News about Aretha Franklin’s pancreatic cancer caused pangs of anguish for all of us who grew up encouraged to feel like a natural woman (and belt out songs that we were totally unfit to sing) thanks to the Queen of Soul. But if we’re honest, we’ve been feeling pangs over Aretha for quite some time: Her voice hasn’t changed, but her body sure has; an all-too visible indication not of aging or of diminishing looks, but of poor health. No matter how impressive her performances, year after year, we’ve caught ourselves gasping over her ballooning weight, wondering when it would pop and give way to serious medical issues (if it wasn’t already).
We know that many people are uncomfortable with the correlation between obesity and disease. “But pancreatic cancer killed Patrick Swayze, and he wasn’t fat!” you’ll argue. It’s true that not everyone who gets cancer is overweight, and not everyone who’s overweight gets cancer. But selective ignorance of medical advice and studies doesn’t make them go away: Multiple studies have confirmed that obesity increases risk of pancreatic cancer, including one that estimated that women who are overweight are up to 70% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than women who aren’t to develop the fifth-leading cause of cancer death. Those are odds that practically scream the dangers of becoming obese, and should scare anyone who sees a relative, friend, or celebrity idol who’s gaining weight on the scale that Aretha did. Just like we’ve watched other stars spiral into life-threatening drug addictions, we’ve also watched Aretha get further thwarted by a disease that probably gave her cancer and, tragically, is more likely to kill her than not.
Aretha showed up on pop charts as a teenager, when she was quite thin; we’re not suggesting she should have maintained her teenage weight into her 60s. We know that a little weight gain is inevitable with age (we have a hard enough time maintaining a healthy BMI between November and January, and we can’t even blame it on a slowing metabolism). But there’s no denying that Aretha has gained awesome amounts of weight, on a scale that’s widely recognized a serious medical danger. Perhaps she sought help, went on diets, or attempted to adopt a healthier lifestyle, but she also told her fans that she’s proud to be big:
For a long time I suffered so much trying to be what other people expected me to be and look like. I definitely was never meant to be a model-type walking down a runway – I’m just Aretha singing what she feels in her heart and soul.
We don’t expect Aretha (or anyone) to look like a runway model or suffer to be thin, but maintaining a healthy weight is worthy of hard work. Aretha made huge strides for society, but positioning concern over body weight in opposition to being “down to earth” and “real” doesn’t signal progress to us. Worrying about your weight shouldn’t be considered a purely superficial, petty endeavor any more than visiting a doctor when you’re sick. Being healthy isn’t avant-garde.
What’s the upshot of all this? We hope that this morning’s optimistic reports about Aretha’s pancreatic surgery indicate a lucky outcome for the singer, but maybe more of us should take her condition as a wake-up call to stop putting ourselves at risk for disease like Aretha did. In the name of love.