Britney Spears was America’s anointed and exploited sex symbol for years—but that doesn’t necessarily mean people are ready to see her embrace her sexuality on her own terms. Last Thursday, Spears shared a pair of nude selfies to her Instagram. The photos show her clad in a white choker and matching thigh highs, a glow of confidence, and some artfully-placed emojis. The caption, seemingly a nod to the recent termination of her 13-year conservatorship, reads, “Free woman energy has never felt better.” It’s punctuated with a pink bow emoji.
Recently, Spears mentioned that she receives her fair share of negativity on her Instagram posts, stating, “Yes I read the comments and people are absolutely hateful.” Notably, she chose to deactivate the comments on her recent photos. The paternalism, puritanism, ableism, and hatefulness of the reactions that unspooled across the internet make it clear why.
Right-wing figures like Lauren Windsor, the executive director of an organization called American Family Voices, and Ben Shapiro, characteristically grasping for relevance, expressed distaste for the photos, speculating about Spears’ wellbeing and provoking comments from their followers doing the same. Some reactions—both from larger accounts and average internet users who’ve not yet monetized their moralizing—were baldly disrespectful. Others cloaked themselves in a shroud of faux concern. Recurring themes in the backlash against Spears’ post were assumptions that the photos hinted at her mental instability, that she’d soon be back under her repressive conservatorship, and if this did happen, that she’d deserve it. Some sharing these opinions even stated they were fans, but felt she’d gone too far. “This is why @britneyspears needs to be in a conservatorship,” one Twitter user posted, “She can’t be trusted on her own. She’s taking #NudeSelfies. #UnfreeBritney now that we know #FreeBritney was a HUGE mistake”—a sharp contrast to the calls that flooded social media and the streets outside Spears’ conservatorship hearings.
These reactions highlight a fundamental misunderstanding of what was wrong with Spears’ conservatorship in the first place, and the problem with conservatorship in general. Conservatorships, called guardianships in some states, are legal agreements ostensibly meant to protect people who can’t safely make decisions for themselves. There are no comprehensive records kept of how many people in the United States are conserved, but conservatorships are generally enacted upon disabled people—a group that’s disproportionately poor, queer, elderly, and made up of women and Black, Indigenous, and Latine people. At least one in four people in the United States is living with a disability—and that’s just those documented by the medical system. We’re also living through the mass disabling event of a pandemic and are just beginning to understand its long-term effects. Disability issues are becoming far less theoretical for a great number of people, and for most people, developing a form of disability is not a matter of “if,” but “when.”
Proponents of conservatorship insist that the status is enacted with great consideration and care and is largely relegated to those with advanced, irremediable dementia or very near the end of life. However, examples like Britney Spears demonstrate otherwise.
As does my personal experience: When I was 18, members of my family urged me to pursue conservatorship over my mother. She was dealing with the lifestyle changes and frustrations that come with managing progressive multiple sclerosis, and in doing so, she was making decisions my family disagreed with—as she, consistently headstrong and outspoken, always had.
When I spoke to a lawyer after my first year of college, I was surprised to be told they felt I had a good case for taking over total control of my sixty-year-old mother’s finances, healthcare, and decision-making. I disagreed with their advice, and with the premise that my mother should be put in that situation at all, but another family member ended up pursuing and winning control of her healthcare and financial decisions anyway. They refused curative and life-saving measures for my mom, despite the lack of a terminal diagnosis. She died two years later with her assets in that family member’s name. The entire thing happened quietly—like it does for the majority of people living under conservatorship in the same restrictive conditions Spears faced, but without a fervent base of supporters.
The amount of control given to conservators, such as Spears’ father Jamie who controlled both her estate and her person until a few months ago, is overwhelming. Conservatorships are easy to abuse, and they’re decided by the opinions of those working in medical and legal systems marked by bias and ableism. These are the same predatory systems that often pose the greatest danger to disabled people, leading many disability activists to suggest the alternative of supported decision-making.
According to Spears herself and others who have lived under conservatorship, the experience is utterly dehumanizing. Originally enacted in 2008, Spears’ conservatorship was finally ended in November of 2021. For 13 years, an adult woman was unable to make basic, fundamental decisions for herself. She was not given the freedom to decide to have a baby with her boyfriend, whom she could not marry, or even choose whether or not to have a glass of wine with dinner.
The tenor of Spears’ post demonstrates that now she’s more than ready to start making choices for herself—and ultimately, that seems to be the real reason for the upset. It’s not that we’re unaccustomed to seeing near-nudity on social media, or even that we’re unaccustomed to seeing it from Spears. It’s not even the first time she’s posted photos like this on Instagram (she shared a similarly celebratory and scantily-clad post in September of last year, for example). She has also stated that she views the decision to share her own photos of her body as a kind of reclamation, one that’s meaningful and positive for her.
Consider the contrast between these self-taken photos and the sexualized images of Spears that were plastered across our culture from the time she was very young and without her consent—all to sell her image and music to the same public that balks when she shares them herself. When it comes to her recent post, everything from the framing and the expression on her face, to the coziness of her slightly messy room, makes it clear that she directed the photoshoot herself.
Spears has stated that she views the decision to share her own photos of her body as a kind of reclamation, one that’s meaningful and positive for her.
Detractors who claim the post raises red flags about Spears’ mental health seem to see her newfound agency as a threat. Is this reaction a reflection of genuine worry for her wellbeing or a reflexive desire to continue controlling someone whom most people have only ever seen as a commodity engineered for consumption? And if the effects of years of disenfranchisement and abuse are part of her decision-making today, who can blame her?
It’s easy to fight for someone’s freedom when they mean something to you. It’s even easier to do so when you believe they owe you something for that freedom and will repay you with a song and dance. But what Spears has offered in the wake of her conservatorship’s termination hasn’t been a wave of rewards like new music or a concert tour. Instead, she’s showcased her own perspective, and her freedom means that the opinions and desires of fans, detractors, and curious onlookers have no bearing on her right to finally share it.
Spears’ Instagram presence has always been charming, full of images of the beach, her love for her sons, and, of course, her dancing videos. But since the end of her conservatorship gave her full control over her public presentation, she’s shared larger pieces of her story and expressed the joy of regaining her freedom. Her recent posts feel like an extension of Spears’ mission to reframe herself according to her own desires.
Negative reactions to Spears’ photos rely on the same hypocritical, misogynistic slut-shaming and paternalistic infantilization that have always plagued women and disabled people who commit the crime of having bodies. But the bottom line is that Britney doesn’t owe anyone—whether it be her family or her fans—anything. Not purity, not new art, not even palatability. The whole point has always been that she should be able to do whatever the hell she wants. Now, she finally is.