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Tuesday, 5 March, 2002, 12:17 GMT
Fighting for the right to be fat
Jennifer Portnick: 'Judge me only on what I can do'
If you are good enough to get a job, should it matter if you are fat? One woman's claim that her human rights are at stake could change things for the overweight, writes Maggie Shiels.

Discrimination may be rife in society, but at least in the workplace laws exist to protect employees on grounds of race, gender or disability.

I know Virgin is image conscious but this is ridiculous. I do circuit training and swim four times a week. I do not have high blood pressure and I have never had a day off sick.

Emma Hall
Yet what if a potential employee is too short or too fat?

Teenager Emma Hall from Dorset last month passed her interview for a job with Virgin Trains. Yet she was later told that she couldn't have the job after all because she was too fat - she is 17 stone.

The company said the decision was based on safety grounds. But Ms Hall found there was little she could do to appeal against the ruling.

But in the US a case bearing some similarities is illustrating how differently these things can be handled.

Jennifer Portnick is a fitness enthusiast who applied to become an instructor for a "dance fitness" programme, Jazzercise. Like Emma Hall, she is 17 stone.

Jane Fonda
Jane Fonda: Top of the pyramid
She was turned down and in a letter from the company was told: "Jazzercise sells fitness. Consequently, a Jazzercise applicant must have a higher muscle-fat ratio and look leaner than the public. Instructors must set the example and be the role models for Jazzercise enthusiasts."

No-one is claiming that Ms Portnick is the next Jane Fonda or Cindy Crawford in a leotard. But the 38-year-old, who says she's able to do back-to-back aerobics classes with puff to spare, says she is devastated by the rejection.

"I felt this was not a valid judgment of me. I only ask that I be judged on my skill level, what I can do."

Lynn McAfee: 'wonderful case'
Instead Ms Portnick, who has been doing Jazzercise for 15 years, maintains it was her body size that counted against her. She is refusing to take the issue lying down and, in one of the first cases under San Francisco's unique "fat and short" law, has filed a discrimination complaint with the city's Human Rights Commission.

"Incidents like this are very sad and don't just hurt the victims of discrimination," says the commission's Larry Brinkin.

"It actually hurts us as a society because we may be deprived of the talent and skills that people have to offer."


A mediation session has just been held where Ms Portnick's lawyer tried to convince Jazzercise that letting her client teach would be good business.

Sign of solidarity
"She can inspire people to be fit that don't have a cookie cutter body," says lawyer Sondra Solovy.

In the fat-acceptance movement, Ms Portnick has become something of a poster girl.

"This is a wonderful and important case," says Lynn McAfee, director of medical advocacy at the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination. The group works with government agencies on policy issues facing large people.

"Jazzercise seeks to perpetuate the 'pyramid' idea of fitness: only a few 'attractive' people at the top are fit and are worthy role models," says Ms McAfee.

"To deny Ms Portnick this opportunity to teach Jazzercise is to deny all large people the opportunity to improve our health. If our money is good enough for Jazzercise, our bodies should be too."

Ms Portnick agrees. "We don't need to look like a movie star or Barbie. We need to be open to our bodies as they are, while working to the best fitness level we can achieve.

Larry Brinkin: Don't deny the talents
"This is not about what the tape measure says when it goes around your waist."

Her application was to teach Jazzercise Lite, a low-impact workout class designed for people who need less-strenuous activity.

Ms Portnick hopes her decision to go the Human Rights Commission and make public her plight will help shift the attitude of Jazzercise in opening the world of fitness to women of all sizes.

We need to be open to our bodies as they are, while working to the best fitness level we can achieve

Jennifer Portnick
Jazzercise told BBC News Online: "Many Jazzercise franchise applicants are not accepted at the initial evaluation stage, however they may choose to reapply."

The next step in this unusual "fitness versus fat" case will come in April when a further mediation between Ms Portnick and Jazzercise is planned.

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