Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
There you are on the millionth day of this interminable cruel summer, but you are striding. Your water-resistant shorts crinkle with every step you take toward nowhere. You’re aimless, but your reliable sandals remain tightly strapped. Your cotton shirt is over-washed into soft and comforting oblivion. Maybe you’ve draped a warm layer over a tank. Perhaps you’re wearing a bandana, or a free merch baseball cap that was previously on the verge of being donated, but is now worn daily.
My free hat is orange and has a book stitched on it. What am I doing in these happy, practical clothes? Oh, nothing. Where am I going? Probably nowhere. What am I ready for? Every! Possible! Thing! Truly, I’d take anything. The days are longer, there’s more time and daylight to make some fun and some purpose out of the expanse. Dressed accordingly, many of us are looking down at our outfits and asking: Are we all camp counselors now?
In July 2020, it’s as if the world got embroiled in some very terrible problem, and a good deal of us were sent to a badly organized sleep-away camp, hemmed in by various rules, but otherwise shoved outside with no plans. With newly unemployed friends in Los Angeles, between their mutual aid shifts, an entire afternoon could involve sitting on our jean-short butts on some patchy grass, far from each other, pretending that we are closer. Messing around on grass, pretending: the purview of children and the only activity written on the daily chalkboard schedule.
Outside and ready for whatever, as nothing, formally, is happening — the look is a hodgepodge. In her piece on the camp counselor aesthetic, Vogue writer Michelle Ruiz noticed a jaunty influx of tie-dye shirts (both a practical uniform and a creative activity: peak summer camp). In town and country, protesting or hiking, I’ve noticed thin athletic socks yanked up under river-friendly footwear. And everywhere I go, I drag along a spare button-up. There’s no way to know if it’s going to get hotter or colder! The weather apps have proved as unreliable as every other authority and we can’t just duck inside somewhere to escape the elements. The days of wearing delicate sandals and moody floral crepe mini-dresses are not these days.
The outfits of the paused summer are, (1) peak comfortable, and (2) unquestionably utilitarian, reaching a point of (3) full shamelessness. Or, to use a term I learned during summers I spent entirely outside, we look unembarrassable.
For eight weeks a summer, from when I was 15 to when I was 19, I taught sailing at a sleep-away camp. One time a camper (prompted, I’m sure by some group-circle mandatory sweetness) said the thing she liked best about me was that I was unembarrassable. A classic compliment from a child, cracked with insult, but I remember looking down — at my short duck boots, thick wool socks, paint-splattered green shorts, a flannel tied to define my natural waist (as vanity never dies), my name tag dangling on a lanyard, and my big summery confidence — and realizing, Huh. Okay. I see what she means.
Last week, my camp friend Marja (formerly of the camp’s canoeing department) told me that currently, she has not one, but two pairs of our uniform green shorts on heavy rotation. The shorts are decades old, the elastic is about to give out, and they weren’t even hers. “One pair still says ‘A. Shunck’ [unknown camp attendee] in the waistband,” she tells me. (Another camp friend texted me she had found an elevated version of the green shorts, from Madewell, which is a sentence that seems almost too obvious to write.) It’s not just the shorts, Marja says. In quarantine in Massachusetts, it’s generally the same as it ever was at camp: “Lots of Smart Wool socks, with Birkenstocks when I have to go outside,” she says. “And my Covid hair is similar to camp hair, which is to say, it hasn’t been cut in months and is always seemingly slightly damp.”
Noelle, a Los Angeles friend with a raucous group house and a persimmon tree, is going full theater camp avant-garde: “Ill-advised baby bangs, barefoot, eyeliner instead of personality, brassy box dye, egg in the corner of my mouth.” Messy, wild, but, crucially, consistent.
The uniform, and its tiny variety within repetition, is the most decisive element of the camp ethos. On the first day that her new puppy (Pogo!) was permitted to walk outside, my documentarian friend Nora sent me a picture of the pair of them. Never has a picture radiated so much first-day-of-camp eagerness. Pogo in summer cut and matching leash and collar (red); Nora in swishy shorts (coral), intentionally wrinkled crop top (navy). “I just keep my temp as cool as possible, while still being Zoom appropriate,” Nora tells me, “with no regard for how often I’ve worn something.” She guesses she has three outfits on rotation. Ria, in a uniform of crop top, linen shorts, calf-length socks pulled up, oldest converses, also wears three outfits in a loop. And Sophie refers to her three looks as varieties on “summer slob.” “But honestly I feel good about how I look,” Soph goes on, “because I’m also tan and more fit than I’ve ever been before.”
This is the crucial, unending confidence of the camp counselor. Hearty and strong, you don’t need any clothes to rival the glow of your wind-swept cheeks. You’re dressed for a general, outside dawdle, with no pretenses otherwise. Clothes are kinda an explanation of what’s up with you, where you’re going, where you’re coming from. Now everyone knows what’s up with you (nothing). And so you’re dressed for it and you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about.
So there are a thousand reasons the camp counselor aesthetic could be ascendant, and a few are: (1) there’s no pretense of formality in our leisure time, (2) we’re desperate to be outside at every moment, (3) we have a pervasive sense that all the adults are missing from our universe, (4) we’ve got out the face masks.
This summer, a face mask — morality withstanding, I guess — is required. It’s the central pivot of every ensemble. As a safety apparatus, the mask (like a lifejacket or a bike helmet) has a dorky, yet necessary quality. It’s ripe for the creative thrill of customization. There’s nothing that a camp counselor loves more than modifying a required element — the name tag for example— to demonstrate their chill, fun personality.
Wearing a face mask is also a type of social modeling, which is a major feature of the camp counselor social dynamic. The spirit of the camp counselor is caring, optimistic, in a strange position of being “in charge” but ultimately not an authority. At 15, I was a camp counselor to campers who were 14. It’s children leading children out there! And it’s not unlike navigating a world where public officials know nothing and the rest of us are like: Huh, guess we’ll just protect each other, attempt to cheer each other up. Now everyone get dressed and ready as quickly and practically as possible because we don’t know what we’re doing today but we’re gonna be outside and try our best to find good, safe fun out there.