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The Gods of Retail: Curves International

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Bringing women to Jesus, one pound at a time.

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Gary Heavin is interested in your heavenly body: His company, Curves International, aims to provide you with the kind of six-pack abs even Christ could be proud of.

Curves has become the world's largest fitness franchise thanks to a simple but appealing premise: Guilt-free collaborative workouts for women. Sequestered from the judgmental eyes of musclebound meatheads and cackling teens, women exercise in a warm and welcoming circle of their peers.

Think The View - with StairMasters.

That golden idea earned the brand more than 10,000 locations in over 60 countries, along with roughly 4 million members as of October 2006. Considering the company achieved those numbers entirely via word of mouth -- it had no national ad campaign prior to 2004 -- the growth is staggering.

That is, until Today's Christian printed an article on the pro-life contributions of CEO and founder Gary Heavin.

Prior to Curves, Heavin claimed bankruptcy, divorced his first wife, lost custody of his 2 children, and served a 6-month stint in jail for failure to pay child support. While in prison, Heavin found God - but only after, Heavin said, "God [had] wrung out everything I was proud of so that I would be totally dependent on him."

While Heavin's words might have provoked nothing more than laughter in most non-believers, it was his following statements that caused an uproar: Heavin said that he supported pro-life "pregnancy care" centers, and said, "There's nothing healthy about abortion. I'm not afraid to tell the truth."

Even more disconcerting were Heavin's multi-million dollar donations to several anti-abortion organizations: The CEO pledged $1 million over 5 years to Care Net, an organization whose consultants regard themselves as "the hands and feet of Christ." The organization actively dissuades women from having an abortion while also attempting to convert them to evangelical Christianity.

Heavin also provided money to the McLennan County Collaborative Abstinence Project - a group that discourages sex education and promotes sexual abstinence among teens.

A Sisyphean task, presumably.

In 2003, Heavin's charitable donations were estimated at $10 million -- roughly 10% of Curves' gross revenue -- but how much of that total was donated to pro-life groups is unknown.

After Heavin's statements and philanthropic activities were covered by the San Francisco Chronicle, some irate women canceled their Curves memberships and staged boycotts.

None, however, were particularly devastating to Curves' bottom line. Indeed, the company recently began a promotional partnership with the American Family Association - a nonprofit which seeks to "expose the misrepresentation of the radical homosexual agenda and stop its spread though our culture." (One Stairmaster at a time, one imagines.)

For some members, that might be the straw that broke the camel's back.

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