In the summer of 1988, when I was 12 years old, I spent my first summer away from home, in Zionsville, Indiana, at the Goldman Union Camp Institute, which everyone called GUCI for short, pronounced like the luxury goods line. Founded in 1958 for Reform Jewish kids, the place was bland, nothing to write home about: some cabins and a dining hall, an all-purpose building, swimming pool, and play fields scattered in flat, dry, central Indiana.
It was my best friend Becky’s idea that we go to GUCI together. I was shy and self-conscious that year, still dressing in matching outfits that my mother picked out, and the idea of going away for a month was terrifying. But Becky had an older sister from whom she learned about the ways of the world, and she said it was time for us to go to overnight camp. Becky was the ringleader in our ring of two, and I didn’t argue.
Camp was divided into three age groups, and within each age group there were a few cabins of boys and girls. Becky and I were the youngest of the middle group—in other words, nothing in the middle of nothing. Like Indiana. My curly hair was cut short and made a kind of triangle shape out of my head. I had terrible eyesight and wore unattractive glasses. Becky had glasses, too, and always said she felt fat compared to me, but her hair was straight and blonde; having straight hair took 10 pounds right off, I thought. We both felt that our breasts, still ill-defined fatty deposits, were the wrong size, shape, and color.
And then one day the Israelis arrived. They were a troupe of 15 people in their early twenties, doing the U.S. travel circuit after their IDF army service, and in the space of a few hours they changed the way I felt about myself forever. When I came home from camp, it had been only four weeks since I had left, but I had seen a different possible version of myself—one that was sexy and uninhibited, comfortable in my own skin.
I come from a family of gazelle-like creatures. My mother, her brother, and her sister are all tall and lean. My uncle is athletic; my aunt has endless anxious energy and an overactive thyroid; and my mother is always on a diet, usually consisting of lemon water, cottage cheese, and fruit. It was made clear to me on many occasions that being fat indicated a lack of discipline, a deficit of character. And so from as early as I was conscious of the fact, third or fourth grade, perhaps, I was aware of my body, my physical self, and how it influenced how people would think of me and feel about me. And, unfortunately, I got my father’s genes. I am stocky and muscular, but not inclined toward athletics, and a lover of food. Looking back now at pictures from those years I see that I was never grossly overweight. But I was never svelte, either, and I always felt too large.
In my family, no one ever walked around naked or in their underwear. We didn’t talk about things like sex or menstruation, or (God forbid) masturbation. All things related to the body I learned from Becky, whose mother was a social worker and was accustomed to talking to people about uncomfortable topics. Still, there was plenty Becky and I didn’t know. We didn’t know how to shave our legs or armpits. We didn’t know the first thing about tampons. And despite determining that it felt good to touch ourselves, we’d never experienced the pleasures of fooling around with another person—assuming that another person would want to do that sort of thing with us.
Camp presented the opportunity for various states of undress, many more than I found at home, and each of those moments was an opportunity for self-consciousness and discovery. Our own dark cabin harbored 12 girls in various stages of awkwardness, and two counselors—tall, cool, distant Sharon, from Israel, and peppy Midwestern Andrea—who had a semi-private section in the back. One stiflingly hot afternoon during rest hour, a few of us parted the sarong curtain where the billowy fabric fluttered away from the door frame to find a fan pointed at the bunk beds and Andrea asleep, naked. The shock of her pubic hair catching what little breeze the fan made struck us all dumb. That level of exposure was beyond comprehension—the idea that you might actually be seen. Because being seen was at once what we wanted so desperately and what we wanted not at all.
Showers were communal, locker-room style, and we had ample opportunity to see the older girls who knew how to shave. They had perfect breasts and long hair and they washed themselves like they weren’t embarrassed about any of it. The older girls had this magical confidence elsewhere, too: singing in the dining hall or dancing at the Saturday evening Havdalah ceremony. They moved through the world with an easy fluidity, as if they were made of water or wind. And the way they smiled and laughed with each other made it look as though they were rooted here, like they belonged.
