They Can't Have Her Hair
On Britney Spears and body rebellions.
Friday Thread: What’s Your Body Rebellion?
I was solo last weekend, so I spent my whole Saturday morning listening to Michelle Williams read The Woman In Me while I puttered around the house. (Yes, this part of divorced life does not suck.) When I later mentioned to my parents I’d spent my weekend doing that, they seemed a little puzzled, and I get it. For decades, Britney Spears was not the kind of celebrity we took seriously. She was a tabloid star, a punchline, a mess. And I’ll take the note that our nation’s fixation with her conservatorship has failed to raise awareness about all the disabled and/or mentally ill folks still trapped in conservatorships because they aren’t marketably beautiful white pop stars. But—she’s also a divorced mom of two in her early 40s, who has seen some shit. So I’m gonna root for her. And the way Britney’s body and sexuality have been commodified, controlled, and marketed for decades is something we should all take seriously. Because she deserved better—and because we all did.
This is not because Britney was ever really a “role model,” the way conservative parents of the nation decried when her first albums came out. I’m a year older than her and I for sure thought I was too smart and feminist for her music when I was in high school and defining my suburban teen aesthetic as “Goes to Lilith Fair, Shops At the Gap.” But I also studied her—her highlights, her outfits, her body—in every magazine I read back then. It was Britney’s torso I thought about the day I stood in an Abercrombie & Fitch dressing room and realized that my midsection curved out over low-rise jeans, not in.
And it was certainly Britney’s shade of blonde—along with a bevy of other non-blonde blondes like Jennifer Aniston, J. Lo, and Candace Bushnell—that inspired the Blonde In College photos I shared in Tuesday’s essay. In her memoir, Britney talks quite a bit about her hair. We learn her natural color is black. We learn why she shaved it all off during a horrific custody dispute with Kevin Federline. “With my head shaved, everyone was scared of me, even my mom,” she writes.
Then we learn that during her record-breaking Vegas residency, Britney’s one small rebellion against the terms of her contract and her conservatorship was to stop moving her hair:
As performers, we girls have our hair […] That's the real thing guys want to see. They love to see the long hair move. They want you to thrash it. If your hair's moving, they can believe you're having a good time. In the most demoralizing moments of my Las Vegas residency, I wore tight wigs, and I'd dance in a way where I wouldn't move a hair on my head. Everyone who was making money off me wanted me to move my hair, and I knew it — so I did everything but that.
Britney Spears has likely never considered opting out of beauty work more broadly. The Woman In Me does mention how she hated the diets her dad required her to be on for 13 years. But she notes with annoyance that his weight loss plan “didn’t even work,” so it’s not like she’s questioning the pursuit of thinness as her fundamental goal. And how could she? Britney’s value has been her body and her beauty since she was a child star. When we were teenagers, she didn’t just achieve beauty ideals—she shaped them, transitioning us from 90s “heroin chic” to the early 2000s fitspo era with her sculpted dancer abs.
And she needed to maintain those abs in order to make us care. When her body even just softened, slightly, during her pregnancy and postpartum years, is when we loved her the least for taking up space in all the wrong ways. Fat Britney Spears would not have gotten free. Britney has to be thin, she has to be tan, she has to have Good Hair. But she can refuse to shake it for us. And I’m glad she did.
In the excellent comments on Tuesday’s piece, a lot of you talked about your own hair rebellions like going gray and shaving it all off. And I’m so glad you did, because as important as it is to interrogate our complicity in beauty culture, it’s equally important to celebrate any little piece of it we let go.
So I’d love to know: What’s your personal body (or beauty) rebellion?
This can be something huge and highly visible, like stopping dieting or shaving your head. But I’m also interested in the tiny fuck yous—the hair you refuse to shake. And if there’s a rebellion you’ve been contemplating, but haven’t gone for yet share it here so we can root you on.
PS. I decided to pull Tuesday’s hair essay out from behind the paywall. The comments on this one are just so good, and I want more of you to be able to engage. The product list at the end is still paywalled, and if you want those recs or just resonate with the piece in general, I’m trusting you to support if you can.
Friday Links & Recs:
Thanks so much to everyone who contributed to the Burnt Toast Giving Circle: In Tuesday’s election, we flipped the Virginia State House of Delegates and defended the Virginia State Senate! State government matters so much.
I think a lot about the body autonomy questions raised when you have to give kids medicine, so loved this by.
This is such a thoughtful piece in The Atlantic about aging and breast reductions, but I’m still waiting for the deeper exploration of the intersection of anti-fatness and breast reductions. (Paywalled, sorry)
This is my favorite messy art project to do with kids. We’ve made a few over the years and they aren’t always keepers, but when they work, they are SO GOOD.on working less and releasing the guilt.
Excellent advice here if you’re trying to lose weight but not damage your kids:
This meme resurfaced this week and I will never not share it:
THIS IS NOT A DRILL: I’ll be in Seattle on Sunday December 3, recording a LIVE episode of Burnt Toast with the brilliant and wonderful!
We’re going to talk about our books, we’re going to talk about care work, we’re going to talk about bodies, we’re going to wear comfortable shoes. You should be there.