Camps to girls: leave the glitz at home

| 25 Jun 2012 | 03:19

By Leanne Italie NEW YORK — Yes, it's possible to enjoy summer camp without cell phones, hair dryers, makeup and — gasp — skimpy tops, short shorts and teeny bikinis.

The grown-ups want to give you a break on all the pressure to look prettier, sexier and ritzier than your bunkmates. Consider it that thing your parents can't or won't manage the rest of the year, but that camp directors have little pushback in achieving.

Of 361 camps surveyed recently by the American Camp Association, about 71 percent said they have some form of dress code, uniform or restriction on makeup and swimwear. Nearly 22 percent said such policies are aimed at lessening personal differences to reduce teasing. Others said the idea is to make it easier for campers to focus on having fun.

“I don't need every single kid to look the same. I just don't want them to compete or worry about what they wear. This kind of takes the guesswork out of it," said Corey Dockswell, director of the all-girl Camp Wicosuta in central New Hampshire.

With only 20 percent of about 7,000 American sleepaway camps accredited by the ACA, it's difficult to know how many use uniforms or adhere to strict rules on dress, makeup and hair appliances. Most require campers to leave the tech at home, especially the kind that makes calls or connects to the Internet.

No “breasts, bellies or butts" is the general rule on dress for girls — at single-sex and coed camps alike. Kyle Courtiss, director of Camp Vega for girls on Echo Lake in Maine, added one-piece swimsuits — no ties — to his policy only last summer.

“Today more than ever there's so many options for bathing suits and it was really countering what our mission was," he said. “We want to reduce the time they spend thinking about what they're going to wear and comparing clothes."

Contemporary camp uniforms are far from the boxy, itchy garb of yesteryear. Usually they're nothing more than T-shirts and shorts adorned with the camp logo, or a selection of camp shirts and shorts in different styles and fabrics, sweatshirts, sweatpants and soft cotton pajama pants. Some allow tank tops but many don't permit spaghetti straps or anything lacy or revealing.

Dockswell's camp requires uniforms for kids up to fifth grade but has a more liberal approach with older campers, allowing them to wear their own clothes in modest styles and solid colors. No designer duds or logos are permitted and one-piece bathing suits are required for all ages.

“At school a lot of times you are what you wear," Dockswell said. “At camp that's not what we're about."

Boys' inappropriate T-shirts are also subject to logo bans, along with such styles as underwear-exposing saggy pants.

When it comes to makeup and hair appliances, some camps are looking to free girls of worry over how they look but also to reduce the time it takes them to get ready each morning.

“It's nice not to straighten my hair every day or put on makeup," said nearly 13-year-old Jenny Entin of North Caldwell, New Jersey. This is her sixth year at Southwoods, a coed camp attended by her two older sisters and a brother in the Adirondacks of New York.

“Sometimes it would be nice to have makeup for some of the dances and costume balls we have," she added.

The camp has no uniform for campers but calls for modest clothing and no logos or slogans. One-piece swimsuits with straps are required.

Scott Ralls, the founder, owner and director of Southwoods, sees no reason for uniforms, though his staff is required to wear camp T-shirts and sweatshirts with modest jeans and shorts.

“I do believe the kids have a right to have some individuality. Some kids like to wear yellow shirts. Some kids like to wear green shirts," he said.

“I looked at a lot of these schools that have uniforms and I watched what the kids do to modify them, to create the look that they wanted anyway," Ralls said. “I was of the mindset that we were going to be role models as adults on what we want them to look like and behave like."

Tripp Lake Camp for girls near Poland, Maine, has been a uniform camp since its founding in 1911. Today, that means white shirts with a collar, short sleeves and a little pocket, high round-neck T-shirts and shorts in two colors, one solid blue and the other solid white — all with the camp logo. In addition, camp-stamped sweatshirts and sweatpants are required.

“It promotes unity, family," said the director, Leslie Konigsberg Levy. “I'm not looking for them to separate themselves from each other."

Sometimes, other camp directors said, parents are more of a problem then campers in adhering to dress codes and other restrictions.

“Two years ago on parents' day I did have a young lady walk out of the cabin in a tube top," Ralls recalled. When he asked the girl to change, she said OK.

Where'd the camper get the tube top to begin with? “Her mom brought it up," Ralls said. “Do you know how many things parents send in the mail that aren't allowed?"

Jenny's mom, Annette Entin, is on board now but did have some doubts when she sent her oldest daughter Jordan, now 22, to Southwoods.

“My first impression was really, you can't wear a bathing suit, and it can't have a tie even, but I was happy about the no makeup, no appliances," the mother said. “They're there to have fun and to be themselves. I mean, who are you making yourself up for?"

Jordan, who was also a counselor, said the restrictions didn't take long to get used to, though “I never did adjust to those uncomfortable, unstylish one-piece bathing suits."

Parents and some campers have a harder time breaking the cell phone tether than dealing with dress codes or uniforms, camp directors said.

“When it comes to the phones, it's usually managing a parent's expectation," said Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. “Within 24 hours the kids tear off doing things and all of a sudden the phone's not so important anymore. It's those of us sitting at home going, `Why am I not getting a text?"'

Adam Baker, director of Camp Blue Ridge for girls and Equinunk for boys in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, said the camp was founded in 1920 with uniforms. They were dropped in the 1980s, but he reinstated them in 2001.

“That was definitely met with some resistance from our parents," he said. “One of the lines was, `Well you're going to take away what's unique about my child.' And I said, `No, it's not about what they're wearing. It's about who they are."'

Uniforms also level the playing field for less affluent kids, he said.

“Look at how children form their hierarchies," Baker said. “Many times, especially with girls, a lot of it will be based on looks, on the clothes they're wearing, the background they come from. We can remove that. We don't want all of that at camp."