07/03/2014 08:20 EDT | Updated 09/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Are Camps That Ban Comments About Appearance Really Addressing the Problem?

Buddhika Weerasinghe via Getty Images
HIMEJI, JAPAN - JANUARY 13: 20 years old woman looks from mirror after finished her fitting for'Coming-of-Age Day' celebration at Hair Sakura beauty parlorl on January 13, 2014 in Himeji, Japan. The Coming of Age Day is a Japanese holiday to congratulate and encourage young people who have reached the age 20 as maturity in Japan, when they are legally permitted to smoke, drink alcohol and vote. (Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

The New York Times recently ran a story about camps where comments about appearance are banned.

Nary an utterance about hair, skin colour, height, weight, or clothes (bathing suits included). Instead campers and counsellors concentrate on the personality of all individuals. So remarks like "Your soul shines" and "I feel so happy to be around you" are the order of the day.

A bit far fetched? Maybe. (Nobody has ever told me that my soul shines) But many of these camps seem to be doing well, with growing demand for some of them. And, of course, attendance is voluntary. Today there is a wide array of summer activities that parents and kids can choose from. These camps are but one type. No heavy hand of the state to worry about in this experiment in social ordering. Yet they've also attracted a fair bit of scepticism, including from experts such as clinical psychologists.

The primary focus of criticism seems to be about how to handle weight issues, especially for girls. One suggests that the banning of appearance comments will promote the denial of weight issues and what needs to be done to address them. Another worries that the "no comment on appearance" rule will chill appropriate discussions so that children worried about how they look cannot be properly counselled.

These are good points. But how well directed are they? In terms of the first, the "no comments on appearance" camps can deal with weight issues in one of the best ways: by having the kids eat nutritiously and be as physically active as possible. If they, and any other camps for that matter, are not run in this way parents should look elsewhere.

As for the second, the ban doesn't prohibit kids from being appropriately counselled about any issue for which they may need support and certainly not during the rest of the year. Its target are casual, and often hurtful, comments that are upsetting and far removed from constructive conversations about these issues. Children who are the butt of such thoughtlessness, even cruelty, are shielded. What's more the kids who might have been tempted to make such snarky cracks get to learn something about themselves; hopefully strengthening the kinder side.

What the camps are trying to do needs to be viewed in the larger context of appearance bias and weight discrimination. Shaming large people is too often seen as desirable so as to spur them on to lose weight and bask in caloric redemption. One study has suggested that just seeing an obese person triggers feelings of disgust, especially for individuals who have struggled with weight issues themselves. About two-thirds of Americans who have been surveyed believe that individuals who are fat lack self-control. (Some large people prefer the term "fat" viewing "obese" as a pejorative, medicalized characterization that has been forced upon them. I use both terms.) Based on a number of studies, about 90 percent of the obese have been the subject of humiliating comments.

This hostility to kids who are obese starts from an early age with fat kids teased and ostracized. In February 2012 a CNN commentator was suspended for homophobic comments. One columnist discussing the slurs and the sanction, was shocked that a poll he displayed indicated that 33 per cent of school children reported being bullied because they were or were thought to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. What he did not note was that the highest figure -- 39 per cent -- was attributed to bullying because of body size. Homophobia needs to be condemned. Yet fat stigma may be an even more widespread problem especially in terms of obese children.

"No comments on appearance". An idea that's arrived? For summer camps and, maybe, beyond?


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