As a teenager, I hated Britney Spears. It was a visceral feeling from the moment I first saw her, clad in a schoolgirl uniform strutting with pigtails obediently snapping behind her. Now I see a girl I want to give a hug. I actually see two girls – her and me.
Those were the days I would rush home from school to park on the couch to catch the glitz of the latest top 10 on MTV's "TRL." There I sat as an American teenage girl, reeling from the rejections of high school, numbing the pain with an oversized dome of artificially flavored tortilla chips, internalizing it all and then aiming my ire at the patriarchy . . . and by proxy, Britney.
To me, she represented an unattainable beauty standard for most girls, and the blatant sexualization of her created unrealistic expectations for young boys raised on "American Pie." The same young boys, awkwardly trekking through puberty, who would pretentiously judge the appearance of young girls, also awkwardly trekking through puberty. And so I continued to blame Britney for all of it, both the entitlement of the male gaze and the harsh rubric of the feminine mystique. I mocked everything she did and her subsequent downward spiral without realizing my simmering rage was really about something else. Twenty years later, I'm critically reexamining those feelings of spite, not just for Britney, but in context of myself and my own duality.
As I've now casually come to follow Britney's ostensible struggle for freedom and see the vignettes of her past public life, I see something starkly different now. While then I saw a transparently overproduced Britney impossibly trying to keep up with the ruthless demands of being a woman in public life, she was in fact a teenager navigating a culture wringing her out for all she was commercially worth. She was portrayed as a virgin and a slut with a propensity for eccentricities and a tendency toward bad motherhood. Any details that fit the narrative, that sold magazines – these were the truths that were sold about Britney regardless of her humanity and struggle. Suddenly, it felt infuriating to relive the media interviews, the paparazzi photos, and it was devastating to see Britney deteriorate from a battery of degrading questions, asked with impunity by respectable figures, questions they wouldn't even dream of asking today. That's if they're still even employed.
The Free Britney movement had made the obvious occur to me. My teenage rage had clearly been misplaced. It wasn't Britney I hated. It was the toxic lens through which society was celebrating her while persecuting her that I despised, even if I was participating in the excoriation. It was demanding Britney to be perfectly likeable. Articulate but not intimidating. Pretty but not too pretty. Modest but not prudish. A tension I have to think many women feel – toward one another and from each other at times – the trauma of being a woman appraised by physical assets based not only on our sexual desirability to men, but dictated most by society and its ever-evolving standards valuating women's bodies.
It's this same capricious society that somehow makes the standards for men baldly straightforward. Men are allowed to accrue status simply by virtue of the output of their bodies, including their brains, with little regard to their aesthetic characteristics. The more dismay a man's appearance may evoke, the more status he's able to derive based on the attractiveness of his female associates, among other coveted objects in his world.
Women's physical capital, however, is a significant function of what they owe to society in exchange for attention, money, and power, and this lesson is internalized almost immediately as a child, when girls first learn to pinch at their bodies and pose in ways that make them look leaner. A twisted knee and a hand on a hip. Filtered lighting and pursed lips.
The preoccupation expands in scope and wanes only as the degradation of the body realizes what is inevitable with time, and like an old dam, the breach begins slow and then gives way, as appearances and the arresting self-consciousness undergo the rebirth of erosion and time. But until then, vanity sneers in the mirror with impossible beauty standards and preservation of these perpetually depreciating assets, the transience of women's faces and figures.
Still, even those who find ease with their changing selves are in an omnipresent fight to not be ignored. Ask a gray-haired woman who's already the most credentialed person in a boardroom full of men. Ask her how it feels when a younger woman is introduced into the equation, and the attention she commands with each insightful word palpably recedes until she questions if she's even in the room. These are the kinds of moments when women feel invisible, like I did as a teenager, comparing myself to a straight waist and small hips. Now it's a curvy waist flanked by juicy hips. Women all face this pressure in some way or another, unwillingly juxtaposed against other women under a harshly critical lens, and it nurtures a sense of rivalry all of us must actively combat, including men.
It's reasonable to assume Britney felt these same pressures and couldn't afford to feel invisible, a child star with more tenacity than raw talent, but an indisputable entertainer nonetheless, unobstructed by beauty standards that were attainable enough for her, so she charged steadfastly into an industry where her physical capital commanded the most money and power. Britney may have inadvertently reinforced the harsh gauntlet of judgment for women and girls, but she simultaneously endured it perhaps more profoundly. Britney's tragedy speaks to our own and the injuries we inflict on ourselves and one another with insidious beauty standards that burrow deeply into our social fabric and emanate as mimicry of the same ugly voices in our heads. No matter how hard we work to silence it, until we recognize the hatred we harbor for ourselves fomenting rivalries between women and even girls, society's collective resentment toward womanhood will stubbornly persist.
Regardless of how unrelatable her life is to my own, when I think about Britney now, I feel deep compassion for her struggle, a prisoner to the success of her teenage exploitation. So dehumanized, she's incredulously a working multi-millionaire unable to have an IUD removed. Still unrelatable to some, but the dehumanization is not. It's something that continues to permeate our culture and is a symptom of a kind of self-loathing that can only momentarily be soothed by an Instagram like. I can confirm that with time, the teenage angst wanes mostly to a murmur, piqued at times by a bad camera angle, those familiar insecurities like an unfortunate longtime acquaintance. Insecurities that feel isolating, especially when you're a teenage girl. When I say I want to give Britney a hug, I'm still projecting. What I really mean is I want to give that resentful younger version of myself a hug too.