It’s mid-morning on a Saturday in late June, and I’m inside a rustic lodge. Outside the window I see a picturesque field surrounded by trees in every direction, and to my left and right are men and women of varying ages seated in a large circle. One by one they’re stating their names, jobs and something they’re excited to do at camp—yes, camp. While it might sound like I’m describing a low budget rehab center, it’s actually counselor training for Creation Week Camp, an annual summer program I participated in from age eight to eighteen. After nine years away, I’ve decided to return as a volunteer staff member.
It’s my turn. "I’m Alison Syrett, I’m a fashion editor and I am really excited not to use my cellphone for a week." Everyone laughs.
"That’s good," someone says wryly. "Because you couldn’t if you wanted to." Slightly panicked—I meant I wouldn’t use it much—I pull out my iPhone the second we’re given a bathroom break. No bars, no internet and the roaming has sucked my battery down to 25 percent. This might be, I think, harder than I anticipated.
The next few days become a fascinating study in how much I’ve changed since high school—and how much camp has remained almost exactly the same. For instance, since I don’t eat meat, dairy or sugar anymore, I can’t have much of the food, and thus become the chef’s worst nightmare. I stash raw almonds, Fuji apples and organic kale in his fridge; I forage around the kitchen in plain sight of the campers I’m supposed to setting a good example for. When he serves scrambled eggs, I ask him (very nicely) if just the whites are a possibility.
Showering, too, throws me for a loop. Counselors are required to clean themselves either before their charges wake up at 7AM, or past 10PM, when they go bed. Terrified that I will not be able to wash up, shave, and do my makeup before breakfast (or worse, anger my colleagues by taking too long), I arise at the literal crack of dawn, 5:45, each morning to primp in bleary-eyed privacy. (Another #fashiongirlproblem: I forget my miracle-performing retinol serum in NYC, and my face completely breaks out…hence the desperate desire for ample beauty routine time.)
I am fully aware of how high maintenance all this makes me seem, and try really hard to downplay it around my fellow staff members. The last thing I want is to be perceived as is some uptight city-dweller who can’t survive without access to a Sephora and Juice Press. Getting dressed in the morning, I carefully craft the most casual camp-like outfits I can—shorteralls with a black halter top and high-top Converse; a linen popover over cutoffs and VANS slides; a color-blocked T-shirt tucked into rumpled black jeans—in hopes that I won’t seem like I’m constantly preoccupied with fashion. This doesn’t work.
"You know," one of the camp instructors says to me one morning between bites of cereal (me, with a small bowl of eggs whites I finally conjoled the kitchen staff into making). "You should win an award for the most stylish counselor ever. Your look is understated, but it really stands out." I’m so flattered that I almost forget my mission to blend in has failed.
A few hours later, a teenage camper pulls me aside, gestures to a pair of drop-crotch, banded ankle sweatpants and asks what they’re called. After I fill him in (they’re "harem pants"), I turn to our camp yoga instructor, and wonder aloud why the camper thought I’d know. He has no idea where I work! "You seem like you’d know, though. We were debating between ‘genie’ and ‘hammer’ pants," she tells me. "So he suggested we ask the fashion counselor!"
Fashion counselor? She didn’t say it with any contempt or irony or annoyance; it was just a simple acknowledgement that I obviously enjoyed clothes and beauty products the same way I did hiking, campfires and long games of Mafia on rainy afternoons. Which I suppose is the reason I’ve been hooked on camp since I first arrived nearly two decades ago: it’s place where you’re allowed to be whoever you want without people judging you. It just took me a few days to remember.