As anxiety-inducing as it might be to eat at camp, I'd guarantee that, for many people, it's what happens after eating that's worse.
See, what I didn't quite internalize (or permit myself to internalize) when I got shipped off to sleepaway camp is that sleepaway camp is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That means that all the things you would've once done in private you can't do in private anymore. It's hard to sneak away, even for a minute; it's an immersive experience that makes for bear-hug relationships, yes, but that also serves as a breeding ground for the awkward, embarrassing, gross-ish memories that stick in your head much longer than the names of the girls you made friendship bracelets for.
But on top of the fact that you can kiss alone-time goodbye (introverts, take heed), there's also the issue of less-than-balanced diets. As an eleven-year-old at a summer camp in the South, my typical dinner plate consisted of a bread roll weighted with "butter" and French fries. After that, dessert. It was the type of cottony food that was bound to plug up a "system."
It was an environment where all factors were working against me, so I'm just going to spell it out: It was really scary to poop! Yes, to poop. (There! I said it.) To maintain regularity, WebMD* recommends you "Set aside a regular time of the day when you know you'll be left undisturbed for several minutes." But this is often impossible at camp where, in my experience, toilets were few and far between (don't make me use the toilet near the swim lake, please!), as were several undisturbed minutes. WebMD also advises a diet in high in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Did I mention that I subsisted on fats and carbohydrates?
Some summers, when I didn't go for a few days, I couldn't think about anything else. I feared I might die, but I didn't want to go while all the other campers were in the bathroom, waiting to use the stall or straightening their hair before the dance; I didn't want to talk about it with the counselors (blonde 17-year-olds with extremely tan and toned legs); and I couldn't find time to sneak off to the infirmary to get a dose of good old Milk of Magnesia. It was stressful! It was a big deal.
And while I no longer put myself (or allow myself to be put—thanks, Mom and Dad) in situations where all cards are stacked against me and my digestive health, I imagine this is still a problem for campers today. When I asked my boyfriend's sister, a counselor at the camp I used to go, if she could speak to the pooping situation, she did not call up her brother and tell him I was a weirdo. Instead, she thanked me for bringing it up.
Thank you for bringing this up, because today I asked my campers how their systems were going and if they were pooping, and I found out that one of my campers has not pooped at camp yet this session... Keep in mind that it's been, like, 9 days!!!
When she was a camper, she, too, had the same problem: "I remember being super stressed about not pooping, but I was scared of the health center, so suffered in silence... Constipation is a common thing at camp. And it's a struggle." And when I asked her if the counselors get briefed on healthy pooping practices, she said that they're told to "encourage our campers to eat healthy foods and drink a lot of water" but that "there's not much else to really add. We watch what they eat and make sure they're eating enough."
It's not the same at every camp. My friend who went to a different sleepaway camp (eight weeks instead of four, if that makes a difference) told me that
People talked about it the whole time, if I remember properly. [...] I'm sure there were people who felt anxiety about it but the popular attitude was definitely open. People would discuss constipation extensively when it happened. Everyone went skinny-dipping and showered together so embarrassment threshold [was] v. high.
Let's all be more open about it, I say. And especially at summer camp. So that kids don't have to pretend they've got flu-like symptoms in order to scurry off to the infirmary and tell the nurses, in hushed words, what's really going on. (Come on: That couldn't have only been me!)
And now, some practical advice for keeping things moving at camp:
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
- Take second helpings of vegetables. Even if you don't like them.
- Fruit, too. Fresh and dried. (Write home for a Nuts.com care package.)
- Try to find one friend you can talk to about it. My best camp friend and I made a game of it, competing to see who could keep "our systems" the most "regular" and always keeping the other one highly informed of what was going on. It brought us closer together, I'd say.
- Just think of this as really good preparation for college.
*I wouldn't consult WebMD for most medical advice, but this seems enough like common sense that I went for it.
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