Britney Spears' nude Instagrams are sparking concern. But they may be a form of empowerment, experts say.

Jenna Ryu
USA TODAY
  • Britney Spears' nude photos on Instagram have sparked mixed reactions from fans.
  • Some are worried about her well-being, but others defended her right to post what she wants.
  • Experts say it's possible she is experimenting with how it feels to be sexual on her own terms.
  • While nude photos can be empowering, they can also come at a larger social cost.

When Britney Spears became more active on her Instagram account after her conservatorship ended, she began posting and deleting nude photos of herself. Most recently, her "photo dump" of naked pictures was met with mixed reactions, as some expressed concern for her well-being. But others defended Spears' decision. 

"I swear people forget that (Britney) was in a prison of her father's design for the past 13 years. She missed the years when we were all terrible at Instagram and used those tacky in-app filters. She's feeling herself. Let her be," user @mattxiv tweeted Monday. 

Feminists and sociologists say over the past year the public has witnessed Spears fight for autonomy – over her body, her career, her finances, her future. While many facets of Spears' life remain opaque, including clarity around any existing mental health issues, experts say she has made repeated efforts to reclaim power– whether by addressing the court about what she called an abusive conservatorship, or by posting nude photos of her body.

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In August, the singer explained that her controversial selfies were an attempt to reclaim her body after years of feeling constrained, self-conscious and powerless. 

"I bet you’re wondering why I’d expose my body NOW … well it’s because I was born into this world naked and I honestly feel like the weight of the would has been on my shoulders and it’s made me view myself that way …I wanted to see myself in a lighter way … naked … like the way I was born," she wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post.

Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist, says deciding what to share (or not share) can be liberating for those who were stripped of their autonomy. 

"When our rights are violated and our freedom of choice is taken away, it's very different from when we make a conscious, personal choice to divulge information or offer a selfie – whether it's nude or not," Manly says. "So if indeed Britney feels this is her time to make this choice, it can be extraordinarily empowering since she is actively choosing to offer those visuals."

'It's about personal choice'

Spears, who had been under a conservatorship for 13 years, is experiencing autonomy for the first time in more than a decade. Experts say it's possible she is experimenting with her body and how it feels to be sexual on her own terms. For instance, Spears previously said that during the conservatorship, her body was heavily policed, and she said she was forced to have an IUD. 

"As we move through adulthood, part of the journey is being able to find your personal independence, your personal voice, and that was taken from Britney," Manly says. "So there may definitely be a conscious or unconscious desire for her to understand her own needs and express them. Or to understand her individuality and express that on her own accord."

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For high-profile women like Spears, whose career was built in part on her sexual appeal, experts say it may be especially liberating to display your body on your own terms. In 2016, Kim Kardashian defended her decision to post a naked selfie by saying, "I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin." Other celebrities like Lizzo and Ashley Graham have used their social media accounts to encourage self-love and confidence. 

Unlike a curated magazine cover or professional photoshoot, Manly says that a casual NSFW selfie can provide some a "sense of control over their image."

"Our society has so many mixed messages surrounding female sexuality," Manly says. "If it's done for a notable magazine, it's seen as artistic. But when it's done as a personal offering, that's when judgment comes into play and it becomes 'exhibitionist' or 'controversial.' It's about personal choice and us choosing what to show and what not to show."

Naked selfies may be empowering for the individual. Experts say it can come at a social cost.

Sarah Leonard, a history professor at Simmons University, says it's possible for women to reveal their bodies in ways that are empowering. But as more are exercising control around erotic photos and sexual content, it's impossible to ignore that those choices are made within a culture where preoccupation with women's bodies contributes to their objectification and exploitation.

"There are scenarios in which a person may be happy with what they produce and how they are paid for it, but if we zoom out further, if we don't just think about how that one person who made the content feels about it, or how the one viewer who views the content feels about it, then we ask how it contributes to social norms," said Emily Rothman, a professor of occupational therapy at Boston University who studies sexual violence and pornography. "If we're monetizing sexuality or beauty or availability or instant access to somebody, there are all kinds of things that we're monetizing in that situation that may then have implications for how people treat each other." 

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Whether posting hypersexualized images on Instagram, performing provocative dances on TikTok or sharing pornography on OnlyFans, women in 2022 have more control over what they share about their bodies and how. But they still do not control how those images are interpreted or experienced once they enter the public domain.

"There is what a woman who is offering an image of herself intends, and then, once it begins to circulate in the world, there are the very different meanings it takes on, and in some ways women can lose their power over those," Leonard says.

Rothman said that when a woman chooses to share her body as an individual action, it's possible she can also be mindful of the larger social context in which she operates. 

"There is a way in which you can simultaneously try to push back against the social norms that you wish would change," she said, "helping people to interpret the content that you've made, expressing your hope for the impact it will have."

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Contributing: Alia Dastagir