Britney Spears Is Suspended Between Girlhood and Womanhood in The Woman in Me

Britney Spears Is Suspended Between Girlhood and Womanhood in The Woman in Me

Britney Spears knows what it means to be deprived of adulthood. As told in her highly anticipated memoir, The Woman in Me, hers is a tale of rapid maturity followed by arrested development, freedom followed by imprisonment. In the book, Spears likens herself to Benjamin Button, a character who ages backward through time.

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Thrust into the limelight at just 16 years old with the 1998 single “…Baby One More Time,” Spears quickly broke the sales record for songs by female artists. Living and touring for her debut album without her family, she commanded the stage with the prowess of a pop star beyond her years. And yet as an adult, Spears found herself operating under an infantilizing conservatorship, primarily run by her father Jamie Spears. A court granted him the legal power to control his daughter’s finances and personal life. For 13 years, he micromanaged her money, her diet, even her birth control. A judge finally ruled in 2021 that Spears could make her own decisions—that she could, essentially, function once again as an adult.

The Woman in Me, a copy of which TIME obtained ahead of its Oct. 24 release, marks the first time in well over a decade the public has heard extensively from Spears. Until now, the only insights into her recent life have been her 2021 testimony in court, when she asked for her conservatorship to be terminated, and occasional Instagram videos that fans have scrutinized for clues about her wellbeing. The buzzy memoir presents the facts of Spears’ life in a strikingly straightforward manner, delivering even the most harrowing passages in a casual, conversational tone. By sharing her story in unemotional terms, Spears creates distance between herself and the childish, incapable image of her proliferated by her conservatorship, condemning the forces that paralyzed her between two stages of life. The story she tells in the book lends new resonance to the title of her famous song: “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”

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The book spends less time on Spears’ early years at the top of the charts than it does the ones in which she endured the conservatorship that stripped her of her personal agency. Readers who hoped for granular details on the “Toxic” music video or a discussion of why there’s a Titanic reference in “Oops!…I Did It Again” may be left disappointed. But what Spears does highlight from that period in the late 1990s is a sense of authority. When she first rose to fame, Spears wielded an impressive degree of creative control over her material for a teen, and she conceived some of the most memorable highs of her career herself. She writes that the school girl outfits in the “…Baby One More Time” video were her idea, as was the eventual collaboration with Madonna that manifested that famous 2003 VMAs kiss.

But while Spears presented herself as a fully matured pop star, she also describes herself throughout the book as having been trusting, naive, and eager to please. The public’s interest in her sexuality—the way she was supposed to be sexy onstage and demure in her personal life—created an impossible bind. As a teenager thrust into the spotlight, she couldn’t have predicted the backlash she would encounter for the clothes she wore on stage, the lyrics of her songs, and any hint that she was interested in sex. After an early performance of “…Baby One More Time” at an awards show, she recalls MTV sitting her down in front of a monitor and forcing her to watch strangers plucked off the street lambast her for the “skimpy outfit” she wore during the performance.

“The cameras were trained on me, waiting to see how I would react to this criticism, if I would take it well or if I would cry,” she writes. “Did I do something wrong? I wondered. I’d just danced my heart out on the awards show.”

The debate over Spears’ modesty was, of course, a product of the era—in the early 2000s, tabloids and readers alike loved sorting pop stars into “Madonnas” and “whores.” But Spears’ own team exacerbated matters, she writes, by marketing her as a supposed virgin. In The Woman in Me, Spears expresses exasperation with this strategy, pointing out that in reality she’d lost her virginity at 14 and that embalming her image as a chaste teen stunted her ability to evolve as a woman in the public’s imagination. Under the pressure of the pop machine that surrounded her, the masquerade continued into her early 20s, even when she was sharing a house with Justin Timberlake.

The consequences to Spears’ personal life of the need to maintain her reputation as a virgin—even as she was hypersexualized by reporters who asked her whether her breasts were real—were tremendous. In one of the major revelations in the book, Spears writes that she had a medical abortion during her relationship with Timberlake. When she experienced excruciating pain after taking the pills she’d been prescribed, the couple did not go to the hospital for fear that the press would find out about their decision to terminate a pregnancy. Instead, Spears lay on her bathroom floor for hours in pain. She writes that the virgin persona became so burdensome that she was actually relieved when Timberlake, post-breakup, told the media that the couple had had sex.

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Throughout the book, Spears describes attempts to act “grown up” that often manifested in play-acting at adulthood: drinking cocktails with her mother as a 13-year-old, smoking Virginia Slims at 14, even playing house with Timberlake between tour dates and ignoring rumors that he was cheating on her.

