August 15, 1988 12:00 PM

Now, what was your name again?” When Sharlyne Powell joined an aerobics class back in 1983, the instructor kept asking her that question. It’s not that Powell was indistinguishable from her fellow students; indeed, the opposite was true. At 5’4″ and dress size 16, Powell was the heaviest woman in her class. Ignored by the instructor and struggling to keep pace with her svelter classmates, Powell ended up quitting in frustration.

Rather than seek solace by raiding the fridge, Powell and friend Sharon McConnell, 5’4″ and size 20, exercised their ire instead. They pored over books on health and fitness and then launched their own exercise studio for large women in a rented room in the Grange hall in Yakima, Wash. Five years later, Powell and McConnell are the proprietors of Women at Large, a chain of 24 franchises in 11 states and Canada. Breakout, their $29.95 home exercise video, has sold more than 22,000 copies. “Fat women are discriminated against in America,” says Powell. “They are thought of as undesirable, unsexy, lazy and often unemployable. Large women don’t have to accept that. We don’t have to be afraid to be beautiful.”

Powell and McConnell had no idea their concept would carry so much weight, but there are more than 35,000,000 American women size 16 or larger. The pair claims that more than 10,000 of these women have paid $35 to $60 a month to work out at their salons. “Our focus is a healthy body, not necessarily a thin one,” explains Powell. “Our routines were so raw at first. Now we use a lot of muscle resistance and focus on specific areas that large women have trouble with because of their weight, like the lower back.” Jumping and jogging in place are banished as too jarring. Powell found a supplier in San Diego to make thicker exercise mats and convinced a small apparel company in Portland to manufacture a line of oversize leotards and tights, sold exclusively in Women at Large salons. “We found that women who were once afraid to exercise in anything but baggy clothes were actually eager to be in the front row [of a class] in leotards and tights,” says Powell proudly. “Not everyone was meant to be a perfect size six.”

Women at Large salons organize weekly support groups to help clients with makeup, fashion and even more basic matters. “Large women are always seen to waddle,” says instructor Trisha Sharp, a size 22. “We help them with that and provide emotional support they don’t get elsewhere.” Says size 16 Kathy Kallavig, who quit her warehouse job to become a full-time Women at Large instructor: “My husband can’t believe the change in me. He thinks it’s pretty terrific.”

The average Women at Large student weighs about 175 pounds, but willowy lasses who like low-impact workouts are also welcome. Powell and McConnell are careful not to dish out the sort of abuse they once received. “Sure we let skinny people come exercise with us,” says student Nancy Burgess, size 24, with a sly smile. “We just look at them kind of funny.”

—By Angela Blessing in Yakima

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