The Many Britneys I Met When I Worked at a Reproductive Health Clinic – Esquire

You would be hard-pressed to find an American of a certain age who does not remember Britney Spearss 2007 head-shaving episode. The world watched breathlessly as the pop star, who very clearly appeared to be in crisis, took a pair of clippers to her own head inside a tattoo parlor, and responded to her anguish with glee instead of empathy or even concern. A tattoo artist who was present that night later recounted hearing Spears say, by way of explanation: I just don't want anybody, anybody touching my head. I don't want anyone touching my hair. I'm sick of people touching my hair.

The photos were everywhere. It was, after all, the age of TMZs smug narration of paparazzi footage featuring celebrities in distress, and of Perez Hilton drawing his hateful little misogyny-doodles over pictures of female stars to emphasize whatever feature he thought would most deeply humiliate them. In the years that followed, it was easy to make light of the moment. It didnt take much in the way of moral gymnastics to jokingly refer to pop stars having breakdowns, to say if Britney got through 2007, I can get through this meeting without feeling like anyone was getting hurt. We had an appetite for mocking beautiful, powerful women, and especially of women perceived to be exerting any sexual agency, but it felt a little like we were just snacking when it came to Britney Spears. Even in the early days of the Free Britney movement, the sense that it was all just junk food was hard to avoid. Whats there to free a powerful, conventionally hot white woman from? The answer is now clear: our sense of ownership over her body.

In retrospect, our failure to acknowledge or take seriously what was happening that night, and as we then watched as Spears control of her life and finances was stripped from her and awarded to her father in the legal decision that followed, was a symptom of a larger willingness to dismiss the boundaries set by a woman around her body. To ignore a visceral sentiment"don't touch my hair"is a brick on the pathway to "she can't have an abortion without looking at the ultrasound" or "take this birth control, not that one. Down that same road lies Spearss intrauterine device, which we now know that she has in her body against her will.

I felt rage on Spearss behalf again on Wednesday night as I listened to her testimony before a Los Angeles judge, in which Britney revealed publicly that she has been drugged, forced to work against her will, and prevented from removing her IUD, making it impossible for her to have babies as long as its inside her. The revelation was a moment of shock and horror for many. But, while I was horrified by this, I wasnt shocked. Reproductive coercion, of which forced birth control is a little-discussed example, is a perfectly commonplace escalation of the abusive bodily control that triggered Spearss public display of despair in that tattoo shop all those years agoand the conservatorship that then followed as her punishment for expressing it in the first place.

Reproductive coercion practices range from forced sterilization and termination of wanted pregnancies, a form of reproductive violence in which the U.S. has historically been an enthusiastic perpetrator, to the many laws impeding access to birth control and abortion care and forcing people to stay pregnant against their will. Spearss unwanted IUD falls on a spectrum of abuses, and we are right to be horrified. But it shouldnt shock us that the body of a woman who has been packaged and sold for consumption since she was a child, a woman whose only way to escape being touched in ways she did not want was to completely remove a part of her body constantly subjected to that touch, is not under her control. That is, after all, the case for so many of our bodies.

When I read the eyewitness account of that night in 2007, in a transcript from the Channel 5 documentary Britney At A Breaking Point and heard her testimony before Judge Brenda Penny last night, I thought immediately of all the other Britneys I have known: the patients I encountered frequently in my job at a local reproductive health clinic.

Over my two years with the clinic and the political arm of its umbrella organization, I learned intimate details of patients sexual and reproductive lives, in exam rooms and counseling rooms, at the front desk, and over the phone with themoften on phone calls taken in secret, away from those who sought to prevent these patients from contacting us. I will never forget some of the people who came to us fighting battles over their bodily autonomy and their right to make medical and sexual choices for themselves. Somelike Britney for the past thirteen years of her lifewere legally under the custody of family members or of the state, but many morelike Britney on the night she shaved her headwere simply desperate for freedom after years of being told, by their families and churches and by the Perez Hiltons and TMZs of the world, that their bodies did not belong to them.

There were the patients seeking abortion care, whose partners or family members were often threatening, intimidating, stalking and abusing them, or who needed help bypassing the draconian laws and loopholes designed to make their access to medical care as difficult as possible. But just as often, my health center saw patients whose self-determination was being impeded in other ways: the teenage girl whose older partner demanded she take a form of birth control that made her sick and depressed (he didnt like condoms), the trans man whose parents verbally and physically abused him if he wore the clothing in which he felt safe and affirmed. When I think of Spears pleading to go to the doctor and have her IUD removed, I think of the patient whose mother frequently called our front desk line to demand protected medical information about the services her daughter had received during her recent visits to our clinic, though she was not a minor, because in the words of her mother, she makes bad choices.

Pro-choice is not about centering a decision to have an abortion, Alison Bates, a Nurse Practitioner who provides care through a regional affiliate of Planned Parenthood, (and, disclosure: a former colleague of mine) told me. It is about centering and grounding patient autonomy, providing people with the information they need to make choices about their body, andwithout failurerecognizing the patient as the expert in their own life.

In a conservatorship, there are few if any checks on the court-designated conservators power over a persons body and medical decisions. Anti-abortion activists envision a world in which the state wields this level of power over each and every one of us. (Lawmakers in Texas are currently busy enforcing, or seeking to pass, measures prohibiting abortion before most pregnancies can even be detected and allowing private citizens to sue individuals or providers for obtaining or providing abortion care).

Britney Spears, an adult and a parent to two existing children, being forced to plead for her right to a wanted pregnancy is the dark inverse of these pushes to restrict abortion rights. No one who heard the IUD news last night could help but be shocked by it, but it's the logical conclusion of a national illness that denies women their right to make reproductive choices every day. In other words, the difference between a woman who has to walk through a line of protestors on her way to an abortion procedure and Britney being denied the right to remove her IUD are differences in scale, not kind.

But our national inability to talk about bodily autonomy doesnt start or end with abortion. Free Britney does not start or end with her IUD. For all the Britneys I have known, it begins with our gender presentation, our physical boundaries and desires in relationships, our access to sexual education and the language with which to form and articulate our plans around reproductive self-determination, our health care.

For Spears, it started with her hair.

Hannah Matthews is a librarian and writer based in Portland, Maine. She has written for McSweeneys, SELF, BUST, Catapult, The Washington Post, and other publications. She cries in public places and tweets @hannahmsays.

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The Many Britneys I Met When I Worked at a Reproductive Health Clinic - Esquire

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