Are You Ready for This? : One Experience with Women’s Healthcare

Sian Leach is completing her first year in Sarah Lawrence’s Women’s History MA program. She hails from Texas and graduated from Kalamazoo College in 2011. The following is a testimonial of her personal experience with contemporary women’s health care.

All of the recent restrictive legislation on reproductive rights has really pissed me off.  As a self-identified feminist, I believe that women have the right to control their own bodies. This includes medical decisions should be made between women and their doctors, as opposed to between them and the government. This issue is also very personal to me. While I have been lucky to never have had to make the choice in dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, I have had my fair share of medical issues.

A lot of people have heard the term, “transvaginal ultrasound,” especially now that it is getting tossed around by predominantly male politicians (who, as men, probably have no understanding of what this entails).  Even with so much discussion of this, I’m not sure how many people truly understand what this procedure involves, nor its price tag.  In 2009, I had a transvaginal ultrasound.  My doctor and I decided it was the best plan to see what was going on with my body. But today, certain state governments legislate this decision for women before they can have abortions.

When I made my appointment for an ultrasound, nobody told me that it would not be of the standard gel-on-your-stomach variety.  I showed up at my appointment, went back to the ultrasound room, and was told to undress from the waist down.  When the technician came into the room, she showed me the probe that would be used: a long dildo-like wand, with what appeared to be a condom over it, covered in lube. She then briefly explained how a transvaginal ultrasound worked.  With the standard phrase heard in doctors’ offices everywhere, she told me, “Just relax,” followed by the slightly rhetorical question, “Are you ready for this?”  The only response I had was, “Is anybody really ever ready for this?”

After the ultrasound, I saw my doctor and we discussed what was visible in the ultrasound, and I went to pay my bill.  Transvaginal ultrasounds are expensive. Even with insurance, my visit to the doctor that day was over $200.  The exorbitant price of women’s health care is just another layer of the fight.  With the cost of abortions already being so high, the added expense of a transvaginal ultrasound could prevent women from being able to access abortions.  Government is increasingly involved in women’s medical experiences, but meanwhile there has been little, if any, progress toward making this healthcare accessible and affordable.

In the year 2012, it is depressing that we are still debating women’s reproductive rights.  After all, wasn’t that one of the greatest accomplishments of liberal second wave feminism?  In addition to the physical ramifications of this recent legislation, we also need to look at the larger issue of women’s autonomy.  As long as politicians legislate women’s right to make decisions about their own bodies, the fight for women’s rights must continue.

-Sian Leach

For the Record x Emma Staffaroni

The Women Who Endure: Long-Distance Racers Find Personal and Community Empowerment

"Get out of MY race!" First-female Boston Marathon runner gets chased by marathon-organizer, Jock Semple, 1967. {Photo Courtesy of Corbis}

A September, 1975 New York Times headline reads: “Women Marathon Runners Are Racing to Equality with Men.” Featuring the story of Kim Merritt, the women’s winner of the 6th annual New York Marathon that year, the journalist, Steve Cady, places Merritt’s story in the context of the turbulent women’s liberation movement happening off the race course. “In long distance running,” wrote Cady, “women’s suffrage means the right to suffer the same mental and physical torment as men and to enjoy the same sweet sense of accomplishment.” Cheeky, indeed–he later refers to Merritt as the “Susan B. Anthony of long-distance running”–but his point may nonetheless have held particular significance, and even giddy novelty, for the generation of women who only three years prior had seen Title IX passed into law.

Today, endurance racing among women manifests as everything from a one-time personal challenge to a full-time profession. Women compete in citywide runs for causes, professional marathons, college cross country, Olympic races, and affiliated local or national events. And as Elaine Harris of Manhattan put it, “Everyone is surrounding you, people of all ages, races, genders… it really is equalizing.” A sentiment not far from Cady’s, though it takes on new meaning in the 21st century.

Harris decided to tackle the challenge of a triathlon during her first year out of college. Signing on with “Team in Training,” a NYC-based organization affiliated with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), Harris made a two-fold commitment: in order to compete, she had to raise a minimum of $2,000 for LLS; and, of course, she had to complete the rigorous Olympic-style Triathlon–a 1-mile swim, followed by a 25-mile bike ride, and concluding with a 6-mile run.

