With a litany of awards and honors, including eight competitive Grammys, one Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 73 entries on the Billboard Hot 100, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the honor of being the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Aretha Franklin will go down in history as one of the best — if not the best singer — to ever grace an American stage.
But to me, she accomplished something more impressive than accolades and awards: She stood confidently in her full-girthed body onstage and lifted her aged, flabby arms up for all to see. By doing this, she demanded that the world R-E-S-P-E-C-T her talent and her body.
I don’t remember exactly what I was watching the first time I saw her toneless arms on TV, but I remember exactly how I felt. Her arms sagged low; the fat hung big and soft, like light brown cottage cheese.
My mouth opened, eyes popped wide. Never before had I seen a woman on television with large, wrinkled arms, (and especially not a celebrity), yet here was Franklin, in a spaghetti strap evening gown, not giving a damn what anybody thought about her body.
Each time I saw her dimpled skin and ample breasts prominently displayed, I was shocked and reminded that I shouldn’t be shocked.
But it did. The image of a very full-figured, older black woman standing unapologetically on a stage was too countercultural to go unchallenged.
The critique lobbed against Franklin mirrored those hurled at other black women who don’t adhere to society’s narrow beauty standards. Franklin, like author Roxane Gay, actress Gabby Sidibe, and Oscar winner Mo’Nique, was labeled “too fat.”
Like these women, Franklin found a way to muffle critics. While Gay wrote “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body,” Sidibe posed as a cover girl for Elle and Vanity Fair, and Mo’Nique created a sex-positive comedic platform (and brazenly, yet unsuccessfully, challenged Netflix’s treatment of black women comedians).
Franklin — always the diva — wore gowns.
Bright gowns. Bold gowns. Sequined gowns. Jeweled gowns. She fought the patriarchy through fashion. Every glistening gem, every wrinkle and stretch mark was her way of saying, “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me!”
When Franklin recorded “Respect” in 1967, she sang it as a woman reportedly in a sometimes violent relationship, as a woman seeking equal rights in this country, and as a black American demanding equal treatment under the law.
The song, which transcended from a radio hit to a cultural anthem, was as personal as it was political. In 1969, her marriage with her first husband, Ted White, ended, and Franklin became a voice of the civil rights movement. She sang at rallies, toured with Martin Luther King Jr. and actor-activist Harry Belafonte, and raised money for the movement. She was a public example of intersectional feminism before scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term, before Beyoncé ever made a batch of lemonade, or Nicki Minaj spit a single bar. (Minaj, by the way, was the first woman in nearly 40 years to surpass Franklin for number of entries on the Billboard Hot 100.)
When Franklin sang “Respect” in her 60s and 70s, its meaning expanded. She demanded respect as an older woman whose size and fat dimples suggested that she had eaten her fair share of ham hocks and chitlins. Rather than try to hide her aging, expanding body, though, she graced every stage as a woman who felt free to live fully in her body. Franklin refused to cover up, refused to conform to the ideas of what she should and shouldn’t wear.
In 2010, Franklin emerged 85 pounds lighter, while rumors that she had undergone gastric bypass surgery circulated, she said the weight loss happened naturally, before and after the surgery, and that she was pursuing a more healthy lifestyle.
She refused to name the specific ailment then, but her publicist recently confirmed that she had suffered from advanced pancreatic cancer, which affects African Americans at a higher rate than other groups. The drastic weight loss she experienced in 2017 was an apparent side effect as well.