Britney Spears blazing a trail for feminism? Who would have though it? And yet, last week, the pop princess, formerly known as popular culture’s biggest casualty, forged a new identity for herself — that of brave pioneer, helping to tear down the unrealistic goals of physical perfection modern women aspire to.

It seems unlikely that the girl who brought us Hit Me Baby One More Time, serving up seduction in a schoolgirl skirt, should have grown up into a lady who now seeks to debunk the myth and the marketing around current conceptions of beauty. And yet that is exactly what she’s done. She’s gone where no star of her level of celebrity has gone before. She shot a recent ad campaign for Candie clothing, in which she appeared in a pink swimsuit and high-heeled shoes. But instead of simply signing off on the glossed-up, slimmed-down retouched version of the pictures, as would be standard practice, she’s also released the same shots before any computer wizardry took place. Sans airbrushing, sans retouching. Just Britney, raw and unpolished.

Of course, it’s not the first time we’ve seen her like this. Courtesy of the countless paparazzi documenters of her day-to-day life, the public have been treated to many shots of her looking less than perfectly glammed. We’ve been treated to close-ups of her acne, her bad hair days and her cellulite. Every imperfection has been carefully catalogued, circled in red, and commented on in magazines. This sort of bitchy exposure of the truth, however, is motivated only by jealousy and insecurity. It cheapens the self-image of the viewer as much as the image of the star.

By revelling in a celebrity’s imperfection, all we do is compound a culture of criticism which we then turn upon ourselves. It’s simple schadenfreude. And the grim pleasure we take in identifying famous flaws not only further elevates the red herring of perfection, but sets women against each other in pointless pursuit of it.

By Britney releasing these pictures, she not only sidesteps this grubby practice, she renders it redundant. By publishing the before and after pictures side-by-side, Britney exposes more vividly than we’ve ever seen before the exact mechanisms which are employed to create the chimera of body perfection. They myth falls down in front of our eyes. Those unflattering paparazzi shots of saggy bottoms and blotchy skin splashed over glossy pages like evidence of some kind of failure are, by this simple gesture, sort of neutralised. Indeed, if more female pop stars were as brave as Britney in revealing the way they really look, they might find themselves less dogged by the snappers who are paid fortunes to catch glimpses of A-list cold sores and rolls of fat.

“Britney’s proud of her body, imperfections and all,” an unnamed source said. And it’s a pride she, of all people, has certainly earned. Just two years ago the world watched while the pop princess nose-dived into psychological meltdown. And how did the teen star, whose whole identity had been a marketing image, choose to register her frustration and rage? She let herself go. She put on weight. She shaved her head. Surely these were the ultimate acts of defiance from a girl who had been brainwashed into believing that the best measure of her personal value was grounded in how pretty she was, and how well groomed.

Britney’s been to hell and back. She’s risked losing her career, her looks, her children and her sanity. Now it seems, she’s well on the way to regaining them all. She was raised to define herself by an empty media image. An image which she then deliberately tore down.

And, as these recent pictures prove, she’s managed to establish a sense of herself based on something much more rooted than how glossy, shiny and perfect she looks on the pages of magazine.

It’s only through developing proper confidence that she could afford to be so magnanimously open about how she really appears.

The generous gesture to other women in revealing herself, flaws and all, arguably marks the total rehabilitation of her self-esteem. If the marker of confidence is self-acceptance there could be no better demonstration of the latter than to broadcast one’s imperfections to the world. And to do so in the interest of making the rest of womankind more self-accepting? Well this makes her nothing short of a contemporary feminist heroine. Sylvia Pankhurst she may not be, but there’s a courage to this new Ms Spears that few other pop pin-ups could ever lay claim to.

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