Mama Cass Elliot “Diet”

From What A Way To Lose, 1969: “I’ve invented a fabulous new diet. It costs only $2,000 for each pound you lose. It also weakens your natural resistance to disease. I can’t guarantee it, but the Mama Cass Diet can give you acute tonsillitis, hemorrhaging vocal cords, mononucleosis and a dangerous case of hepatitis. At least that’s what it did for me. I lost my health–and more than a quarter of a million dollars in earnings as a singer.”

Mama Cass was both sassy and painfully candid in her talks about her unhealthy approach to weight loss in this 1969 article from March issue of The Ladies Home Journal. She could have chosen to keep her health problems a guarded secret, but obviously she chose authenticity. She admitted that she didn’t consult a doctor about her drastic approach to weight loss because she knew starving herself “was wrong” and she “was in a hurry to weigh 110 pounds.”

I always have many eyeball rolls to give to the mid-century magazine reducing diet articles that are typically starvation diets comprised of dry toast, black coffee, bouillon broth, a few ounces of meat with quack diet ads and gimmicks in the same issue. It’s this concept–what was once called a “reducing” diet–that trips up a lot of people today who confuse it with a daily diet which literally means “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.”

Although 1969 was still a time when the majority of Americans were not overweight or obese and whose daily (non-reducing) diet and lifestyle kept their figures healthy, fad diets, starvation, gimmicky gums, magic couches and dangerous drugs were gaining popularity. They were dangerous and/or expensive carrots dangled in front of those who did need help.

Diets that referenced “Hollywood” or “The Stars” were a thing, as was feature articles that purportedly revealed the eating habits of stars like Marilyn Monroe, Twiggy and Cheryl Tiegs so women could emulate them:

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From the 1952 article, Marilyn Monroe, How I Stay in Shape.

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From my 1967 copy of “Twiggy Her Mod Mod Teen World”, she reports that her favorites are “expensive and glamorous restaurants,” fish-n-chips in London and hamburgers in America.

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The above clip from my October 1974 (the year Mama Cass passed away) BAZAAR magazine may as well have proclaimed: “Every day is starvation day.”

Raw eggs, expensive dining out or a cup of tea as a morning meal to maintain thinness and beauty? No thanks! I shared the above examples so you could perhaps better appreciate the rigorous honesty in the article by Mama Cass and see that it was pretty radical compared to some of the other celebrity fluff diet coverage. She really delved into and openly disclosed her thoughts and feelings about being overweight in a fat-hating society. She admitted that “it’s no fun to be heavy” and that she “used her weight as a defense against the world, as an excuse so I wouldn’t have to compete with other women.” Yet she definitely did not glamorize unhealthy eating habits to combat it.

On her starvation diet:

“Members of The Mamas and The Papas (John and Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty) noticed I was on a starvation diet, but they never said anything. My best friends, Gary and Annette Burden, encouraged me to stay with my diet. So did my husband, before we broke up. Another man came into my life after my husband and I separated, and he was the first person who taught me that if you really love a man and want to give him the best, you make yourself as presentable as possible.”

**

 “I didn’t want Owen growing up to hear other children taunt her for having a fat mother.”

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“Somebody once said I had done for the young fat girl what Barbara Streisand had done for the ugly girl.” 

**

“I even experimented with chewing food and spitting it out. But that didn’t work. I guess I have taste buds all the way down to my stomach.”

After her weight loss:

“I take out pictures of myself at 285 pounds and realize I was grotesque.”

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“I have learned my lesson. No more starvation diets!”

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“I have become convinced that I could never start gaining weight again or start eating indiscriminately because my mind is now attuned to what’s good and what’s bad for me.”

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Reading this is heartbreaking, especially knowing that she passed away a couple months shy of 33 not from choking on a sandwich, but “fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity.”

I wasn’t aware of the tragic depths of her self-loathing that was a reaction to the shaming she received from others! There was so much scrutiny of her oversized body conveyed in the article and less of a celebration of her larger-than-life inner being and out-of-this-world talent. Knowing that she did eventually regain the weight isn’t surprising though since we know that starvation diets have been studied and show that regaining weight is almost inevitable. But obesity can kill, and it lead to her untimely death.

Mama Cass was a human being struggling as a woman and celebrity in a culture that dictates that women be visually pleasing based upon whatever body type is currently in vogue. Besides being an accomplished musician, I think she was a role model for rigorous honesty and opening a dialog about body size and health.

This article got me thinking about the concept of “kindness at every size.” Can we evolve into that? Embrace self and other respect without glossing over the reality that obesity is dangerous to our health, but so is yo-yo and extreme dieting? That good health is tied to weight and how much and what we eat? And that regardless of one’s health status, we treat each other and ourselves with dignity and respect?

(Oh, and that slam on Babs? Damn!)

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