“It’s like a trick,” she says. “You tell people you’re going to do it. You say to yourself, ‘I’ve told people I’m going to cross that finish line, so I’m not giving up.”

And she told lots of people. Through a widespread letter-writing campaign and aggressive fundraising, Harris raised five times the minimum—$10,000—for LLS. “Unfortunately, it’s a cause many people relate to,” she says. Her campaign not only raised awareness among her friends, family, and community, it also raised her own consciousness.  Through the scorching hot summer, she spent two or three weekdays and a Saturday each week training in both group and personal settings. One day, she recalls, she got through a “mental block” and ran farther than ever before, telling herself she would not stop until the entire 6-mile course was completed. At 8-miles, she was still going. “I’ll admit I started to surprise myself.”

The day of the race, it was pouring rain in Manhattan. Starting with a swim in the Hudson River, Harris and her fellow triathletes descended from 98th to 78th Street, then biked back up through the Bronx, finishing with run straight back to lower Manhattan. Harris’ entire family came out bright and early to show support; even among the masses of swim-capped heads in the stormy Hudson, Harris says, “my sister could spot my stroke.”

During the run, Harris noticed athletes running together, holding a string. “Blind athletes,” she explains, “Incredible.” She also saw a veteran competing with one leg. Surrounded by such inspiring acts of courage and strength, Harris found her own strength anew during her last 2 miles: “I can’t complain,” she remembers thinking. “I have both legs; I’m a healthy young woman. I can do this and I will.” When she crossed the finish line, she cried. “They were literally handing out bagels,” she remembers with starry eyes.

Davida Ginsberg of Connecticut felt a similar sense of community and personal empowerment when she completed a 115-mile bike ride last year with the Jewish Environmental Organization “Hazon” ( which means “vision” in Hebrew. The cyclists rode over a two-day period, beginning in the Hudson Valley and ending on the Upper West Side of Manhattan near the Jewish Community Center.

Like Harris, Ginsberg decided to take part in this endurance race both as a personal challenge and as a way to connect with others. She, too, raised funds for the organization and got her family and friends involved in her race. Hazon’s work and mission was central to her motivation. “I knew I would feel supported and connected to people with whom I shared values of environmental sustainability and social justice,” Ginsberg says.

Elaine Harris of NY, center, surrounded by family members in fan T-shirts on the day of the NYC Triathlon.

Endurance racing thus took on manifold meanings in her life: personal challenge, physical activity, and hobby—but also participation in her Jewish community. It also represents a manifestation of her environmentalist principles and activist work. Ginsberg echoes many of Harris’ feelings after the completing the challenge. “I definitely see myself as more capable,” she reflects. “I feel amazed by the capabilities of the human body.”

Michelle Saindon, of Connecticut, had yet another reason for getting involved in endurance racing: she wanted to be an example of good health for her three children. Although Saindon was not a self-identified “runner,” she decided to do the half-marathon after she watched the Hartford race: “I saw many women that looked just like me crossing the finish line,” she recalls. This inspired her, so she and two friends signed up.

Saindon drew upon the communal experience of the race for support and strength, much as Harris did. “[My friends] and I knew going into the race that were going to stick together, finish together, and most of all have fun,” Saindon recounts. This allowed her to work through that “suffrage” Cady wrote about–the mental and physical pain that endurance racing entails. “Even when my knees were killing me at mile 9,” she says, “we focused on the parts of our bodies that didn’t hurt, like our pinkie fingers… If I had raced by myself it would have been much, much harder.” Harris also had strategies for keeping her mind focused through the pain; as she ran through Manhattan, she looked for familiar places from her memories and worked toward them. “I knew we were going to pass my family’s old apartment, and later on the Met, and other spots I love…I had a mental map.”

All three of the women emphasize the feelings of empowerment they gained from their endurance races. “You can get into the grind,” Harris explains, “[but] there’s more than just living on your blackberry. You can do something for yourself and bring it all back into perspective.”

