June 17, 2014 at 7:08 AM ET
Imagine a summer camp where kids are banned from talking about how they look, or how others look.
At Eden Village Camp, a Jewish summer camp on an organic farm in Putnam Valley, New York, there is a “no body talk” rule. All campers and counselors agree not to comment on anyone else's appearance, as well as their own, regardless of whether those comments are positive, negative or neutral. Not only can you not say, “Ugh, I feel fat!” but it’s also off-limits to say, “Wow, you look amazing in that dress.”
While Eden Village didn’t come up with the idea — a staffer went to a Quaker camp in Vermont with a similar policy — it has met with positive feedback from campers, counselors and parents alike.
Why ban even positive commentary? Eden Village Camp co-founder and co-director Vivian Stadlin says that even an innocuous compliment — “You’re having a great hair day today!” — can set off a flurry of worry (“Was my hair not looking so great yesterday? Does she like me more today than yesterday?”), insecurity (someone overhearing the compliment could start thinking, “Hey…what about *my* hair? Doesn’t my hair look good, too?”) or a shift in perception or priorities (“I guess how my hair looks is really important”).
In a world where some children going off to summer camp get pre-emptively (and prematurely) waxed to avoid mockery from their peers, Stadlin says that a "no body talk" zone is all the more necessary.
"Camps have a golden opportunity to be a salve to mainstream culture, and to create an immersive world that accepts each young person as they are, without need for painful, expensive, and/or chemically intensive treatments to feel more confident,” Stadlin says. Banning body talk, she believes, creates a safe zone where “a primary source of insecurity and subtle cruelty is simply off the table.”
Campers’ reaction to the policy has been nearly universally positive, Stadlin says. She credits it for the relative lack of bullying at Eden Village. “Kids feel free to parade around in all kinds of fun, wacky costumes and outfits,” she says. “There’s this tremendous sense of safety that comes from knowing nobody’s going to make little comments about you.”
Campers' parents also are encouraged by the camp guideline. "No body talk has definitely had a positive effect on my daughter, and our whole family," said parent Maura Kohl Gold, mother of an 11-year-old Aviva, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It brings our conversations to a different level, more than just what people look like, their clothes, hair, size, etc. to broader ideas, experiences and engagement in the world."
One former camper, Aliza Heeren, wrote a letter to Stadlin that she agreed to share with TODAY testifying to the potential power of the "no body talk" rule.
"I was introduced to the concept of 'No Body Talk' at Eden Village when I was 17 and in the midst of my high school years," she wrote. "For the first time in my life, people whom I had never met before, most of who were older than myself, were interested in looking beyond my appearance and into what made me, me. This brought about a comfortable confidence that I hadn't even known was possible, and allowed me to explore myself — you never realize what is hiding inside until the outside becomes invisible."