Followers of Britney Spears’ Instagram understand that these days, she knows the angles where she loves herself the most. She places the camera on her phone slightly above her, so it captures her looking up, as one would look up when they catch themselves on a surveillance camera. She knows the clothes that make her love herself too: most often, some version of a puff-cap-sleeved crop top, with a wide circle scoop neck, in a style I can only describe as the top portion of a sexy milk maid costume. But also: bikinis, and sports bras, and occasionally a dress that looks like it was part of the Nasty Gal apparel line circa 2015.
As I attempt to describe these clothes, I want to be clear that I have no derision for them. I love them, not for what they are or are not, but because Britney loves herself in them.
The statement holds true for pretty much everything that appears on Britney’s Instagram, where, since she was released from her 14-year conservatorship back in November 2021, she posts anywhere between once and four times a day. She regularly posts videos of herself dancing, wholly improvised, in an open, unremarkable spaces (most recently, at the time of this writing, to Bo Burnham’s “All Eyes on Me” — which she posted with the caption “This song is really funny … have no idea who sings it but I like dancing to it !!!”).
Other times, she posts footage of herself in a new outfit, doing a hip-to-hip sway like a teen in a JCPenney fashion show. (As she explained it in a recent post: “As much FOOT WORK as I’ve had to do performing, I’m learning the art of doing !!!! Way less goes a long way … side to side …. YES … sitting pretty 🤩 is my philosophy !!!! Might be doing this for a VERY VERY LONG TIME … so if you don’t like it don’t f*cking follow me and don’t forget KISS IT.”)
She often posts corny memes and screenshots of long missives about dogs or boobs or parenting, or images she finds inspiring. She never posts pictures of her sons, but her understanding of herself as a mother never disappears. Her fiancé, Sam Asghari, is present but effectively mute. Sometimes, she’ll post a series of the same image, each edited in a slightly different way, that makes you wonder if she did it accidentally or just couldn’t decide which one she liked best.
Her presence feels at once guileless, authentic, and erratic. It lacks all the polish and preciousness of her contemporaries. And that jaggedness makes total sense: For the first time in her life, Britney seems to be authoring her own image.
Some people say that celebrities stop emotionally maturing at the age at which they became famous, and I think that’s the most straightforward — if oversimplified — way to read Britney’s Instagram: She’s posting like a teen. The fact of her early stardom forced her to fast-forward past the part in her life when she got to figure out her tastes, her preferences, what did and didn’t make her feel safe or beautiful. Others dressed her and determined the parts of her that were most desirable and sanded off or otherwise suppressed the parts of her that didn’t fit.
Britney rebelled against these strictures in the ways that were available to her — the quickie marriage in Vegas, the public and often messy relationship with Kevin Federline, the close births of her two sons — but this was before social media, and the ability for celebrities to wrest control over the narratives of their image from the gossip magazines, or their albums labels, or even their own publicists. Looking back, you can see her attempting to communicate a counternarrative with increasing desperation: in her reality show with Federline but also in her public appearances, particularly those captured by the paparazzi. She was attempting to speak, but everyone was listening the wrong way.
Spears grew up attempting to confine herself to the very strict understanding of Disney girlhood and teen purity culture, and then she was expected to transition into motherhood, into adulthood, during a massive shift in the way that celebrities were surveilled and made available for public consumption. That she survived at all is, in truth, remarkable. Which is why, when she first came under the conservatorship of her father, the popular reaction was good — someone is saving her from herself. But her father wasn’t saving her from herself; he arguably wasn’t saving her at all. Among the many things her conservatorship did do, for better and for worse, was remove her from us.
To follow Britney’s Instagram today, then, feels akin to following any other account that trades in affirmation and self-love.
Many of us who grew up with Britney — who participated in the larger Britney economy, who found themselves a willing or unwilling consumer of her image in general and the images of her paparazzi surveillance in particular — have grappled with their own complicity in her extended suffering. When I look at those 2000s era paparazzi photos, I feel deep shame. Sure, I wasn’t taking the photos themselves. But I reveled in that gossip era. I refreshed Perez, I devoted myself to Lainey Gossip, I read every issue of Us in the nail salon.
I was complicit, in other words, and the knowledge of that complicity feels like garbage. Even more so when I realize that the exacting standards and surveillance that made Britney’s life and public personhood feel impossible also made me regularly feel like sh*t — particularly when it came to my body. So many millennial women I know can trace their disordered eating and body dysmorphia to images of Britney’s stomach, her stories of hundreds of crunchies a day, the way her body looked in low-slung jeans. But so many, too, remember the reaction to her so-called decline and the internalized message that societal acceptance requires no less than total bodily discipline.
To follow Britney’s Instagram today, then, feels akin to following any other account that trades in affirmation and self-love. Do I sometimes feel like she’s trying to reproduce a past understanding of self and desirability? Yes! Do I also feel like I want to extend her grace as she figures all of this out? Also yes! For me, the wobbliness of her image only increases its charm. It also forces us to confront the impulse that maybe she should have someone watching out for her — but why? Because her Instagram doesn’t look like Reese Witherspoon’s? Because she’s posting like a 40-year-old mom from Louisiana? We are watching her figure things out. The least we can do, I can do, any of us can do, is extend her grace.
We can’t ultimately know Britney’s inner world, not really, any more than we ever could. But I feel like I’m watching a woman fall deeply in love with herself — and learning, maybe for the first time in a long time, what it means to do something because you love it, to wear something because it makes you feel alive, to broadcast things out into the world with so little care of how they will be received. She is the embodiment of dancing like no one’s watching, even though millions still are. The entire enterprise can feel messy and incoherent, but only when juxtaposed with the content of other polished influencers and celebs. In truth, her Instagram feels far less like a projection of an ideal and far more like a reflection of burgeoning self.
She might be putting it out there because she doesn’t know how to live without an audience, but I don’t think that’s it, not quite.
In a recent post, Britney haphazardly filmed the flowers of her yard. The video is awkward and stilted, and, in that hilarious ways that typifies videos from your mom, you never actually get a sense of the space itself. But in the caption, in what’s come to feel like characteristic Britney IG characteristically effusive, stream-of-consciousness, emoji-laden style, she catalogs its wonders:
….In the spring 🌸 it’s insanely beautiful because there are literally flowers everywhere !!! My exquisite Italian garden I’m not showing at the moment … when I walk to it I smell the flowers 🌸 from 20 feet away !!! It smells like pure honeysuckles … it smells so good I want to put my tongue 👅 on it 😂 !!! Don’t tell anyone but I actually tasted one !!! It’s a taste of heaven !!! The thing that makes it like heaven to me is the fact that it’s “SURPRISING” when we experience surprises we go back to our youth !!! It’s a great feeling to not be on total trauma control guarding your heart ❤️ all the time !!! It’s funny how nature is surprisingly healing … it’s a whole new world 🌎 and if you look closely, you will find the best treasures and surprises 😌 !!!
That’s the crux of it all, isn’t it? Watching Britney’s Instagram feels like watching someone heal — however gradually, in fits and starts, in ways that are by turns uncomfortable and blissful, from trauma. And the part of herself that she reveals, it is indeed filled with the best treasures and surprises. She might be putting it out there because she doesn’t know how to live without an audience, but I don’t think that’s it, not quite. She doesn’t need to forgive us, or her family, or the people in her life who treated her the worst. She’s staring back at the camera, and it feels like she’s beginning to see herself, and her ineffable worth, clearly. She makes me wonder: What if I did the same?