In a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, a murmur began to build like the jungle cacophony it was intended to mimic. It was the final afternoon of the four-day Camp Realize Your Beauty, and the nine campers were repeating the social media and popular culture messages about perfection that they felt bombarded by in their daily lives.
Their words would ring familiar to anyone who has ever felt the pinch of culturally lauded beauty standards: “Thigh gaps.” “Hourglass figure.” “No acne.” “Pores.” “No body hair.”
Starr Kirkland, an actor, teacher and longtime Realize Your Beauty facilitator, reminded the campers to keep repeating their phrase as the group’s chant of shoddy messaging crescendoed. The soundscape would be part of a devised video piece that was shared with their families after the weekend-long camp, which ran July 27-30. “We’re all going to say our themes at the same time,” another counselor told them. “Why? To create that overwhelming feeling.”
The overload of images and muddy information that kids and adolescents receive about their bodies, particularly from social media, was among the reasons Stacey Lorin Merkl said she created Realize Your Beauty, a nonprofit based in New York City. The goal: to blend theater, traditional camp offerings and empowerment workshops to help the children build self-esteem. In 2010, she started the theater-arts camp where “self-esteem takes center stage” (the organization’s tagline) at the Y.M.C.A. of the Rockies in Colorado, partly because that’s where she grew up, where she studied acting (at the University of Northern Colorado) and where her parents still reside. It’s also stunning.
Realize Your Beauty isn’t packed with aspiring Audra McDonalds, Billy Porters and Sutton Fosters. At least not exclusively. “It’s not theater kids, necessarily,” Merkl said over coffee a few days before camp began. “Some of the kids love theater. Some of them are maybe mildly interested. Some of them are totally new to the theater, but their parents think that they could benefit from this. We are doing theater, but this is not a camp for them to come and learn Shakespeare.”
Elise Arndt, a veteran theater camp counselor who flew in from Orange County, Calif., said: “Not all of them are going to be gung-ho theater people. But there’s something about it that intrigues them.” Arndt and Kirkland joined Realize Your Beauty early on, performing in the workshops and plays about body positivity and eating disorder awareness that the organization takes to schools in New York City, as well as to the Girl Scouts of America.
At the camp, the voice work, breathing exercises and improvisation games Arndt leads with — staples at many performing arts sleepaway camps — are tools for erecting safe and playful spaces for the campers to be themselves, even if they are still figuring out just who that person might be.
On the first day, Kirkland, who proved to be something of a joy whisperer, advised them to “embrace the cringe,” to make new friends, to form “silly-ships.” Sitting in a circle, the campers, all from Colorado this year, shared their takeaways from the first acting exercises — which included an improvised bit in which a spoiling piece of sushi at a bus stop asked a woman to give up her seat.
“Even if it makes me feel a little silly, it makes other people laugh,” said Bella, 11.
Emma, 10, one half of that maki roll, said, “I learned that we could pretend to be anything, even a piece of sushi.” And the shy Anna, 12, who had been encouraged by Riley, 14, and Bella, said in the quietest of voices: “I learned that it’s good to make new friends.”
And even in a space where body positivity is the aim and self-kindness the mantra, hiccups can occur. For a breath-work exercise, Arndt asked the campers to lie down on their backs. “I feel fat laying down,” said Ava, 14, resting on the cabin’s carpeted floor.
Not missing a beat, Arndt responded: “You do not look fat laying down. That is not Realize Your Beauty, right?”
“You look like a person laying down,” a fellow camper added.
“Take a big inhale through your stomach,” Arndt said, returning to the breathing. “All bodies are beautiful. Also, we literally made up fat. We made it up as a human race. Take a big inhale, take a big exhale.”
Instead of putting on a show for the parents at the weekend’s conclusion, the campers and the staff worked on a video piece composed of journal entries, artwork and, of course, a song: This year’s was Miley Cyrus’s empowerment ballad “The Climb.” (“The struggles I’m facing/The chances I’m taking/Sometimes might knock me down, but/No, I’m not breaking,” the song goes.) They needed those big breaths.
After dinner, the sisters Mia and Macie sat at a table, sharing impressions about the camp.
“I always come back from camp just happy, unlike school,” said Mia, 14, who sometimes appeared to be hiding behind her long, straightened hair. This was her second year at Realize Your Beauty. “I just think that this camp is very fun — and I love meeting new people — but I think it’s also a camp where you could come, and you could be very open without being judged.”
Macie, 10, boasting an Afro and talking in a high-pitched chirp, chimed in with an idea. “I think that there should be camp for the younger kids like this. Because when you have an open space like this when you’re younger,” she said, “you probably won’t be as mean as most people.”
Over the span of the weekend, but even hour by hour, came hints of new self-awareness, arcs of subtle personal triumph. “I feel like the best part of the experience is definitely from the campers themselves,” said the first-time counselor June Dempsey, a 16-year-old theater kid and ballet dancer. “I’m loving watching their growth, and I’m already seeing it. People are building confidence.”
Among the teary goodbyes, one stood out. “Anna came up to me to say goodbye. And as soon as she came up, she just burst into tears,” Kirkland, tearing up, recalled during a video call after returning to her home in San Diego.
“It just felt really beautiful,” she continued. “Not only that we were having that moment together, but that she had gotten to the place where she felt vulnerable enough that we could have that moment together, because that’s not anything she would have ever done when we started.”