But more than a feeling of personal betterment, the race made them feel like part of a positive community with a common goal. Saindon was so inspired by her accomplishment in the half-marathon that she rallied her neighborhood together for a 2-mile “Turkey Trot” this past Thanksgiving; where the community event raised $750 for the local food bank. “The races I’ve done have given me the confidence to motivate others,” she says. “The young and the old participated, everyone felt great, and we’ll be doing our second one next year.”

Harris will also compete in her second triathlon this summer, only this time she is serving as a “peer coach” for newcomers to the sport. While the decisions to complete these endurance tasks may not hold the same political significance in 2012 as they did for Kim Merritt in ’75, their accomplishments are perhaps just as significant in the scopes of their lives, communities, and society. “The race is ageless, genderless,” Harris says. “It’s just groups of runners, and we all do the same course.”

I Love That You Hate Me for Being a Cheerleader by Brianna Leone

{Brianna Leone is a 2nd year graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College. Her favorite method of procrastination is to find new television obsessions in which she invests too much of herself. She is hoping that someone will enable her television addiction with related employment after her graduation in May.}

  

{Yes, I stole my uniform and used it as a last minute Halloween costume my first year of college. No, my face does not normally do this.}

Confession: I was a high school cheerleader. This is not how I imagined introducing myself to the readers of Re/Visionist but there it is. Don’t misunderstand me; I loved being a cheerleader and (mostly) enjoyed my time with my teammates but “Cheerleading Captain”, a title I held for four years, was not one that ever matched up with my personality. I think most people who learn this factoid about my past wonder if my affinity for sarcasm has reached new heights and this revelation is part of some elaborate prank. (Actually, I think most of my high school peers thought the same thing but it was more believable when I was standing in front of them in a skimpy blue and gold cheerleading uniform with TIGERS printed across my chest and ass.)

It is a part of my life which is now basically nonexistent. Considering the seriousness with which I approached the sport over six seasons and four years, I dropped it with more swiftness and eagerness than I anticipated I would once I began my first year of college. With no regular contact with my former teammates or coaches, other than the occasional Facebook message or – I’ll admit – nostalgia-induced intoxicated SMS, it is sometimes difficult for even me to remember the zeal I once had for cheerleading (or that I participated in the sport at all). But when tasked to write a piece for R/V’s Sports issue this month I was remembering more and more the marginalization I witnessed and experienced in relation to the female-aligned sport.

I will note here that cheerleading was a solely male sport from its creation in 1898 until 1923. But it was not until World War II, with the absence of men, that women’s squad presence began to dominate the sport. It was women who brought athleticism to cheerleading with tumbling and stunting; their inclusion, however, was contingent upon classmate votes rather than ability, thereby establishing a foundational correlation between female cheerleaders and popularity. The impression of cheerleading as key to entry into the upper echelon of high school social hierarchy was not indicative of my time as a participant of the sport. It was just the opposite, in fact. At my small rural/suburban hybrid school in Northern Westchester County, New York, football did not exist and neither did cheerleading. It was announced that if there was enough interest a winter squad would be formed to support the men’s basketball team. One of my best friends thought it would be fun and I was a gymnast when I was young and spry so I figured, why not? That friend is actually the only reason I committed to stay on for the entire season; after two weeks I thought I could not possibly last an entire season at this but she pleaded and I caved. One week later she and I were both named Captains and I begrudgingly fell in love. If I had not, I would have been forced to give up on it much sooner than I did.

To state the obvious, starting a new sports team is hard. It becomes even harder when cultural preconceptions regarding its participants paint them as airheaded and loose girls who are so desperate for attention that they have found a school-sanctioned excuse to parade around varsity boys in too-short skirts and are so self-involved that they could never comprehend what it means to be a team member. Convincing the community that we were legitimate athletes proved to be an uphill battle, one that I would fight for four years.

