Britney Spears’s memoir is both a horror story and a cautionary tale. There’s a lot to take away from it, but at its core, it’s a story about a woman whose bodily autonomy was essentially stripped from her at a young age — by her parents, by the media, by her partners, and by the world at large.
“The Woman in Me” is definitely Spears’s story, but it’s also a story that’s been repeated in various forms many times before. After reading it, sitting in a state of semi-shock while digesting the horrors Spears went through, I found myself thinking of Andrew Dominik’s nightmarish 2022 film, “Blonde,” which portrays a dramatized version of Marilyn Monroe’s life. That film arguably exploited Monroe’s legacy and repeated some of the same mistakes it tried to criticize, but it also tells the story of a woman whose appearance was commodified and profited off of to the point that it damaged her irreparably.
“There’s a reason why women who misbehave are so often turned into witches, Jezebels, sirens, Medusas, and other monstrous creatures, and Spears’s words remind us of the age-old practice of associating deviant femininity with monstrosity.”
But while both “Blonde” and “The Woman in Me” tell the story of women whose bodies were constantly used by both the public and the men in their lives, Spears’s memoir is a far better rendition of a similar narrative, because it’s her own. Like so many people who have lived through similar experiences, Monroe may no longer be able to tell her own story, but now that we have Spears’s in her own words, we’d all do well to listen to what she has to say.
And a lot of what she says is hard to hear. From the beginning, Spears’s memoir traces ways that her rights to her own body and personhood have been commodified, criticized, and stripped away. The first headlines to come out about the book detailed an abortion that Spears says she underwent while she was dating Justin Timberlake, which she says wasn’t her choice.
“If it had been left up to me alone, I never would have done it,” she writes. “And yet Justin was so sure that he didn’t want to be a father.” The experience, which she describes as “agonizing,” is an important reminder that truly free, equitable abortion access means allowing women to choose whether or not they want to get abortions, not forcing them to make a certain choice one way or another. From start to finish, Spears’s memoir details the awful consequences of what can happen when choice is taken away many times over.
It’s not news that Spears’s appearance was constantly controlled and exploited by others over the course of her career. During her rise in the wilderness of the early 2000s, when thinness was all the rage and women were expected to somehow both be incredibly sexual yet also sweet and demure — though that arguably that hasn’t changed — Spears was both highly sexualized and demonized for it.
“The Woman in Me” also explores just how much of Spears’s career, appearance, and choices weren’t actually hers to make at all. In her memoir, she claims that she was completely blindsided by her famous interview with Diane Sawyer — who accused her of having “upset a lot of mothers in this country,” and called her abs “the most valuable square inch of real estate in the entertainment universe,” to name some of the interview’s many slights.
But Spears was still dealing with the fallout of her and Timberlake’s breakup when she was informed by her father that she would speak to Sawyer. “I felt like I had been exploited, set up in front of the whole world,” writes Spears. “That interview was a breaking point for me internally — a switch had been flipped. I felt something dark come over my body. I felt myself turning, almost like a werewolf, into a Bad Person.”
There’s a reason why women who misbehave are so often turned into witches, Jezebels, sirens, Medusas, and other monstrous creatures, and Spears’s words remind us of the age-old practice of associating deviant femininity with monstrosity. So often, women who don’t comply or align with the world’s often impossible standards often end up demonizing themselves, too, which Spears clearly did at this point, unable to forgive herself for being forcibly contorted into someone she didn’t recognize.
The nightmare was only beginning for Spears, though. Most of us know the facts of what happened next by now — Spears had two children with Kevin Federline, but lost custody of them in 2008. She was then all but forced into a residency in Las Vegas, which also hearkens to another tale of an exploited megastar, only this time named Elvis Presley. Pushed into a Vegas residency by his corrupt manager, Elvis spiraled into addiction and illness while forced to perform the same show over and over again on a Las Vegas stage. (Of course, Elvis exercised his own control over his wife, Priscilla, which is yet another example of how exploitation and pain can ripple from one person to another, affecting many lives in the process.)
