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Stateside with Rosalea: Portnick's Complaint

Stateside with Rosalea Barker

Portnick's Complaint

I'd be less than Irish if I didn't notice an unusual word popping its head up over the babblescape three times in as many days. Not that "stout" is all that unusual a word - why, I saw it 30 times in one beer chiller just last weekend. Hey, it's medicinal you know - good for the nerves - and if you can't find Guinness then Sierra Nevada Stout is a mighty fine substitute. Me old ma was somewhat of an expert on the medicinal properties of alchohol - stout for nerves, port wine and brandy for a fever, and a big tumbler of gin drunk in a very hot bath for women's problems. Don't try that at home folks. It's Mothers Day here tomorrow, after all.

Well then, on Monday, "stout" popped up again in the satirical lyrics of a song being sung by a chuckle of chubbies celebrating National No Diet day. Sporting "Fat Chicks Rule" tote bags and dragging bathroom scales shackled to their ankles, they gathered in a San Francisco plaza to press the flesh, so to speak. Even for fat women like me there is something terrifying about a supersized woman flaunting her body as if it's her God-given right to be seen in public in bike shorts and a sleeveless, midriff-baring top.

It was too much for the CBS affiliate's early evening news anchor, who had his hands over his eyes when they cut from the tape back to the desk. His female counterpart commented on the blue sky in the background and threw to the weather. It's not unusual for anchors to comment on news stories here, right down to discussing the pros and cons of named products if they feel like it. But I think Ken Bastida's reaction was totally unprofessional. Two weeks ago he was reporting from Jenin and I didn't see him holding his nose at the stench of death. Is the sight of a fat woman worse than that? What message did his behaviour send to teenage girls? OK, so they're probably not watching the news, but you get my drift.

The reporter who covered the news story itself had done a good job. This was more than a bulge-fest; it was also a celebration of a legal victory under San Francisco's "short and fat" law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person's physical attributes. Ho-hum as the concept of having a fat aerobics instructor is to anyone who was taking classes in Wellington at the end of last century, it was big news here. The Jazzercise instructor at the heart of the lawsuit had been fired by the Jazzercise corporation for not fulfilling its requirement to "look fit".

Jennifer Portnick and her lawyer were interviewed in the studio by the co-anchor of the morning news a couple of days later on KRON4 - a station whose news items have improved three dimensionally since they stopped being NBC's affiliate. "I am the new face of fitness," Portnick told him, referring to the value of diversity in the fitness industry. "Being an aerobics instructor is a skill-based job and I had all the skills." Everybody won from the lawsuit, she said, not the least the Jazzercise organisation itself. "And it's teaching people of full size to stand up for their rights," said Portnick's lawyer.

Well, I don't know about that, but I can tell you that the story got me into the gym for the first time in 15 years. And do you know what I discovered there? Diversity. Total wheelchair access. Old people. Like the 90-year-old woman working out who was featured in the ABC affiliate's evening news health report, along with her junior colleagues in their 70s and 80s, keeping up their muscle strength and getting oxygen to their brain and lungs in an East Bay gym. Of course, 98 percent of the clientele was young to middle-aged men and women of varying sveltitude and stamina but they're all so self-absorbed that you could be one of them for all the notice they take of you.

Which doesn't bring me to the third occurrence of "stout" but I'll go there anyway. As in "University of Wisconsin - Stout", where the smiley face bomber, Luke Helder, was studying art and industrial design. You cannot even begin to imagine the weight that boy has lifted off the national psyche. Suddenly - a terrorist who is nothing more than a merry prankster! Purloining the TV news graphics to create a smiley face in the middle of the United States of America - the guy is a genius and should be given a Congressional Medal instead of life in prison. Even his slightly injured victims think that's too harsh a punishment for a bout of misguided attention-seeking. I just want to know what happened after Amarillo, Texas, that he decided to head for the Sierra Nevada instead of finishing off the smile. Don't be downcast, Luke. You're a national hero.

Not that I advocate violence, but he didn't seem to intend any serious harm with his pipe bombs. I haven't read what any of his anti-government notes said, but they might well have found favour with their recipients this week, given that family farmers in the mid-West are disgusted by the farm bill. "I'm paying taxes to the government for it to give to the corporations that are putting me out of business," said one dairy farmer interviewed midweek.

Not only was the media doing stories critical of the corporatisation of farming but two national networks were hot on the tails of the pharmaceutical companies who, as their patents expired on allergy and heartburn drugs, slightly altered the drugs, called them something else, and got a new patent. Then they blitzed the public with advertising campaigns telling them to ask their physician for a free sample so that by the time much cheaper generic drugs were available, the public was already hooked on the expensive branded ones.

Health is too important an aspect of life to be left unchallenged in the hands of corporations and it's great to see the media and individuals standing up to them.

Lea Barker
Saturday, 11 May 2002

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