Real adulthood was far more harrowing. Her divorce from Kevin Federline and the fight over custody of their two sons, all chronicled by a press that hounded her and her children, amplified what the pop star now believes was a bout of postpartum depression. She admits in The Woman in Me to occasionally partying to escape during these years, though she emphasizes that she always arranged responsible child care and her drug of choice was Adderall, not the harder narcotics she witnessed other musicians regularly using.

The double standard was galling. Spears points out repeatedly throughout the book that male stars were permitted to show up late to events, to drink, to do drugs, to cheat—all without harming their image in the public eye. But if she committed such an infraction, she was deemed a bad mother and, eventually, incapable of functioning on her own.

In some of the most moving passages of the book, Spears writes how she found independence even in acts of desperation. She unpacks complicated feelings about shaving her head in 2007, an impulsive move after a plea to Federline to see her children went ignored. She writes that the decision “pains” her in retrospect, in part because the photos of the incident were leveraged against her by family members who wanted to prove she was out of control. But she also embraced it as a moment of empowerment.

“Shaving my head was a way of saying to the world: F—k you,” she writes. “You want me to be pretty for you? F—k you. You want me to be good for you? F—k you. You want me to be your dream girl? F—k you. I’d been the good girl for years. I’d smiled politely while TV show hosts leered at my breasts, while American parents said I was destroying their children by wearing a crop top, while executives patted my hand condescendingly and second-guessed my career choices even though I’d sold millions of records, while my family acted like I was evil. And I was tired of it.”

The conservatorship came soon after, the most dramatic version of infantilization that Spears faced. “The conservatorship stripped me of my womanhood, made me into a child,” she writes. The book consistently returns to Spears’ conflicting sense of self in these moments: deprived of access to her children, she veered between two personas—powerless girl and enraged mama bear.

“Sometimes I just felt like a trapped adult woman who was pissed off all the time,she writes. “This is what’s hard to explain, how quickly I could vacillate between being a little girl and being a teenager and being a woman, because of the way they had robbed me of my freedom. There was no way to behave like an adult, since they wouldn’t treat me like an adult, so I would regress and act like a little girl.”

The struggle of that transition from girl to woman has become a popular theme in culture. Movies about literal puberty (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.), emotional maturation (Barbie), and the transition from innocence to sexual awakening (Oscar hopefuls Poor Things and Priscilla) have dominated the box office. Those changes are often couched in metaphor (a doll becomes human) and end in triumph (reaching a biological milestone, an appointment with a gynecologist, escaping from a bad relationship).

But here Spears offers in the starkest possible terms the near-impossible challenges that she faced as she tried to make that transition.

Even the most devastating stories in The Woman in Me are delivered in a frank manner. During one of several stints in rehab foisted upon her by her father, Spears suddenly realized a striking parallel between herself and her grandmother Jean, a victim of abuse at the hands of her husband who lost a son and eventually died by suicide at that child’s grave.

“For years I’d been on Prozac, but in the hospital they took me abruptly off it and put me on lithium, a dangerous drug that I did not want or need and that makes you extremely slow and lethargic,” she writes. “My brain wasn’t working the way it used to. It wasn’t lost on me that lithium was the drug my grandmother Jean, who later committed suicide, had been put on in Mandeville.”

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It’s a harrowing observation, yet she leaves it at that. There’s no extra paragraph analyzing the history of hospitalizing women for “hysteria” in the U.S., or even in her family, no meditation on how that revelation made her feel. Presumably Spears thought deeply about this presentation; a woman who in her estimation had been deemed incompetent by the press and her own family to the point of losing her freedom lays out the offenses against her in a way that’s unassailable. She can’t be accused of the unforgivable female sin of becoming “too emotional.”

There are flashes of humor, despite the subject matter. As Spears is leaving the MTV taping in which she was forced to watch people criticize her sexy costumes, she wonders to herself, “I was never quite sure what all these critics thought I was supposed to be doing—a Bob Dylan impression? I was a teenage girl from the South. I signed my name with a heart.” And Spears is more self-aware than most have given her credit for over the years. She adds, “I liked looking cute. Why did everyone treat me, even when I was a teenager, like I was dangerous?”

Still, moments of introspection are fleeting. The book leaves the reader with the sense that she hasn’t yet totally figured out who she is. Ultimately, what is clear is that Britney Spears is a woman recovering from trauma. And we ought to give her the space to do so.

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