“Ultimately, the memoir is really a cautionary tale. It’s also a reminder of the fact that many people with far fewer resources and less support than Spears also currently find themselves in conservatorships, or in prisons, or otherwise exploitative situations, often based on arbitrary mistakes, bad luck, and systemic marginalization.”
Spears’s Las Vegas residency was also the beginning of an unimaginable period of her life. While still performing for thousands of people, she was forced to enter a conservatorship, which subjected her to constant scrutiny and unending control. She claims that her father took complete ownership of her finances as well as what she put into her body, controlling everything she ate, banning all medications including Tylenol and vitamin supplements and constantly criticizing her body and calling her fat day in and day out. Her team would also inform potential partners of her sexual history, and she was not allowed to have more children. Her body, once again, was not hers — only this time, its outsourcing was all cosigned by the law.
The most horrifying aspect of the book by far details Spears’s journey into a hellish rehab facility, which she claims she was sent to after she tried to change some of the choreography in her Las Vegas show. Once there, she claims she was not allowed to bathe in private, had to give blood weekly, wasn’t allowed to use the internet, had to sleep with her door open, and was forcibly put on lithium. From the sounds of things, every scrap of control of her body was taken from her there. Eventually, Spears says she began believing her family was trying to kill her, and reading her story, it’s not hard to understand why.
Throughout the book, Spears also constantly details the people-pleasing tendencies that led her to go along with all of the above. All she ever wanted, she constantly reiterates, was to be good and to make the people in her life — and eventually the whole world — happy. But it was never enough; she never had a chance of being enough. At the end of “The Woman in Me,” Spears seems to reach an understanding of this as she details her new approach to life. She no longer wants to focus on music. Instead, she at last wants her life to be her own.
And yet still, even today, her life is up for public consumption, and her every move is still stalked by photographers and the public. On Instagram, she posts regularly, often sharing photos of herself naked, and those have generated criticism as well. But as a woman whose body has been so exploited, showing her skin on her own terms feels like her attempt at a reclamation, just like shaving her head was: a protest against all of the people who profited off of her body and controlled its every move, and a willing embrace of what has been labeled monstrous as a form of finding liberation.
Nowadays, critics of her Instagram aside, it does seem like Spears has reclaimed her story. Her every move is no longer so scrutinized, and she has many loving supporters who have fought hard for her freedom and her right to live her life the way she wants. Still, her story is not an entirely triumphant one. After the memoir’s release, Spears lamented her story’s treatment in the media on Instagram, writing that “my motive for this book was not to harp on my past experiences which is what the press is doing and it’s dumb and silly !!! I have moved on since then !!!” in a screenshot. While one would hope that Spears truly wanted to write the memoir and that she told her story on her terms, it’s ultimately impossible to know how much of it was ghostwritten, or how she really feels about her story being aired for the world to dissect once again, which adds another layer of complexity to the whole story.
Ultimately, the memoir is really a cautionary tale. It’s also a reminder of the fact that many people with far fewer resources and less support than Spears also currently find themselves in conservatorships, or in prisons, or otherwise exploitative situations, often based on arbitrary mistakes, bad luck, and systemic marginalization.
In a post–Roe v. Wade world, Spears’s story is also an incredibly urgent reminder of the importance of allowing women, and all people, to have autonomy over their own bodies — to be able to change them or let them be in a way that feels true to them, not anyone else.
It’s also a reminder to look long and hard at our own impulse to control other people based on arbitrary beauty standards or other conventions. We would do well to remember Spears’s story the next time a major star seems to be suffering a breakdown in the public eye, or the next time the internet chooses someone to destroy based on their appearance or simply out of spite. And of course, we would do well to check our impulses to turn women, in particular, into monsters, especially when they are simply being human.