Most days, Sharon and Andrea shepherded us from meals to activities: arts and crafts, swimming, Jewish studies, and the outdoor temple where we had all-camp meetings and Friday night Shabbat services. There was much I enjoyed—swimming, art, Israeli dancing, and singing. I loved Saturday nights with our quiet Havdalah services, holding braided candles in a circle, dry grass tickling our toes. Still, I was homesick. I waited almost desperately for the mail to arrive each day, for the moment of happy melancholy I could have alone in my bottom bunk as I read letters from home, crying a little to myself. Each letter made me ache to be home.
And then one sunny, muggy afternoon, the Israeli dancers arrived. Their English wasn’t good, and they didn’t seem to be interested in us at all, so we didn’t talk to them, but we watched them in and around the dining hall, talking to each other and laughing, as if they were jaguars—beautiful creatures from a very different world. Their performance was to be on a grassy lawn outside the main hall after lunch, and we were told to wait there for whatever was to happen next. As we walked out, we saw the performers were there, too, not preparing for anything, just lounging in the grass. They lay this way and that, their bodies loose and comfortable. They sat close to each other, even the women. Some rested an arm, a leg, a cheek on the person next to them. They touched each other casually. They kissed.
At the center of the group a woman sat with her legs outstretched in a wide V, and between her legs a man was lying on his stomach, his head in the crotch of her jeans, his arms draped over her thighs and wrapped behind her, his hands holding her sacrum. I thought he looked comfortable, comforted. It wasn’t polite to stare, but I couldn’t help myself. Was he smelling her? Was it pleasurable for him, I wondered? I stood there in my baggy T-shirt and pleated shorts feeling like a fat monkey. An orangutan maybe. The woman looked down at him and ran her fingers through his hair, then tipped her head back and leaned into her hands. He pulled himself into her. Her dark curls were wild and unkempt. She was full of pleasure. I was hot and struck dumb, slick with sweat and burning for that feeling between my legs.
Whatever I might have learned from camp about my cultural history paled in comparison to that image. If being Jewish meant my curly, brown hair could be beautiful in all its unkempt glory and a man would pull himself between my legs with deep affection and ease, I wanted in. Was all of Israel this sexy? Or all Jews? Was this really my birthright? I had never felt so lucky in all my life.
And then, after what felt like an interminable month of longing, it was time to go home, back through the cornfields to our sleepy suburb shaded by giant old elms and sugar maples. The sad memories of camp fell away like a shed skin. We were different girls now. I had learned how to shave my legs and armpits from our precocious cabin-mate Carrie; I had learned how to insert tampons with applicators made to smell like the petals of a mysterious flower; and I had just proved to myself that I could spend a whole month on my own. I had been lonely and sometimes achingly sad, but I survived.
And I had seen a possible future version of myself in those girls in the bathhouse, those Israelis on the lawn—comfortable in their bodies, sensuous, and right where they belonged. I would never have long, straight blonde hair, but I now believed I might be sexy in my own right, maybe in a few years. I was hopeful for this future self in a way I hadn’t even been able to imagine just a few short weeks before, and I felt practically ready for puberty.
Back home, my new attitude toward my body suddenly felt slutty compared to my WASPy friends who had spent the summer riding horses at the hunt club. For several years after this summer, I felt as though I was feeling too much too soon. My 13-year-old classmates were no match for what I imagined I wanted. I had seen this other world, this other way of being, and I wanted to be in it. Only I couldn’t get there, I wasn’t old enough yet.
I wouldn’t say that the summer cured me of my body image issues. I have felt comfortable with my body, happy with it even, for periods of time, and I have been less confident, even disgusted, at others. I am not free from comparing my flabby triceps and thick hips to the skinny girls in yoga class, and when I see someone return to their normal tiny jeans size within months after childbirth I am not free from envy.
But in the long run, the thing about that summer of ’88 that has stayed with me all these years was the realization that beauty is not really in physical details; it is in the way we move through the world. The older girls at camp did so with confidence. And even more so, the Israeli dancers—striking, alluring, sexy—held themselves open to the elements, to each other, to the world around them. Pleasure, I learned on that auspicious afternoon, could be had if one were only willing to welcome it in.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Margot Kahn is a writer-in-residence with Seattle Arts & Lectures and the author of the biographyHorses That Buck: The Story of Champion Bronc Rider Bill Smith.