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[whitespace] Weight Lifters Causing Fitness: Women of Substance health spa owners Lisa Tealer and Dana Lee Schuster target larger clients who often feel uncomfortable working out in a regular gym.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

La Vida Gorda

Once upon a time the only products marketed to the obese were dieting aids. Today, retailers, manufacturers and health clubs are latching on to the growing plus-size market--one that's here to stay.

By Dara Colwell

A FEMALE COACH, workout charts in hand, questions a trainee in the corner while a class of sweatshirt-clad guests assembles on the main floor. The velvety tones of Sade drift through the mirror-lined gym, amid bench presses, exercise bikes and treadmills. Calistoga water bottles litter the floor.

Aerobic instructors Lisa Tealer and Dana Schuster, exuding the peppy energy of their profession, ask the class how it is doing. A chatty dialogue ensues for 20 minutes that covers kids, hockey, birthdays and getting stuck in traffic.

"So, how are you?" Schuster points to a woman in the back row. "I'm fine!" she replies. "Fine? I thought you were perfect!" Schuster retorts.

This group of women at the Women of Substance Health Spa, in Redwood City, know they aren't perfect by supermodel standards. They are larger women: fat, overweight, zaftig, obese, but they've decided that their size isn't going to stop them from being active. When Tealer and Schuster--certified trainers who claim to be fat and fit--opened this spa four years ago, they sought to promote a body-positive workout for all sizes. They also wanted to tap into a niche that has traditionally remained underserved in the fitness industry: the plus-size market.

"From a business perspective, why exclude a certain group of people?" Tealer says. "We've got money too. Any way you slice it, we're here to stay."

As obesity rates continue to climb--an estimated 55 percent of the American population is currently overweight, according to National Institute of Health guidelines--the plus-size market has grown along with it. And with groups such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance working to end size discrimination in housing, transportation and health care, companies catering to those who fall outside the traditional-sized retail scope are picking up customers. According to independent research publisher Marketdata Enterprises, America's plus-size market was worth roughly $26.39 billion in 1999 alone.

"Larger people are beginning to feel like they want to have a good life at any size," says Marilyn Wann, the San Francisco-based author of Fat!So?, a tongue-in-cheek tome that challenges the widely held cultural belief that fat is bad. "Now we can be fat and fabulous."

Off the Racks

IN LANE BRYANT'S Valentine's Day ad campaign, actor Chris Noth, who plays Mr. Big on Sex in the City, cuddles a large, stylish blonde model in crystal-studded Venezia jeans. Broadening the fashion aesthetic for plus sizes beyond loose-flowing muumuus and shapeless sacks, the company has seen the industry grow explosively over the last five years. "Plus-size has been trending up by about 10 percent," says Chris Hansen, executive vice president of marketing, over the phone from Lane Bryant headquarters in New York. Lane Bryant is a subsidiary of The Limited and the country's largest retailer of plus-size clothes for sizes 14-28. "Businesses are beginning to offer clothing that wasn't available before and bringing customers to the fore," Hansen says.

Hansen, who notes that sales in intimate apparel are particularly popular, jumping 20 percent in recent years, attributes her company's success to pushing positive visual images of large women who enjoy the way they look--as well as their sex appeal. The company regularly hosts fashion campaigns featuring big-name celebrities such as rap artist Queen Latifah and model Anna Nicole Smith. "There has been a whole societal assumption that this customer was not interested in fashionable clothes. Most companies erred on the side of helping this woman disappear," she says. "We're not reinforcing that. We promote clothes that make her look as fabulously sexy and easily stylish as the thin woman next to her."

Right now, according to Marketdata Enterprises, 99 percent of the plus-size market is tied to the clothing sector, which continues to grow by roughly 7.5 percent annually, and the market for women, who typically have higher obesity rates than men, is huge--at least $23 billion. According to Marketdata's estimates based on federal statistics, 28 million--or 20 percent--of American women are obese. While they have a strong economic presence, the typical plus-size customer spends only $942 a year on clothing. A huge sector of the market remains untapped.

"The invisible has been so profound for so long, we're not used to seeing ourselves," says Wann, who, at 5 foot 4 inches and 270 pounds, doesn't hesitate to don a bikini. "It's going to take companies with a bit of vision to figure out how fat people look good. There's got to be someplace between bags and spandex."

Cynthia Riggs, owner of Making It Big, a vintage clothing store in Rohnert Park that expanded to include a manufacturing and mail order store in Cotati, feels that options for larger customers have always been limited--which is why she entered the business 15 years ago. "Somehow the market has not caught on to the fact that people aren't just size 2, 4, 6 or even 10. If you go to an apparel show, there are hundreds of vendors in Misses and Juniors. In our business, there's just a handful," she says. Riggs, who is a size 20 and offers clothing for sizes 24 on up, says that while mainstream outlets such as Macy's and Nordstrom are expanding their size offerings, the need extends far beyond what they supply. "Look at how much floor space department stores devote to plus-size clothing--it's usually in the farthest reaches of the store," she says. "Customers will walk to the basement if they have to get it, because clothes help them move on in their lives."

