Britney Spears’ long-awaited memoir, The Woman In Me, is a tough read for many, many reasons. Because of the misogyny Britney has encountered at every step of her fame since childhood, because of the men who dated her for their own gain, because of the destructive way the pantomime of Noughties media painted her, because of the way the paparazzi hounded her while she battled severe postnatal depression and was terrified for the safety of her two babies. One theme arises time and time again, throughout the book’s 49 chapters: bodily autonomy.
It’s something Britney, now 41, never truly feels she has had since she became famous - everyone has always had an opinion or, later in her life, actual control of what she does with her own body. When Hit Me Baby One More Time was released she was quizzed about her body, about her virginity, about whether she’d had breast implants. These questions were worlds apart from the ones aimed at her then boyfriend Justin Timberlake, who was asked about his career and his music - or, from time to time about Britney. After they split he gave interviews in which he also joined in the bawdy discussions about his former partner’s body and sex life.
‘Whose business was it if I’d had sex or not?’ Britney asks in the book, adding that Oprah Winfrey was one of the only people who reminded her that she was entitled to keep such things private. One of the book’s biggest revelations details how Justin encouraged her to have an abortion when she discovered she was pregnant towards the end of their relationship (they dated from 1999-2002). She writes, ‘Justin definitely wasn’t happy about the pregnancy. He said we weren’t ready to have a baby in our lives, that we were way too young.If it had been left up to me alone, I never would have done it. And yet Justin was so sure that he didn’t want to be a father…To this day, it’s one of the most agonising things I have ever experienced in my life.’
As toxic noughties culture swirled, female celebrities' bodies became big tabloid business and body shaming becoming a consistent magazine sales tactic, Britney's body became a subject of constant and devastating speculation. In 2004, Britney married dancer Kevin Federline and had two children with only three months between pregnancies (Sean Preston was born in 2005, Jayden James in 2006), paparazzi would try and get photographs of her looking ‘fat’ to sell to US tabloids for six figure sums. Behind the scenes, Britney was going through severe postnatal depression, writing, ‘I was displaying just about every symptom of perinatal depression: sadness, anxiety, fatigue.’ Britney was torn apart by critics during one of the most difficult periods of her life, as she went through depression, a divorce and the prospect of a custody battle with Kevin. Britney writes, ‘I felt that I couldn’t live if things didn’t get better.’ And they didn’t. Britney was ground further and further down by the tabloids, her estranged husband and her own family, who were all vying for control over her and her money.
Then, in February 2007, Britney shaved off her hair.
‘My long hair was a big part of what people liked. I knew a lot of guys thought long hair was hot. Shaving my head was a way of saying to the world, "Fuck you",' she remembers.
In September that year, Britney was pushed into performing her new single Gimme More at the MTV VMAs, despite not feeling in the slightest bit confident, physically or mentally - yet she wasn't shown any care or understanding about her health. ‘It was less than a year since I’d had my second baby in two years but everyone was acting like my not having six-pack abs was offensive.’ 'Lard and Clear,' read one headline in the New York Post. 'The bulging belly she was flaunting was SO not hot,' wrote E! Online. Britney's body became the punchline of a joke that was tearing her apart.
What followed was the darkest turn for Britney, as, in February 2008, her parents forced a conservatorshipon her. Under a 5150 psychiatric hold, her body was forcibly strapped into a gurney and she was taken to a hospital against her will. For thirteen years her father, Jamie Spears, who had previously been in and out of Britney’s life while he battled alcoholism and bankruptcy, was now in charge (he has since claimed he only wanted what was best for his daughter). In the book, Britney remembers that Jamie sat her down in her own office and said he had total control of her assets, ‘I call the shots. You sit right there in that chair and I’ll tell you what goes on.’ He added, ‘I’m Britney Spears now.’
After that, Britney’s whole life was decided for her, meaning also that her diet, medication, and birth control were decided for her, a huge element of her unhappiness she describes in the book. ‘Security guards handed me pre-packaged envelopes of meds and watched me take them,’ she says, adding, ‘The conservatorship stripped me of my womanhood, turned me into a child.’
'Two years is a long time to not be able to eat what you want'
Jamie would body shame her, tell her she couldn’t have dessert, and put her on a two year restricted diet - at the same time as she was performing to sell out crowds as part of The Circus Tour (which netted $130 million in 2009). ‘No matter how much I dieted and exercised, my father was always telling me I was fat,’ Britney says. ‘He put me on a strict diet….Two years is a long time to not be able to eat what you want….Two years of asking for french fries and being told no. I found it so degrading.’
Britney puts it perfectly towards the end of the book, when she explains: ‘My body was strong enough to carry two children and agile enough to execute every choreographed move perfectly onstage. And now here I was, having every calorie recorded so people could continue to get rich off my body.’
We all know the story that followed, by now, that Britney - galvanised by the Free Britney movement and her lawyer Matthe Rosengart, managed to overturn the conservatorship and secure her freedom once again. She writes, ‘Freedom to do what I want to do has given me back my womanhood.’ She is finally able to have some agency over her body: whether that's by dancing, having sex, choosing her own diet. Britney describes why taking naked photographs of herself is so empowering, given that she’s been told what to do with her body and how it should look for most of her life.
The rest is unwritten, but Britney says she is starting to feel like a woman again, after being made to feel like a child in a woman’s body for so long. ‘I feel like the woman in me was pushed down for so long,’ she writes. Her body is her own, for the first time in decades - Britney feels 'reborn'.