Coolest Counselors: Ashley Graham & Co Head to Camp To Change the World

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Models Marquita Pring, Ashley Graham, and Jenn Maitland at Camp Pocono Trails. Photo: Anastasia Garcia

“How do you like, make the transition, from telling yourself that you love yourself to actually believing it?” A camper, maybe 12-years-old, is getting real in the log cabin-turned-auditorium of Pocono Trails Summer Camp. Her insightful question is directed at the models on stage, who’ve just spent an hour telling the 250 or so girls in the room that they’re beautiful, worthy of love, and destined for greatness, despite the fact that they’re in this room because their parents have sent them here—to what you might call fat camp.

Pocono Trails Summer Camp bills itself as a new image camp, a safe place where the kids who get bullied, teased, and told, “You have such a pretty face!” during the school year can come together and be like everyone else, which is, after all, the universal pursuit of adolescence; they can share clothes with their friends, flirt with the boys, and joyously rip off their shirts post-zumba. All that, plus weigh-ins, nutrition classes, and a closely monitored calorie intake guarantees campers arrive home a few pounds lighter than when they left. But Tony Sparber, the camp’s owner and director, says the real point of his camp isn’t weight loss; it’s learning how to love yourself.

That’s where the models come in.

“I lost maybe like 15 pounds and I just gained confidence, I gained everything,” says 25-year-old Maxey Greene, a camper turned counselor. It was a particularly emotional viewing of MTV’s 2006 documentary Fat Camp (which was filmed here, at Pocono Trails) that led Greene to ask her parents for a summer at camp. “I was just like, ‘I want to make a change in my life. I feel unhealthy and I’m not happy with who I am.’” So she raised the cash, drove to Pennsylvania from New Jersey, and steered herself onto a new path. “I left here so happy, and so in touch with myself. Seventeen to 18 is a big time in your life and you’re learning a lot about yourself anyway, but I think discovering myself here was such a blessing.”

Model Julie Henderson chat with campers at Camp Pocono Trails. Photo: Anastasia Garcia

Greene, whose modeling career is burgeoning, is the exception to the rule. Most of the girls, who range in age from seven to 21, aren’t here of their own volition. Meaning that, no matter how much confidence camp tries to instill in them, it’s within an inherently confusing context. You’re beautiful the way you are, but please step onto the scale.

Which is why Greene, in 2014, sent a Facebook message to model Ashley Graham, asking her to come chat with the campers. You might call Graham a plus-size model (her peers prefer ‘curvy’), but she’s not really interested in labels—not that one exists for a 27-year-old woman who, halfway into 2015, had already appeared in a bikini in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, launched a lingerie line, and given a TEDx talk that went viral. Graham, who is shopping around a TV show called CurvyFitClub and is well on her way to becoming a motivational speaker, said ‘yes’ to Greene. And that’s how we got here, onstage.

So how did Graham learn to love herself? She tells the story of moving to New York, gaining 20 pounds, and hating the woman she saw in the mirror. “You are so ugly, you are so fat, this is disgusting,” was basically her mantra, she says. Low self-esteem led to skimpy clothes, bad boyfriends, and an insatiable need for attention—and validation. “It was pretty gross,” she tells the rapt crowd of girls. “And it hit me one day; I said, ‘What am I doing? My mom didn’t raise me like this. My aunt did not raise me like this.’” She started looking in the mirror and telling herself, “I am beautiful, and I do have a great body.”

Graham says, “I didn’t believe it for the first few months, but I read in a book that, if I actually looked myself in the mirror and said it and meant it every day, it was going to happen. I started loving my body, I started working out, and taking care of myself. I didn’t trick myself; I told myself, ‘This is changing, you are beautiful, you are worth it.’ No man, no job, no friend is going to tell me who I am—I am going to tell me who I am.”

Onstage with Graham are six other models, most of whom joined together to form ALDA, which collectively signed with IMG (home to Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen), after Ford axed its plus size board in 2013. “We realized there’s strength in numbers and thought, ‘We can’t stop this, we need to stick together and see what we can do,’” says Marquita Pring, who’s walked for Jean Paul Gaultier, posed for Levi’s, and graced the pages of Italian Vogue. “From there, we decided to reach out to young women and teach them to love themselves and empower themselves… this is just the beginning.”

Model Marquita Pring goofs off at Camp Pocono Trails. Photo: Anastasia Garcia

Lauren, 17, has been a camper for six summers in a row. She says her parents made her come at first—“I was like, I’m here again because I’m so fat”—but she’s stuck around for her friends, which helps explain why the range of sizes at this camp reflects that of any other: lanky, athletic, a little chubby, maybe a handful of kids who are actually medically obese. “We come back for each other because we help each other out,” she adds.

Greene’s gone to Florida for a camper’s sweet 16, the girls have an ongoing group text, and they keep track of who’s up to what throughout the year on Instagram. Their friends might have gotten them this far, but one girl after another said the models are boosting their confidence in an unprecedented way, pushing them into this new phase in life better armed. “To see people that are the same size as you really lets you know that there is a life where you don’t have to be skinny to fit in,” Lauren says.

The future the girls see in women like Graham and Pring would be comforting for any teenage girl, regardless of their shape or size. “It’s hard to pursue a career in [fashion], but seeing all these women made me realize there’s more than one way to incorporate wanting to look good and feeling beautiful into my life,” said Jamie, 16. Her friend Julia, also 16 and from Florida, says she cried after hearing each model tell her story. “It’s so relatable,” she says. “The fact that they’re called plus size models is awful. They look like normal people that you find anywhere, like regular models!”

Models Marquita Pring, Ashley Graham, and Jenn Maitland at Camp Pocono Trails. Photo: Anastasia Garcia

They’re not regular models, though—and not because the labels in the swimsuits they pull on to jet-ski with the campers aren’t printed with a 0. Mostly because they’re happy—joyful, actually—in a way this seasoned fashion writer has never seen what you might call “normal” models behaving either backstage or on set. “Think about how different their world is compared to ours,” says Pring. “We don’t have anyone telling us constantly you’re not good enough.”

Confirms Bernadette Vajda, a boisterous redhead who hails from Hungary and says she was discovered by John Travolta, “I joke with the skinny models, my straight size friends—they’re always body bashing themselves and they’re like, ‘How are you so confident?’”

Perhaps that confidence stems from them having a built-in support system—like the one Lauren, Jamie, and Julie et al have found during their summers at Pocono Trails. Or maybe it’s because they’re more concerned with their physical and emotional health than fitting into what most of the fashion world considers a “sample size.” Whatever the reason, I’d dare you not to feel motivated by these women—whether they’re impacting girls from onstage, a magazine page, or even their Instagram account.

They’re using their powerful, public positions as a launch pad to reshape the world, and—if all goes according to plan, turn it into a place where women love themselves from the inside out—not just in theory, but in reality.