Cass Elliot

Defining the Incredible Talent of Cass Elliot

A brilliant flash of popular music in the middle of the 1960s came from the Mamas and the Papas. And the most memorable performer from that group was Cass Elliot – also known as Mama Cass. This was well before anyone thought about obesity as a medical condition. The group sang naive lyrics about “no one getting fat, except Mama Cass.” But Elliot was a person determined to define herself by her talent, and not her weight.

Phenomenal Talent

Elliot was a performer with an incredible drive and talent. But she was driven to work in an entertainment industry where appearances define a large measure of the product. She dreamed of a career on Broadway, but found success in the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Though she could act, her size limited the Broadway roles that she could win.

In folk music, the beauty of her voice and her charismatic performance skill made her size less relevant.

Fighting the Constraints of Body Image

Despite her considerable talent, weight was an ever-present factor in her career and her life. She presented herself in public performances with poise and confidence. She mounted a successful solo career after the Mamas and the Papas split up, registering a hit with Dream a Little Dream of Me.

And yet, she was constantly fighting with her own weight – dieting, losing weight, and inevitably regaining it all. In that era, finding help to deal with the physiology and health implications of obesity was virtually impossible. And so, Elliot’s weight remained part of her identity.

At difficult times in her career, she took spots on television shows where her weight became the object of low humor. It was a fact of life in that time. It took a toll on her both physically and mentally.

Breaking Stereotypes

When she died in 1974 from heart failure, the coroner attributed her death to her weight. Saying that she weighed “twice the proper weight for a woman of her height,” he described “part of the heart muscle turning to fat.” Of course, heart muscle turning to fat is impossible. But that statement is a perfect illustration of how bad the medical understanding of obesity was at that time.

After her death, Elliot became a potent symbol for fat activism. Her daughter, Owen Elliot, explained to the Guardian:

The National Association for Fat Acceptance made my mom their diva. I don’t totally agree with that. She accepted who she was, a sexy woman who was never short of boyfriends, but I think if she could have been thinner, she would have.

We still live with considerable weight bias and ignorance about obesity. But maybe we’ve made a bit of progress.

Click here for a video biography and here for more from the Guardian.

Cass Elliot, photograph by RCA Records via Wikimedia Commons

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April 3, 2018

5 Responses to “Defining the Incredible Talent of Cass Elliot”

  1. April 03, 2018 at 8:16 am, Angela Meadows said:

    I don’t have a source for this, but I remember reading somewhere: hadn’t she recently lost a lot of weight on yet another extreme dieting attempt? She certainly cycled multiple times in her life.

    Also, re: “At difficult times in her career, she took spots on television shows where her weight became the object of low humor. It was a fact of life in that time.” It is a fact of life in this time also. Nothing has changed.

    • April 03, 2018 at 8:41 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Angela!

      I have a bit more optimism about the possibility of change. But I certainly agree that the change is too little.

  2. April 03, 2018 at 8:56 am, Harry Minot said:

    Cass Elliot was my teenage heart-throb. I was, myself, a fat child and a fat teen. So I felt a kinship with her. She was the target of the same anti-fat bigotry which nearly drove me to suicide whan I was 15 years old. *They* said, when she died, that she “choked on a ham sandwich”. That was BULLSHIT. Repeated cycles of dieting, induced by the Oppression which was focused upon her, resulted in the damage which caused her death. So, as to the “stigma” (which is really pernicious Hatred), please STOP IT NOW. RIGHT THIS INSTANT!

    • April 03, 2018 at 9:18 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Harry, for so generously sharing your perspective. I hope for compassion, but insist on respect.

  3. April 03, 2018 at 9:26 am, Harry Minot said:

    That insistence is entirely in harmony with lovingkindness. Your postings consistently display a vigorous and forthright Conscience. I am quite grateful!