Wann couldn't agree more and she feels the shift to positive images for larger customers has been significant. "The critical difference is, do you market to the Achilles heel of self-hatred or do you market to self-respect? As a consumer, I prefer the latter," she says. "The real presentation of fabulous-looking fat people makes me feel I can shop as a fat person now."

Lisa Tealer, Dana Lee Schuster Tread Brightly: Certified trainers Lisa Tealer and Dana Lee Schuster opened their spa because they believe that obesity should not prevent an active lifestyle.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Do or Diet

BY RECENT ESTIMATES, nearly 55 percent of the American population, or 97 million people, are overweight. The prevalence of obesity, defined as being roughly 30 pounds overweight, has increased by nearly 60 percent since 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doctors attribute the rise to more people spending more hours in sedentary activities such as working in front of computers or commuting for hours in traffic. Coupled with a national predilection for fast food--which makes an easy meal after a long day at work--many doctors believe Americans will continue getting larger.

Traditionally, fitness markets have played off society's waifish ideas of beauty, with the diet industry raking in $33 billion per year. According to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 percent of American women are actively trying to lose weight, but the failure rate is even higher--95 percent of dieters regain what they lost within two to five years.

"We're a quick-fix country--we say, 'Eat less and exercise more--you'll be thin.' But research goes against that," says Pat Lyons, nurse and co-author of Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women. Lyons, who wears a size 22 and is considered "morbidly obese" by government standards (which is 100-plus pounds overweight), thinks we need to shift our focus instead onto health rather than size. While obesity-related diseases such as type-two diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and sleep apnea do put heavier types at risk, Lyons believes people can be both large and healthy.

A study conducted by Dr. Steven Blair, at the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas, bears her out. Blair, who examined 25,000 men for several years, found that overweight or even obese men who are fit have a much lower death rate than those of normal weight who are unfit. Fitness was the magic bullet.

Still, Lyons says, prejudice about size persists. "I live a healthy lifestyle, but because of one number on the scale, I have a medical diagnosis that defines me as having a disease. We [as a country] want it to be that simple, but it's not."

The Other Suburban Sprawl

'THE PLUS-SIZE CUSTOMER is a paradox," research director John LaRosa at Marketdata Enterprises says in a company press release. "Many plus-size people are in denial about their size, seeing their situation as temporary. There is still a social stigma to being plus-size and customers prefer to shop via the Internet and mail order." That being the case, BigRedChair.com has certainly found its niche. The East Coast company, which is getting ready to launch, was created to provide specially sized products--from clothing to countertops--for large clients.

"There's a huge market out there," says CEO Scott Walker, former editorial director at Utne Reader magazine, who describes himself as "a medium-sized guy." His partner, R. Francis Barclay, weighs in at 400 pounds. "In this mass-market society, people who exist at the margins are not getting served. People on the larger side often feel guilty, like they don't deserve to be comfortable. But whether someone smokes or not, they still deserve to be comfortable in their shoes, right?"

Walker says the company is trying to cull together existing products, everything from lawnmowers and baby strollers with handle extensions to T-shirts with larger necks and mattresses designed for stronger support. "I've spent weeks looking through sources on the Internet trying to find sizing guides, but the information is just not out there. It's an opportunity for us to represent that population. There's an inadequate supply," he says. Cynthia Riggs, of Making It Big, agrees. "Thinking size 2 or 4 is the norm isn't true to life," she says. "Fat people are highly discriminated against in terms of dollar signs, but the market is definitely there."

Despite the dotcom economy's recent downward turn, BigRedChair. com may find a strong--and growing--customer base among people like Elizabeth Fisher, a computer programmer from Baton Rouge. Fisher hit the headlines when she tried buying a Honda Odyssey minivan and found that she could not fit into its seatbelts. The carmaker would not offer her a seat belt extender, so Fisher petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, whose standard for seat belts is 215 pounds. Fisher weighs 350 pounds. Fisher's national campaign to make dealers offer the extenders paid off in February, when the Traffic Administration decided to grant her petition.

Fisher's fight, however, is just one of thousands. Last May, Angeleno Cynthia Luther, who weighs more than 300 pounds, claimed harassment against Southwest Airlines after being told to buy a second passenger seat. The district's Superior Court Judge, Marilyn Hoffman, sided with Southwest's lawyers, stating the airline's policy on overweight passengers was not illegal.

While cities like San Francisco have passed laws prohibiting discrimination against large-size people, placing obesity in the same category as race, gender and age, most of the country has yet to follow suit. But in cyberspace, changes move rapidly. The Internet has helped bolster acceptance with a growing number of websites dedicated to size-positive services. There are dating personals for larger sizes, such as Generous Net, Large and Lovely Connections, and Living Large and In Color. Online and print magazines such as Mode, which is geared to average-sized women, and Girl, published by the same company, are also promoting healthier body images.

"In the mainstream world, I generally expect to face thoughtless exclusion," says Wann of being an invisible plus-size consumer. "But companies that sell self-respect and let customers be proud of who they are--that's an identity worth standing up for."

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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