Sacrificing professional ambition for killer abs is a career strategy that makes about as much sense to English professor Thomas H. Benton as calling in sick three days a week. He says his time is better spent writing his next book about American literature than jogging around the small liberal-arts college campus in Michigan where he works. Benton, 37, who asked to be identified by the pen name he uses for his column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has gained 40 pounds since he was a graduate student at Harvard in 2000. Back then, he couldn’t afford a car and had to walk to campus, lugging piles of books, which helped keep his weight down. Now he takes the car to work, often via the drive-thru lane at McDonald’s. And he has research assistants fetching his books. He also has children, a circumstance that provides myriad opportunities to nosh. “If they leave food out on the counter, I eat it,” he says. “I’ve become a walking Disposall.”

Benton, who expects to earn tenure in six months (only one in five newly hired instructors ever makes it to the tenure track), credits his 230-pound frame with helping him keep a packed lecture hall at rapt attention. “Size has this authoritative dimension,” says Benton, who teaches in untucked polos (he says he’d look bad in a tucked-in shirt with a tie) and khakis. “If you are good at what you do, it’s not an impediment.”

Fat-assed self-satisfaction, of course, flies in the face of the country’s $46 billion diet industry, which equates success with thinness and suggests you can continually re-sculpt a fat you into an ab-blasting über-earner. “Because this is America, we have this Horatio Alger notion about weight,” says Paul Campos, author of The Diet Myth. “We think you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be thin.” But not everyone wants to be able to see his ribs.

Lawson, the Chicago accountant, actually does exercise regularly. He has run eight marathons—spurred on by his wife’s taunts that he’s “not a runner”—with the pleasing result of having never lost any significant weight from the effort. (He competes in the Clydesdale division, racing’s equivalent of a Big & Tall store.) And Lavandera typically runs only when he has to chase someone for an interview. Still, even an extra-large success like him sometimes hears the call of good health, so much so that he has started biking, and, after his family’s two-year campaign to get him on Weight Watchers, has finally signed up. That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it. “The idea of going to a gym isn’t something that excites me all that much,” he says.

Being surrounded by hundreds of naked, Greek-god-like figures isn’t enough to make Evan Goldstein hit the free weights either. The operations manager of a New York mannequin factory, he doesn’t bother to suck in his 42-inch gut when he walks by all those plastic examples of anatomical perfection, who are each six feet four inches tall with adolescently tiny waists. “They’re in better shape than me,” he says. “But it doesn’t bother me, because they’re all the same. I’m different because I’m bigger.” Maybe a bit too big. The 30-year-old MIT graduate was recently told by his doctor that he was dangerously close to being eligible for stomach stapling. “That scared me,” says Goldstein. But not enough to send him to a spin class. “If I’m in the mood for fries,” he says, “I’m going to get me some fries.” And, while he’s at it, maybe talk his boss (who’s bigger than he is) into giving him a big fat raise.