{During our Junior year my co-captain and I joined a neighboring school’s squad during the Fall season to cheer for the football team with which our high school was joined. She usually looked much happier than this and I typically did not have such crazy eyes.}

What time, distance and a sprinkling of maturity have helped me realize is that the constant judgments our team suffered (more frequently from faculty than from fellow students) was that we were subjected to ridicule not because of a lack of ability, but because of what we represented. Cheerleading was something to be mocked and although at its core the sport represents community and support, we were instead pushed to the fringes of our local athletic community. We were never given adequate practice space since we were considered to be of lesser value in comparison to other indoor (and some outdoor) sports; with whom we were in competition for the gymnasiums. In the first fifteen minutes of each practice we would reorganize the cafeteria to accommodate our team and drag poorly padded mats from the gym into our newly cleared space. The cafeteria became a hangout as other students waited to meet with teachers or for their clubs and athletics to start. As they loitered we were put on display as they made a game out of distracting and goading us. We were in the middle of a Catch-22: without better resources we could not improve as a team but we had no hope of convincing the Athletic Department that we deserved and needed more support. The distinction that we even needed to fight for the most basic of supplies and space in a district that never wanted for funds did not escape me either.

Most of the teachers and administrators that I came across never put their prejudice against cheerleaders bluntly—that is—all except for one specific physical educator. He seemed to get a certain enjoyment out of taunting my co-captain and I. Eventually it erupted into yelling—one day as we walked away from him—as we were still too fearful to directly challenge his authority as an otherwise respected faculty member at the school. I do not maintain any bitterness over this rivalry between student and teacher if, for no other reason, that little that occurred during my teenage years is worth holding a grudge over. Though, at the time, I found his dismissal of the 18+ hours a week I practiced (in addition to attending games in support of basketball players that he once coached) extremely irritating. Unfortunately I did not possess the rhetoric to properly articulate or discuss why I found his attitude so unacceptable and could not properly argue why he was wrong and I was right – because I was (and am) right.

{With the Fall squad at John Jay, we attended Pine Forest Cheerleading Camp in the Poconos. This is part of the team shortly before we headed home.}

No other girls’ team would have ever been made to suffer for wanting to play as we had. And while we have been unique in that our team was so young, I am certain that we were neither the first nor the only cheerleaders to be marginalized; nor were we the only female athletic team to have to argue their legitimacy. With no dance or gymnastic team we were the only performers that also fell under the umbrella of “athletics.” But that was the crux of the argument. We had not been successful enough in our beginning years for our efforts to be considered real athletics. Especially as our team was not a feminized version of a male-sport, we became the other.

As a testament to the marginalization of cheerleading at my high school, the team was never featured in the yearbook and I am in possession of no team photographs. Essentially, outside of the memories of those involved, the existence of cheerleading in the mid-2000s at that school has been erased. Rampant conservatism in my hometown would most certainly reject my assertion that because our identity was rooted in our gender and we had no brother team to balance our existence in the school’s sports community, we were invalidated as an athletic team. Prejudices in my town are rarely publically proclaimed and so, no, there was never any blatant statement that the cheerleading squad was considered an inferior addition to the Athletic Department because it is deemed a wholly female activity and has no right to align itself with the likes of field hockey, baseball or soccer players. But I have yet to come across a better explanation for the substandard treatment I received in comparison to other student athletes. Although cheerleading does not consume my time or my thoughts the way it once did, I maintain that it gave me confidence and a sense of restless indignation, which, while frustrating at the time, has served me well since then. In fact, I am almost grateful to the close-mindedness that I fought in my own small way everyday growing up. I rarely won any of the small battles I took up but I was also never discouraged by the condescension and yielding to the status quo. After all, what good is a feminist without an internal balance of humor, passion and perseverance?

WELCOME TO THE CITY ISSUE!

While researching for The City Issue, I revisited “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion’s classic homage (and farewell) to New York City. And although I would gladly tattoo ninety- percent of this piece on my body, I was moved to tears [it was a rough week] where she writes:

I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. . .To those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu.

New York is perhaps the most socially constructed city of all: the promised-land for dreamers and the living-end for the faint-of-heart. It’s where the 1-percent work, the “terrorists” attacked, our proverbial crosshairs meet, and only the strong survive. [And everyone knows it.] That’s why upon hearing that anyone lives in New York City, reverence and social capital is immediately granted. It’s as if you can separate the population by those who made it here—and those who wished they could.

