Britney Spears and the Punishment of Women’s Pain

A new podcast from Ms., United Bodies will explore the lived experience of health through the lens of gender, disability, culture and politics—because more women suffer like Britney Spears has, and we need to free them too.

Britney Spears supporters gather to protest at the #FreeBritney Rally on Sept. 29, 2021, in New York City. The Free Britney Rally coincided with Spears’ conservatorship hearing which was held in Los Angeles at the same time. (Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images)

I remember seeing photos of a bald Britney Spears papered all over magazine covers at the grocery checkout aisle as a teenager. I assumed, like many, that Spears was sick—and by sick, I meant crazy. I would never do that. Why would she ruin her reputation? I felt pity for her. 

Over 16 years later, I have a different take. After reading Britney Spears’ tell-all memoir, The Woman In Me, and navigating my own young womanhood and chronic illness, I now see myself and the women around me in her story. In many ways, her struggles represent the underbelly of young womanhood, the trials and pain many of us face in private, only exaggerated and amplified due to her position in pop culture and the abusive forces around her.

In her memoir, Spears tells the story of her reproductive and familial trauma and the ways in which she has struggled to keep herself and her pain palatable. The repercussions of not being able to hide her suffering as an uber-famous pop star with sex appeal and talent, was a 13-year conservatorship put in place by her father that stripped her of her legal personhood. This outcome is extreme, yes, but her story follows the trajectory of women who experience pain, traveled by women as far back as ancient Greece and Rome who were deemed hysterical, and as recent as women who have fought for their pain to be believed in 2023.

At a time when we are reclaiming women’s progress after the overturn of Roe and reliving the pleasures of girlhood—through this summer’s multi-million dollar success of Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Barbie—Britney’s memoir of her coming of age in the same industry reveals a glaring barrier to women’s advancement: a disrespect, pathologization, and punishment of women’s pain. While we have expanded the ways in which one can be a good woman or a “good girl”—we can now be successful, wealthy, and in charge—we haven’t moved the needle on our definition of an unsettling or unsavory woman: one who can’t collapse her needs, who asks us to care for her pain, rather than brand her for having it.

The Woman in Me, a memoir by Britney Spears, was released in October.

At the time Spears shaved her head in February of 2007, she had four released studio albums with one on the way. She was the center of the pop music machine living in the service of fame and fortune, both her own and the entourage of people surrounding her. After a string of traumatic yet woefully common life events, grief and depression overwhelmed her life. 

Her first serious long term relationship had ended. She had terminated a pregnancy she wanted at the request of her then boyfriend Justin Timberlake. She had two baby boys and experienced severe postpartum anxiety and depression. Her aunt—the family member she was closest to—had died suddenly, and now she was being separated from her children in a custody battle with her ex Kevin Federline. Throughout these experiences, Spears, like many of us, questioned her reality, writing that she had been made “the bad guy” and was beginning to believe it true, thinking of herself as under some “sort of curse.”

Her head shaving followed her separation from her children. She remembers people calling her crazy, but what people didn’t understand, she writes, is that she was “simply out of [her] mind with grief.” So she did what any logical person in pain who wasn’t getting the break she needed or the support she deserved would do: She proved that her pain was serious by altering her ability to be commodified. Changing her appearance was a sort of strategic strike, not an indication of mental ineptitude. 

Spears, like many of us, questioned her reality, writing that she had been made ‘the bad guy’ and was beginning to believe it true, thinking of herself as under some ‘sort of curse.’

When we muster the courage to first report our pain, it is often dismissed—by doctors, job supervisors, abusers or the like. In turn we question our own judgment, lay on self-blame, and try to shove it away.

When it rises again and we become desperate for relief, we exaggerate our reactions in order to compel response. Our pain is then perceived as irrational and pathologized because of its high emotional charge. Now, we’re not just unreliable narrators—we too, like Britney Spears, are deemed crazy. This is the double bind of women’s pain. Rinse and repeat this cycle enough times and we might actually fulfill the prophecy.

In my own life, I’ve experienced this same sequence, albeit with significantly less severe costs. In the summer of 2020, I got bit by a tick and contracted Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections. After shuffling from doctor to doctor looking for a diagnosis and treatment, I was met with disbelief, shrugged shoulders, and a few not-so subtle suggestions that I should try an SSRI for my extreme joint pain, nerve pain, heart palpitations and roving inflammation.

The inclination to pathologize women for expressing appropriate human reactions to pain is well-documented in medicine. One study of women with symptoms of heart disease showed that they were twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness compared with men who reported the same maladies. The problem is more severe and pronounced if you’re a woman of color. 

Categorizing women’s emotional and physical pain as hysterical is historical. Hysteria was first noted in ancient society and further described medically by Jean Martin-Charcot in 1880. He described it as “a psychological scar,” affecting only people with uteruses, meant to explain all behaviors and symptoms unmanageable by men and therefore uncouth of women in society at the time.

Now that we have hindsight on hysteria, we know it was based entirely on sexist views of the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women—but we can draw a straight line from that foundation to Britney Spears’ shaved head, and the subsequent punishment she endured under a 13-year conservatorship where she couldn’t even eat dessert unless given permission. 

The culture of abusive men around Spears is also not unique to her. She opens the book by sharing that her grandmother, Jean Spears, had lost her baby son at three days old. In response to her grief, her husband, June, sent Jean to an asylum where she was forced onto lithium. Britney’s conservatorship was initiated by the court and her father, June’s son, over 50 years later. Maybe we aren’t so far from crying “hysteria” as we thought we were.

Britney Spears is now free from her conservatorship and is able to tell us her story, but I worry we might miss her point. Instead of claiming her memoir devastatingly sad or salaciously juicy, we should receive it as awfully predictable and a sign of what still holds women back. Sure, it’s more fun to celebrate when women can hide or package their pain well with a smile and a new bop, but far more women suffer like Spears has, and we need to free them too. 

It’s stories like Britney’s that so often go underexplored in modern discourse, the ones that impact our lived experience of health, that engage gender, disability, culture and politics. That’s why I created United Bodies, a podcast that explores how different components of our health—mental, physical, social and spiritual—interplay with one another and intersect with the whole of our identity.

United Bodies will launch early in the new year and new episodes will appear here. You can also listen in wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe to Ms. emails to stay up to date on our launch.

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Kendall Ciesemier is a writer, producer and reporter specifically focused on health justice. She is the host and creator of United Bodies, a forthcoming podcast about the lived experience of health from Ms. magazine. Kendall is also the senior executive producer of multimedia at the American Civil Liberties Union and the host of the ACLU Podcast, At Liberty. Her opinion essays have appeared in The New York Times and on CNN.