What Britney has to teach us about the mental health crisis in America
I was 13 years old when Britney hit the charts with Hit Me Baby One More Time. Back then, in 1998, young girls presenting themselves publicly as a perceived sex symbol was out of alignment with the status quo.
Today, dads post pictures of their 13-year-olds in crop tops and short skirts regularly, and no one bats an eye. But in the ’90s, Britney was perceived as a too young sex symbol. That is, as soon as she released her infamous sexy schoolgirl performance.
Britney was 16-years-old. Sixteen. One six. Like, sweet sixteen type of sixteen. Are you hearing this? She was a child.
I am sure she thought she was grown, as I did at the age of sixteen. But it was not her alone that placed her in the position that destroyed her. She was accompanied by adults. — adults much more capable of comprehending the position they were putting her in than she was.
The righteousness of a sixteen-year-old girl dressing and acting this way is irrelevant. Whether it is right or wrong for a 16-year-old to dress and behave provocatively doesn’t matter.
Regardless of righteousness, Britney was placed in a position that could land her no other place than under vicious scrutiny of the public eye. There was no other possible result.
When that video was released, part of her fate was made. She would be called a slut. She would be shamed. She would be viewed as a sex symbol, many people would hate her for it, and that would be her brand — the most openly provocative underage sex symbol of all time.
At the age of sixteen, Britney didn’t have the cognitive abilities of her older counterparts, whose brains were fully developed. She could not have understood the weight of what she was doing, how it would affect the entire world, how it would change the rest of her life, and how she would be degraded and ostracized.
16-year-old Britney was not capable of signing up for what she was about to go through. She was not old enough to fully understand its implications.
When Britney shaved her head, I was shocked by the world’s response.
I grew up with Britney. I always hated the way she was treated and viewed.
When she shaved her head, I was like “Hell yeah girl! You show ‘em!” But the world didn’t react this way.
The world viewedBritney Spears shaving her hair as some psychotic break. I saw her gaining her sanity and laying claim to her right to her body. But the world said she was going insane.
I heard many things from Britney through her decision to go bald.
“This is my body and I will do what I choose with it.”
“I am beautiful on my own — without your socially constructed ideas of my beauty.”
“I am more than my body. I am more than a sex object. Look at me. The real me. Under this version of me, you created. I am still here. I am a person.”
And most importantly, I heard…
“I am not okay. And I need to save myself. I need to be myself. Someone help me.”
But the public, the media and the masses, they didn’t hear that. And they didn’t help her. Instead, they condemned her.
If Britney Shaved Her Head in 2021
Now let’s imagine Britney was going through her worst of times in or after mid-2020. What would today’s world say?
Would today allow Britney to be shamed, mocked and ridiculed for an inevitable mental and emotional crisis that wasn’t her fault — while her father and the other men in her life took control of her money and of her?
I would guess, hell no. Today’s cancel culture wouldn’t have it. Britney would not be slut-shamed or mental health shamed by the media and the world in 2021. It just would not go down that way — at all. You know it, and I know it.
Britney has done well for herself despite her challenges. But she will face the trauma of her experiences for the rest of her life. That is not all though.
If you look at Britney’s life from where we were before and where are now, you can see how our society treated women and mental health just a short twenty years ago. That is to say — you can see how we treated it.
You can see how it was completely acceptable in the nineties and early two-thousands (my teen years) to attribute any teen angst or woman’s discontent to mental health issues. Back then, they were diagnosing legions of rebellious teens and so-called unstable women as needing psychiatric treatment just because they acted out. It happened to me when I was around sixteen.
I didn’t shave my hair, but I died part of it green. I did a couple of other things like running away and punching things — all cries for attention. My parents took me out of school, checked me in at a psychiatric unit and put me on medication. Then, any time I tried to speak out or advocate for myself, I was told I was crazy and asked if I had taken my meds. I didn’t have psychiatric issues. I was just a regular 16-year-old girl who was sick of many things in my life and acting out.
In 2007, it was okay to shame Britney for shaving her head and blame it on her lack of sanity.
But wait, are you saying that if a woman wants to wear her hair differently than how women are expected to, that makes them crazy? So for a woman to be sane, she must have the hair you think she should?
Yes, Britney was going through other things that led her to the psych ward, but that doesn’t change the way the world responded to her choices. It doesn’t change the way that she was harmed instead of being helped. It doesn’t change that the world viewed her as a psychotic woman instead of an oppressed one — a villain instead of a victim.
So here we are in 2021. No Britney of today would be treated the way Britney Spears was, and it is a good thing. But that doesn’t discount the mental health crisis that exists — as a result of the very same belief systems that destroyed Britney Spears for so many years.
We are the ones who held those beliefs, after all — we, American Society. And they were not just forced upon Britney. They were forced upon many.
The mental health crisis in America
Mental health was used as a weapon of control by husbands and by parents for decades. That is a fact of our reality. And those decades were not so very long ago.
So, yes, we have a mental health crisis. We were taught by our own oppressors that when a person needs help with their mental and emotional health, that means they are incompetent, erratic, untrustworthy, and crazy.
We have a mental health crisis because, for years, people have been degraded and ostracized for having mental health issues. So, of course, no one wants to get help for mental and emotional challenges. Of course, no one wants to be called crazy and negated by their fellows.
Everyone would be served by taking care of their mental health. But the stigma causes a common unwillingness to do so, which leaves many people with undressed issues.
People don’t get help because they don’t want the people in their lives to discount their ideas and opinions. They don’t want to be the crazy one. Perhaps this has contributed to the overwhelming addiction and suicide rates in America.
Britney Spears shows us how short of a distance we have traveled and who we were as an American society, not all that long ago. She showcases the damage that our people are facing today, and this damage is a result of our past collective beliefs. We are the adults of America, today. We, who lived under (or yielding) the heavy hand of phycological oppression for most of our lives.
We grew up in the Britney’s Crazy days. And we are collectively facing the consequences.
It is hard to make such a monumental shift. We used something that we should have used to help people to destroy and control them. How do we take a weapon and turn it into a welcomed resource?
The first step is to admit that we live in a mentally unhealthy society, and it is our doing. From there, we could rebuild mental health as a normal societal construct — accepted and used by most people. That is, after all, how it should be.
Our mental and emotional health is just as important as our physical health. And it should be treated as such. In an insane world, it would be abnormal not to benefit from some sort of mental maintenance and recovery. Or as someone else said…
To be sane in a world of madman is in itself madness.― Jean-Jacques Rousseau
A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.― Kurt Vonnegut
But what we cannot do is nothing.
We cannot go on as if, just because things are better now, we are somehow relieved of the consequences of our past. That’s not how it works. There is collective damage that remains from our past.
We can’t just put on a bandaid and do better next time. As a society, we have a responsibility to heal the wounds of our predecessors — lest they become infected and do further damage to our society and that of our children and grandchildren.
There is a mental health crisis in America that deserves our undivided attention.
It was born of decades spent using mental health as a weapon. It came from abusing, disempowering and shaming women — and from oppressing entire races and classes of our population. It came from society condemning these people for the wounds that were inflicted on them because of it — wounds they never wanted.
And now, here we are, in the mess of the aftermath. It’s time we clean the place up a bit — time we get ourselves and our people the help needed.
Thank you, Britney Spears, for the reminder.
Written by Holly Kellums
Image – Kristopher Harris from Charlotte, NC, via Wikimedia Commons