Food Fight

What do a fat-accepting aerobics instructor and a fact-rejecting psychology professor have in common?


Jennifer Portnick and Kelly Brownell do not seem to have much in common. One pushes "fat acceptance," the other fat rejection. But they are alike in their determination to impose their visions on the rest of us.

Portnick is a 240-pound San Francisco woman who tried to become a Jazzercise instructor and was rejected because she didn't look the part. "Jazzercise sells fitness," the company told her. "Consequently, a Jazzercise applicant must have a high muscle-to-fat ratio and look leaner than the public."

Offended by this policy, Portnick filed a complaint last fall with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, citing an ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on weight or height. Jazzercise recently announced that it had seen the error of its ways and would henceforth certify instructors of all shapes and sizes.

But not Portnick, who has decided she doesn't want to be a Jazzercise instructor after all. She said she filed the complaint mainly to "make sure that no one else would have to be discriminated against based on their so-called lack of fit appearance." Her attorney lamented that "there is very little protection from weight discrimination in this country."

Like Portnick, Kelly Brownell has an interest in weight-related issues and a knack for attracting attention. A professor of psychology at Yale University, where he directs the Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, he's fond of stirring up controversy with cutting-edge policy proposals and provocative remarks.

For several years he's been promoting the idea of a "Twinkie tax" to deter people from buying foods with little nutritional value. He also advocates censorship of advertising that he believes encourages unhealthy eating habits.

"A militant attitude is warranted here," he told the New Haven Register several years ago. "We're infuriated at tobacco companies for enticing kids to smoke, so we don't want Joe Camel on billboards. Is it any different to have Ronald McDonald asking kids to eat foods that are bad for them?"

The militant attitude that Portnick and Brownell share stems from similar worldviews. Both see themselves as underdogs, battling pervasive cultural messages that most people unthinkingly accept.

Portnick–whose mottoes are "Fit and fat: what a concept!" and "Don't change your body, change the rules"– is fighting the prevailing preference for thinness, which she considers an irrational prejudice. At the International No Diet Day celebration where she announced her settlement with Jazzercise, chubby cheerleaders chanted: "Two, four, six, eight, we do not regurgitate. Three, five, seven, nine, love your body, it's just fine."

Brownell, by contrast, is fighting what he calls the "toxic food environment," the constellation of influences that encourages people to eat more and exercise less than he thinks they should. "Until the environment changes," he told USA Today in February, "it will be impossible to reverse the increasing prevalence of obesity."

If Portnick limited herself to advocating fat acceptance, people would be free to disagree with her claims and priorities. Likewise, if Brownell's ambitions went no further than informing people about the health risks of obesity and helping those who want to lose weight, he could not be accused of forcing his views on anyone.

But Portnick and Brownell are not satisfied simply to compete in the marketplace of ideas. They think the government should rig the rules in their favor. Portnick wants to fine people who refuse to accept fat, while Brownell wants to fine people who refuse to eat right.

Both prescriptions are based on the assumption that fat people cannot reasonably be expected to lose weight and keep it off. From this premise Portnick concludes that they should learn to accept their corpulence, and so should everyone else. Brownell concludes that government prodding is necessary to overcome their inertia.

Losing weight is not easy, but neither is it rocket science. Rather, it's basic physics: Eat less, exercise more.

According to Portnick, people who say they want to lose weight but do not stick to this simple formula have been brainwashed to believe that thinner is better. According to Brownell, they've been brainwashed to pig out and slack off.

Neither seems to consider the possibility that people are simply making ambivalent choices in a world of tradeoffs, where food tastes good but too much makes you fat, where exercise is a bother but helps you stay lean, and where it's good to be thin, other things being equal. They rarely are.