What Kelly Clarkson really meant

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Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: American women are having a moment of profound openness about their shared experiences
  • Kelly Clarkson is the latest example of a celebrity speaking out against the expectations society places on women

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Kelly Clarkson says the UK magazine Attitude twisted her words when it published an article asserting that she was unhappy being thin — and not just miserable, but suicidal. "When I was really skinny I wanted to kill myself," the magazine quoted the singer as saying. "I was miserable, like inside and out, for four years of my life. But no one cared, because aesthetically you make sense."

Clarkson later sought to clarify the statement, tweeting that she wasn't suicidal or miserable because she had to be thin, but that she was miserable and no one had any idea. And that's largely because she looked great and "appeared healthy."
The magazine might have been attempting to use Clarkson as an example of the pressures women — both famous and not — feel to look a certain way; pressures so intense that even death can perhaps seem a better option.
    Kelly Clarkson shuts down body-shaming tweet
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    That's not quite what Clarkson was saying. And yet, in her response, she makes an important point, taking aim at an all-too-common misconception: that being thin means being happy. After all, isn't a trim, slinky body what everyone strives for? That's what magazines and pretty much all media tell us. That's what we tell one another, and often ourselves.
    While this may seem like an incremental body image story coming from a famous person, it's much more consequential than that, particularly in a society that is just now grappling with the ugly fallout of the expectations that are routinely placed on women. Such expectations include (but certainly aren't limited to): aspiring to looking great, expecting and accepting scorn when we don't, capitulating with a smile to demands in a world where our worth is largely determined by men, and, of course, putting on a happy face through it all.
    Clarkson's example of how her weight may have masked her depression offers a good example. Pause and think about what we attach to the notion of weight. When we see a friend who's lost some weight, we tell her she looks great. And if we aim to lose weight ourselves, we feel proud when we succeed (and demoralized when we don't).
    Even if Americans are ostensibly becoming less obsessed with the numbers on the scale, and more interested in "getting healthy," as has been reported, there's still an underlying notion that having a handle on one's body -- that is, generally, being thin and fit -- is tied to being one's best self, most particularly when it comes to women.
    Clarkson may not be speaking about feeling pressure to be thin (she says she didn't) as a young celebrity. But she is talking about the danger in attaching positivity to being thin. Indeed, she instead describes her thinnest years as "a very dark time" during which she might have looked a certain way but, in reality, felt sad, powerless and out of control.
    And yet, she says that, because she looked good, no one around her really noticed. That's troubling stuff.
    Celebrity culture these days is at a saturation point, and people young and old -- male and female -- are bombarded all day long with images of beautiful people looking beautiful. This has been shown to have an impact on young people's self-image in terms of expectations they set for others and themselves.
    Clarkson's willingness to talk about how being thin didn't mean that, magically, she was also happy, even if other people may have expected it to, is an important message. Nothing is ever as it seems. And thin isn't everything.
    What's also notable in this conversation is that Clarkson made her comments in the midst of what appears to be a sea change. As more and more well-known women come forward to talk about their experiences, not only with director Harvey Weinstein but with other powerful men, it's clear that American women are, seemingly suddenly, having a moment of profound openness, and finding power in what they might previously have thought was (or were told was) shameful or weak.
    More and more of us are realizing that there's, in fact, strength in reclaiming our truth, and we're realizing that by listening to others share theirs.
    For Clarkson, that's the idea that being thin isn't by any means the path to happiness. For others, it's something else: It's the injustice of having your boss make you feel that, unlike your male peers, you have to work harder to earn your place, or that a director's gaze lingered, offensively, a little too long, or was prelude to harassment.
    Which may be the most important takeaway: Chances are good that whatever you're feeling, you are not alone in feeling it.
    While this may seem obvious to some, for those women who have for years been told to be nice, stay quiet, do your job and don't complain, this sort of permission can be revelatory. And life-changing. Because where there's numbers, there's power.

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