In case you hadn't yet heard, Britney Spears is finally free. And she seems to be having a great time showing fans just how much she's relishing her newfound liberty on her Instagram. Specifically, Britney uploaded a couple of nude photos on Thursday night, choosing to block comments on the post, right between a heartfelt post about going out to dinner for the first time and a picture of surrealist art by Mark Ryden.
Was I surprised to see Britney's naked body on my feed without warning? Sure. Does it make perfect sense for her to post nudes for millions of fans and critics to see mere months after being released from a highly restrictive 13-year conservatorship? Totally.
There is no cultural figure today who more perfectly represents how a patriarchal society may exert total control over a woman's body. In a gutting statement to the court last summer, Spears testified about being made to perform when she didn't want to, take psychiatric medication without her consent, and prevented from having children by an IUD she did not want. Her image has been sexualized, commodified, and manipulated from the time she was barely a teenager. It doesn't appear to me like Spears has ever been afraid of her sexuality or even necessarily an unwilling sex symbol (the schoolgirl outfit in the "Baby One More Time" video was her idea, after all). But this is the first time in a long time that Spears has been able to control when and how she wants to show off her body, for no one's gain or gratification but her own. I honestly can't imagine anything more liberating.
If these pics are an expression of Spears reclaiming ownership of her own sexuality, which is how I see the posts, she's in good company. Emily Ratajkowski, who first became famous when she appeared in the infamous video for Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," described feeling her sexualized body commodified by photographers and artists in an essay from her book My Body, published in The Cut. After a photographer began selling books of nude photos of her without her consent, Ratajkowski wrote, "I looked him up online occasionally; I almost felt like I was checking in on a part of me, the part of me he now owned. For years, while I built a career, he'd kept that Emily in the drawers of his creaky old house, waiting to whore her out. It was intoxicating to see what he'd done with this part of me he'd stolen."
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It makes sense to me why women who have been publicly shamed for their sexuality have been known to do Playboy shoots in response — as Kim Kardashian did after the sex tape was leaked to the press. Kim was objectified and mocked either way, Playboy at least offered an environment where she could consent to being photographed and exert some control over how she wanted to be portrayed. Madonna, another iconic sex symbol, has furiously (and sometimes cringely) defended her right to be sexy and partially nude on Instagram, decrying the platform as sexist for taking down a photo that showed part of her nipple, and clapping back at 50 Cent after he mocked one of her naughty pics. Heidi Klum, Christina Aguilera, Olivia Wilde, and others have all posted some versions of nudes to their platforms.
Britney's Instagram is not a Playboy spread or a thoughtful book of essays, and the naked pictures lack the kind of careful art direction and strategic angling we're used to seeing on the platform, especially from celebrities. They are mirror selfies, with Britney standing straight up, stepping forward in one photo and with feet apart in the other. Her hair is tossed to one side and she wears sheer white thigh highs and a white lace choker. The lighting is bad and you can see a discarded white stocking behind her, which is somehow touching. What's shocking about the pictures is not that she's naked — we've all seen Britney mostly naked before. It's their pure, amateurish, artless honesty. They're the kind of pictures I'd take in the middle of the night and then be too shy to even keep on my phone. They are obviously, clearly, wholly Britney and Britney alone. And she captioned them simply: "Free woman energy has never felt better."
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