Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

We have an obesity crisis in this country. And I’m not even referring to the toll that fat is taking on the physical health of an ever-increasing number of Americans. I’m talking about the strain that fat puts on our mental health. We keep struggling to decide whether fat people are architects of their own fate or victims of social prejudice.

On one hand, the statistic that 61 percent of Americans are overweight or obese has become one of the figures most cited by journalists—right after the one that reminds us that one out of two marriages ends in divorce. These skyrocketing rates of obesity touch every age bracket; indeed, doctors no longer speak of “adult-onset” diabetes, because these days the disease shows up in obese adolescents. As rapid and dramatic an increase in the number of overweight people as we’ve seen in the last 10 years doesn’t just happen. Something is going very wrong, and common sense tells us it’s the behavior of millions of people who eat too much and move too little.

On the other hand, there is Jennifer Portnick, who has become a heroine to millions who insist that fat people’s real problem is not too much food and too little exercise but the attitudes of others. Last year, Portnick, a 240-pound 38-year-old who teaches six aerobic classes a week, was denied certification as an instructor by Jazzercise, the exercise chain. Despite Portnick’s demonstrated ability to perform the regimen without needing oxygen, Jazzercise rejected her bid until she developed a “more fit appearance.”

Instead of avoiding carbs, as the Jazzercise manager who first denied her application suggested, Portnick filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission in San Francisco, where discriminating against the short and fat is against the law. The result, as Portnick announced last week on the 10th International No Diet Day, is a new policy at Jazzercise of recognizing that fatness and fitness can co-exist.

So, which is it? Is America populated by lazy gluttons who had better give up those Big Macs and heave themselves off the couch? Or is obesity just another lifestyle, and the fat physique merely one of the many diverse shapes of the human body?

Should fat people be encouraged to shed some of that health-threatening poundage by the example of bird-boned models, actresses with concave abdomens and exercise instructors who have—in the words of one Jazzercise executive—”a higher muscle-to-fat ratio and look leaner than the public”? Or, as a nation, should we give up this ludicrous standard, admit that diets don’t work, stop persecuting those who are fat and embrace our excess avoirdupois?

After careful consideration, Jazzercise has obviously joined the latter camp. Citing “scientific studies”—a more dignified rationale than public pressure—the company concluded that it is “possible for people of varying weights to be fit” and consequently jettisoned its “appearance” qualification for instructors.

This is not only a good PR decision, it is a good business decision. Indeed, it may be that Jazzercise’s new policy does not go far enough. From the point of view of the bottom line, the company shouldn’t merely accept large-size franchisees, it should actively recruit them.

Let the medical establishment fret over the spreading waistline of America. In the democracy of the marketplace, power is in numbers, and in America the numbers are definitely on the side of the overweight. There are 127 million Americans with body mass indexes on the wrong side of the charts, and they’ve got the money to spend on clothes, spas and exercise classes just like the size 6’s do. The fact is that there are vast amounts of money to be made in fat acceptance.

These days even chic clothing companies that made their reputations on the backs of long-limbed size 2 models have added “woman” sizes to their lines. In April, Vogue, which over the years has sacrificed thousands of trees to pages promoting diets and liposuction, put plus-size models into its Shape issue.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Vogue will stop showcasing skinny women in skimpy clothes any more than Friends will put a moratorium on Fat Monica jokes. But with the fashionistas acknowledging that there is life beyond size 12, and with exercise franchises opening their doors to plus-size instructors, obesity just may be on its way to becoming normalized.

If we can’t beat obesity in this country, we might as well cash in on it.