Hefty Woman Wins Suit to Teach Aerobics

At 240 pounds, San Francisco aerobics teacher Jennifer Portnick says her heft unfairly weighs her down.

"Everyone deserves a chance who has the skills to do the job," she said.

But though she may have the skills, she didn't have the shape that Jazzercise Incorporated wanted for fitness instructors. They rejected her job application, saying that instructors must "look leaner than the public, set the example and be the role models for Jazzercise enthusiasts."

Under San Francisco law, that's illegal. The city bans discrimination based on height and weight. So Portnick filed a complaint, and won. The settlement isn't public, but Jazzercise has now agreed to drop its requirement that instructors look fit.

It’s a big victory for some, but others call it a setback for clubs trying to encourage weight loss at a time when more than 60 percent of Americans are considered overweight or obese.

Mt. Sinai Hospital general internist Scott Gottlieb said the message Portnick’s legal victory is sending is the wrong one.

"They're being asked to promote ‘fit is fat,’ which is counterproductive to what we're trying to achieve as physicians, and also counter-productive to their marketing message," Gottlieb said.

Most people agree prejudice is wrong, but the question now is whether wanting to hire a lean aerobics instructor, rather than a fat one, constitutes discrimination. Or do health clubs have a reasonable right to have healthy- and fit-looking people leading their classes?

Jennifer Braceras, the Independent Women's Forum legal policy expert, said that the answer to that last question is yes.

"Certain industries are in the business of selling appearance, and those industries should not be forced under the threat of a lawsuit to hire people that don't conform to that image," she said.

But Portnick claims her image will motivate students and attract more business.

"You can have a diverse population in your company, and that's good for business," she said. "That's not a turnoff, that's a plus."