Image Source: Getty/Steve Granitz/WireImage
Earlier this week, Britney Spears posted three nude photos on Instagram. In each image, she uses her hands to partially cover her chest and heart emojis between her legs, adding captions like "Don't underestimate the power of doing it myself and shooting with a selfie stick" and "Photo dump of the last time I was in Mexico BEFORE there was a baby inside me." Many people have left supportive comments such as "ur doing amazing sweetie" and "If this is what makes Britney feel free and gorgeous then that's that + I support!" Others, though, have questioned her motivations, writing things like "she NEEDS help" and "Anyone else concerned about this?"
Public fixation with female celebrities posing nude is nothing new, but this concern seems to be disproportionately directed toward certain celebrities and situations. There is often less of an outcry, for instance, when the Kardashians post NSFW pics or when an actress or a musician poses naked on a magazine cover (Spears herself disrobed for Harper's Bazaar in 2006). So, what is it about Spears's recent photos that has people up in arms?
Spears has long faced unnecessary and patronizing forms of concern from the public, as well as from her own family. Last November, she was released from a conservatorship under the control of her father, which began in 2008 after she experienced what the media deemed a "meltdown." Perceptions of Spears as mentally unstable have colored the narrative ever since, especially after media outlets began reporting that she had bipolar disorder. (Whether she has bipolar disorder has not been publicly confirmed by the singer; all that's been confirmed is that a psychiatrist prescribed her lithium, which is sometimes used to treat bipolar disorder.) Her father has used her mental state as an argument for maintaining her conservatorship.
"Ableism encourages people to question the choices and self-determination of disabled people, especially those with psychiatric disabilities."
Perhaps this is why fans see Spears's recent photos as a cry for help: the longstanding cultural misconception that those who struggle with mental illness are unable to manage their lives and sexuality. "There is a misconception that they can't make their own decisions," licensed mental health counselor Heather Heunermund says.
"Ableism encourages people to question the choices and self-determination of disabled people, especially those with psychiatric disabilities," Bianca I Laureano, PhD, a sexologist and certified sexuality educator, says. These attacks stem from society historically viewing physically and mentally disabled people as undesirable and unfit and, therefore, not sexually valid, Laureano says. In fact, a 2017 study showed that when people looked at hypothetical partners as potential sexual or romantic mates, people with mental illness were evaluated as having "significantly lower potential" than the "average person." In reality, an estimated one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, which doesn't automatically make them any less capable of managing their own lives and decisions. It shouldn't deem them any less sexually valid, either.
Some people have also questioned whether Spears's posts are a sign of insecurity or a plea for validation. Heunermund, however, has a different take. "She's pushing the envelope, and she's giving a finger to her family," she says. "Britney's also having fun and living the life that was taken from her."
Heunermund adds that it's important not to judge women for their sexual expression, noting that the "continued pressure is damaging to our psyches." "Instead, we should create a positive environment in the media for women to be free to express themselves and not be judged for it," she says.
Maybe, after years of being unable to lead her own life, Spears is using these photos to take control of her own image. And maybe that's why stars who post their own nudes, rather than relying on magazine photographers to make them culturally palatable, are threatening. These celebrities are refusing to follow societal standards of propriety and are instead dictating their own standards.
Perhaps those who are offended by Spears's Instagram should examine what a sexually free, self-determined woman represents to them — and why she makes them so uncomfortable in the first place.