Jazzercise Settlement Redefines Who's Fit

May 10, 2002 -- After 15 years of aerobics classes, Jennifer Portnick felt she had the qualifications to become a Jazzercise instructor — but she was rejected in a letter stating that applicants should "look leaner than the public."

Portnick, who weighs 240 pounds, said she was both devastated and inspired by the letter. She set out to change the rules and won. After filing a complaint, Jazzercise Inc. agreed it would no longer require instructors to look trim and fit.

For Portnick, 38, the decision was a victory against weight bias.

"One of my goals has been to bring fitness to people who might be intimidated by fitness classes or ashamed of [their] bodies," Portnick told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. Although she supports weight loss in the classes, it isn't the focus.

"I want to tell larger people who might feel they aren't good enough to be seen in a leotard that they shouldn't have any shame," said Portnick, who works out six days a week.

Applying the 'Fat and Short' Law

Portnick did not file a lawsuit, but she did file a complaint against the company with San Francisco's Human Rights Commission, which mediated the settlement with Jazzercise.

Portnick filed the complaint last September, when Jazzercise sent her a rejection letter after receiving her instructor application. She argued its decision was based on her appearance, and that she was being discriminated under San Francisco's "fat and short" law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of weight and height.

Jazzercise — the world's largest dance-fitness company — sent Portnick a letter saying that applicants must have a higher muscle-fat ratio, and look leaner than the public.

The company has since shifted its policy.

"Recent studies document that it may be possible for people of varying weights to be fit," Jazzercise said in statement released as part of the settlement announced Monday. "Jazzercise has determined that the value of 'fit appearance' as a standard is debatable."

Jazzercise said it would continue to evaluate applicants on endurance, dance technique, physical ability and movement skills. But the Carlsbad, Calif.-based company said it will no longer use "fit appearance" as a criterion to certify instructors.

Weight Discrimination Legal Elsewhere

Attorney Sandra Solovay, who helped get the San Francisco "fat and short" law passed two years ago, said the state of Michigan and the cities of Washington, D.C., and Santa Cruz, Calif., have similar laws on the books. But many other places do not.

"People may not realize that in many places, weight discrimination is legal," she said. "Someone can say, 'You are fat, I don't want to hire you,' and you have limited legal recourse."

Since January, Portnick has been teaching six days a week. She has launched her own business called Feel Good Fitness. She is no longer seeking to become a Jazzercise instructor, although she still likes to take the classes.

Portnick said that her body is "very representative of the 60 percent of American women who wear size 16 or over, " and that she is pleased to have opened the door to other would-be instructors.

"I'm not saying a fat body is better, but if a fat person can do a job as well as another person, they should be able to do it," she said.