Dear All Girls’ Camp,
First thing’s first: camp in general, you are a magical, magical place. Those lucky enough to attend summer camp of any kind get to spend days (and, for the truly lucky ones, nights) in a wooded paradise, getting lightly sunburnt and eating grilled cheese, running around playing made up games and inventing secret code languages in which to gossip about counsellors and plan impressively organized tuck shop raids. Regular camp is incredible—a place for laughter and fun and silliness and joy—but all girls camp, you are something truly special.
For me, all girls camp wasn’t the place I became a woman, but the place where I became myself. All girls camp is, looking back, maybe the only place I”ve ever spent time as a post-adolescent female where I was never made acutely, unavoidably aware of my gender. At 14, a time when I otherwise thought constantly about whether I should lose weight, how to make boys like me, if the music or clothes or people I liked were lame, my month at an all girls camp meant thinking only about whether to go swimming or canoeing, if Heather would prefer green or blue thread in her friendship bracelet, and “how intense” the dance moves to our Smash Mouth lip sync should be (answer: very). It wasn’t that gender was erased at camp — we talked about boobs and boys, taught each other to use tampons, made scrapbooks and jewelry and other stereotypically “female” things — it was that it didn’t matter.
Having a space to go through puberty surrounded by a bunch of young women, who didn’t care whether or not their armpits were perfectly smooth or their nails well-polished, made me realize how many of the things we associate with femininity are largely things we do for men. There’s nothing inherently “feminine” about a lack of leg hair — our all-female space was rife with it. Similarly, I’ve never felt more comfortable in a bathing suit around a bunch of chicks wearing whatever Speedo, Bikini Village, or Old Navy offering they preferred, without a thought to how “hot” they did or did not look. In fact, looking hot at camp was kind of frowned upon: why waste time tanning in a tiny bikini when you could be pranking the girls from the Loon cabin or rehearsing a hilarious skit that tooootally nailed the camp director? We could paint our nails if we wanted to, or we could muck around in the woods making jokes about fighting raccoons. We could dress up in glittery gowns from the Drama closet, or we could wear boardshorts we stole from our brothers. It was all the same, and it was all fun.
Removed from school hallways (and teachers), mall food courts (and the opposite sex), basement parties (and parents), the limiting hierarchies that can exist in regular adolescent life break down. In an increasingly hostile world during a particularly difficult time for young girls, summer camp provides a time and a place for safe self-expression, personal growth, and a loooot of capture the flag. At all girls camp, girls aren’t asked to make themselves smaller or quieter or dumber; they’re invited and given space to be themselves. It’s not something you notice at the time, of course (at 12 I didn’t realize that friendships literally forged during trust exercises were going to be long-lasting and deep, or that our nighttime attempts at “witchcraft” really represented a group of girls experimenting with what it might feel like to be powerful). And perhaps that’s the most wonderful part. All girls summer camps provide a place for young women to celebrate nature, themselves, and each other, without letting on that it’s about anything other than mother-effin’ boondoggle. So thanks, all girls camp. I owe you a grilled cheese.
Yours so gratefully,
PS. Camp Oconto, I miss you.