Let's be pretty quick," I say. "Only an hour until lunchtime!"
"Are you hungry, Bets?" One of the Pretty Faces kneels beside me. I can smell her perfume—too complex to be mall-kiosk—and her shampoo and her toothpaste. I shut my eyes. "What do the counselors eat for breakfast, anyhow?"
"The same meals you eat."
"That's not true." The marker brushes my ankle and I twitch, hard and reflexive. It begins traveling up my calf. "Sunshine told me about the pancakes."
"Sunshine shouldn't be telling you anything. That's inappropriate." The marker is past my knee. Somebody giggles. I try again: "Anyway, what pancakes?"
"What pancakes?" the Pretty Faces mimic, together.
"Sunshine," I begin. There's a honeycomb of color against my closed eyelids, sparking and expanding. The lights collide and merge like protozoa. I can control this. "Sunshine is very new here. She's probably just trying to fit in."
"Sunshine said she's never seen you eat." The marker stops at my crotch.
I don't move. I'm like a chloroformed insect pinned to corkboard. Helplessly, I think of chips that leave neon residue on my molars and fingertips, pies in wax wrappers that taste like one glorious artificial amalgamation of all the fruits in the world, candy bars with triple layers of nougat, pouches of peanuts just going stale beneath the salt, crispy curlicues of additives and barbeque seasoning, diet soda (sweeter than regular) to wash it all down. Saliva thick as syrup pools up in my mouth. The marker starts again and traces the entire parameter of my body (it's over so quickly). I notice, distantly, that it only traces a single head on my neck.
"All finished," one of the Pretty Faces says. Their perfume retreats.
The room is quiet: a cough, a mumble. I don't get up. My bones have numbed and now I can't even tell where I touch the floor. "Here's another thing about Sunshine," I say, my eyes still closed. "She was never one of us."
Before lunch I am in the restroom. I sit with my sneakers drawn up on the toilet seat so nobody can see me. This is the stall known for its gatherings of granddaddy long-legs, orgiastic filigreed patterns of them all across the wall, Bacchanal twists of floss-thin wavering limbs. After the first day, campers always avoid this stall.
I know it's Sunshine when she enters because of that candy anklet. I wonder if the candy's still edible. "Bets? Can we talk for a minute?"
I let her open the door of each stall to find me, and then I look at her casually, like we're just meeting in the aisle of the grocery store with carts full of organic vegetables and suntan lotion. Sunshine smiles in that ingratiating, unfocused way of hers, a quick smile, as if she can't help herself. Then she stares at the floor, arms barred over her breasts. "So. OK. I heard what you've been saying about me."
"I heard what you've been saying about —"
Sunshine interrupts, voice pitched too loud. "No, Bets, listen, this is just inappropriate. I know I'm new here. I mean, I've never been a counselor before, you know, I always really looked up to them." She uncrosses her arms. Her forearms are so slim, like toothpicks, the muscles as delicate as mouse-tails. "It's really unfair for you to try to turn the campers against me. I was like them. You know that."
Sunshine's legs are taut as plums. "I don't believe it."
"I lost one hundred pounds," Sunshine says, "I used to be twice my size. It was really hard to do. I'm really proud of myself, I don't care what you believe."
"You told them about the pancakes."
"It's not healthy for you to never eat. What kind of role model are you?"
"I used to be just like them," I say, and stand up and shove past hard and listen to Sunshine's little snarling oh of surprise. I wait for her to say it —I wait for her to say it — you still are. When she's quiet, I leave the restroom and ring the bell for lunch.
At lunch the campers share how much weight they've lost. It's been three days: they dab the boiled egg off their lips with paper napkins and stand, one by one, hands clasped behind their backs. I sit with Mitzi and Pepper and Sunshine. I haven't touched my salad: it's rearranged on my Styrofoam plate, the romaine hearts in one corner, the slippery snail-trail of ranch dressing in another, cherry tomatoes and grated carrots lining the circumference. Mitzi glances at me and is silent.
"I've lost two and a half pounds," says the first girl, and we applaud. I can lose two and a half pounds overnight, I think. I can lose eighty-one pounds in the space of the time it takes most people to break a nail-biting habit.
"I lost one pound."
"I lost half a pound."
"I lost four pounds."
In the dregs of the applause for all this loss, the Pretty Faces stand up, together. They don't clasp and unclasp their hands. Their mouths don't twitch when they smile. They've cleaned their plates, I notice. "We haven't lost anything," the taller one announces, calmly. The other Pretty Face nods and smoothes her hair. They are looking straight at me, their bodies huge and intact beneath their opulent jewelry.
Only Sunshine claps her hands.
During the fitness class I go into their cabin. I feel balloon-high, a string of heads suspended above my body. I remember every detail of the campers' cabins. The candy-striped mattresses have been stripped for sheet-changing: they're buckled in the center and spotted with old menstruation stains and the graying continents of urine. The suitcases are half-open, spilling out Teen Spirit deodorant sticks and hair-clogged brushes and camp-issue sweatpants. Everywhere, I see fashion magazines cracked on their spines, promising amazing sex and flatter tummies.
The Pretty Faces keep their suitcases locked. I expected this. I take a size-10 stiletto pump (strictly forbidden, I'll have to report it) and smash the lock on the largest suitcase again and again, wedged against the metal frame of the bed. It pops into two pieces in my head. Somehow, I've nicked my thumb: the nail bed is bloody. Sucking my finger, I open the suitcase. My vision blurs. The suitcase disgorges piles of clothes, pastel colors, fabrics too expensive for me to ever touch again, sizes that could cradle two of me. I go straight for the zippered pockets, like a fly to a wound.
There are enough candy bars to last the whole four weeks of the camp. They're the cheapest kind of candy bar, flimsy silver foil and primary colors, obese cartoon lettering, 25% more filling, 10% less fat, 50% off. The Pretty Faces must have robbed a convenience store before they boarded the camp bus. I strip down the first candy bar. I barely remember how to chew. The chocolate is waxy at first: the caramel gums up around my canines, the nougat and peanut and toffee pillow hard against my taste buds. I force my jaws to go around and around. When the sweetness hits it's like I have ten mouths at once and they're all being suffocated with pleasure. I swallow, bite, chew, chew, swallow, bite, chew, bite again. I do not count how many candy bars I eat. I barely remember how to count. I'm making my return.
Somewhere in Michigan there is a photo album. Sunshine at her first birthday party: Sunshine at the beach in a two-piece string bikini: Sunshine at high school graduation, demure pumps beneath her robes: Sunshine beneath the Christmas tree, elbow-deep in her stocking: and in all the photos, every last one, Sunshine is thin.
They've hung my outline on the wall of the cabin, affixed with rainbow thumb-tacks. Supine on the bare mattress, my stomach bloated up into an obscene heap of skin, the rest of my body tingling to follow, I study the deliberate curves of the magic marker. I stuff my eyes on the shape of myself. There's not much space to fill at all.
In the center of my body, the fat girls have drawn a yellow sun.