Why a Topless Photo of Britney Spears Still Gets Our Attention

We've seen Britney in various states of undress for decades, but in her recent topless Instagram posts, Spears seems to embrace her sexuality on her own terms

Britney Spears backstage at the 29th Annual GLAAD Media Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 12, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California.
Nearly-nude Britney Spears is nothing new, so what makes her latest Instagram pics different?
J. Merritt/Getty Images for GLAAD

Over the weekend, Britney Spears did something many of us have done in times of distress: posted a sexy photo on Instagram. Sure, when you or I start thotting on main it’s because we’re annoyed at a partner or jealous of an ex, while Britney is an ultra-famous pop star currently embroiled in a highly publicized conservatorship battle and family feud. But still, Britney’s thirst trap — consisting of two photos of the star cupping her breasts wearing nothing but a pair of unbuttoned denim shorts — did what all thirst traps are intended to do: get attention. The racy posts made headlines across multiple outlets over the weekend, and I found myself doing a double-take when I came across the photo during an idle Instagram scroll.

But why? A nearly-nude photo shouldn’t be anything shocking from Britney Spears, who has been one of the world’s most recognizable sex symbols since her adolescence. Spears has appeared on stages and magazine covers worldwide in various states of undress since the earliest days of her career, cementing her sex symbol status decades ago. As children growing up in the early 2000s, my sister and I played “the Britney Spears game” by tying up our shirts and singing into makeshift hairbrush microphones, because if there was one defining feature that made Britney Spears Britney Spears, it was a perpetually exposed midriff. Why, 20 years later, is a topless snap of a superstar who has been sexualized since her own childhood still head-turning, headline-making content?

Much of this unusually strong public reaction to a semi-nude photo of an oft-nude celebrity is probably rooted in the presumed agency Spears seems to be exercising in the taking and release of this particular image. If there’s one thing the increasingly public nature of Spears’s conservatorship battle has made clear, it’s that we know very little about which aspects of her life — if any — the star actually controls. Still, Spears’s Instagram — a sometimes bizarre collection of grainy selfies and videos of the star dancing in her home that lacks the polish and PR calculation of most celebrity Instagram accounts — has long been presumed one area of her life in which Spears calls the shots. In recent weeks, Spears has even directly addressed her conservatorship battle on the platform for the first time, calling out critics and family members alike in a scathing Instagram post.

For Spears to post such an overtly sexy snap to a platform that appears to function as her personal outlet reads as an active, willful decision on the star’s part to embrace and display her sexuality on her own terms. Sure, we’ve seen nearly-nude Britney Spears in magazines, paparazzi shots and music videos for years. But those appearances saw Britney as a sexual object — perhaps an unwilling one — whose sexuality was posed, sold and stolen by the overlords who ruled her career and image, or the paparazzi who wanted to exploit it. Britney’s most recent snaps, by contrast, seem to show the star as a sexual agent, making an active choice about how and when to share her sexuality with the world.

Again, if there’s one thing we now know about Britney Spears’s life and the control she has over it, it’s that we know nothing. But based on what little information is available, Spears’s topless posts read as an active, informed, authentic embrace of her own sexuality, on her own terms — something it’s possible we’ve never really seen before.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.