To come to New York is to decide that a dream is worth fulfilling, the unknown worth facing, and no means too costly for its end. You have to be capable of truly relinquishing control, abandoning fear, and accepting mass socioeconomic inequity. You have to really grasp that life here is a free-for-all; you can see poverty, heartbreak, and a Birkin bag all on your morning commute. And more often than not, you have to get here by leaving a place that is likely nothing like New York, because as any New Yorker will tell you: “There’s New York, and there’s everywhere else.”

This is not to discredit the many other great cities of the world. In fact, my inspiration for this issue came from urban theorist Elizabeth Wilson—who wrote the two definitive texts about women in the city—in reference to London. Additionally, in the midst of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Emma Staffaroni offers her insight on protest and mobilization gained from her time in Paris. And our resident girl-about-the-globe Kelly Banbury shares personal photos from Mexico City.

But let me be clear: this editor believes that New York is the quintessential “city” and I organized this issue accordingly. Perhaps it’s because deep down, in the United States at least, when we refer to “the city” we are almost always referring to some abstraction of NYC.

I am so proud of this issue—it has elements of everything that motivates me to keep moving forward in this great Xanadu: sociologist and writer Ryan Moore reviews Elizabeth Wilson’s groundbreaking books on women, fashion, and urbanity; Elizabeth Wilson, herself, takes on my Ten Questions; Historian Rona Holub previews her upcoming (and highly-anticipated) lecture at this year’s Researching New York Conference; meanwhile, I profile some of the best “Coming to New York” stories I’ve ever heard.

Additionally, Miss Reece is back with a gorgeous piece reflecting on public space in New York and the contradictions within it (polarizing socioeconomics, the male gaze, and white privilege); Brooklynite John Walker tackles the cultural supremacy of New York; and Jamie Agnello returns (by popular demand) with more Uptown-prep-school-drama inspired poetry.

So it is with much adoration that I welcome you to Re/Visionist’s City Issue. [It’s a good one. Promise.]

xx

Caroline

The City Issue:

Welcome to R/V October 2011: The Legal Issue

Welcome to the R/V LEGAL ISSUE! We are beyond thrilled with the response and popularity of last month’s POP CULTURE ISSUE—we’ve been linked, quoted, and shared from NYC to Beirut—and readership has grown to numbers that exceeded even our highest hopes! Most importantly, we are having so much fun conceptualizing and creating a dialogue that appeals to a WIDE RANGE OF FEMINISMS and the issues that affect us both historically and everyday.

At RE/VISIONIST, we strive to encompass feminism in its most complex form and appreciate it for what it truly is: multi-faceted, diverse, frequently political, sometimes superficial, often hostile, at-times humorous, and above all, the good fight.  WE [as feminists] are just as variable and diverse as feminism itself and our readers are no exception. Just as there is no single most-important feminist argument, there is no one-way to write about feminism.

This month brings us to the litigious-side of inequality, or rather, institutionalized racism and sexism. Law is arguably the most powerful vehicle for social change—and that can work both ways. Revisiting monumental Civil Rights cases such as Loving v. Virginia, while celebrating New York’s legalization of gay marriage, can make it even harder to comprehend present-day (yet seemingly archaic) legal battles. Even more upsetting is the actuality that gendered and racial inequality exists WITHIN the legal framework—and that a lot of those serving to preserve “justice” are some of the most bigoted-people out there—making it even harder to know whose side the law is really on.

That being said–R/V is proud to feature a law review from co-Editor, Amanda Seybold! We’re also proud to welcome Brianna Leone and Emma Staffaroni to the R/V family as web-editors and columnists–you can see from the weekly links, this month’s articles, and the gorgeous editorial pics why we’re thrilled to have them!

Sexism, like any inequality, has several faces—from Pat Robertson to Britney Spears. Sometimes, it’s as blatant as pay inequity and other times it is so embedded in our understanding of how things are that we don’t even notice. This is why we have to work to cover as many bases as possible; we have to include—not exclude—to keep fighting the good fight.

 

{. . . and it IS the good fight.}

xx

Caroline

The Legal Issue:

{ENJOY!}

Welcome to R/V September 2011: The Pop Culture Issue

Hello and welcome to the *new* RE/VISIONIST!  As a matter of form, let me first note that my co-editor Caroline and I are beyond stoked to present the very first (and very fabulous) issue of this year’s line-up.

You may have noticed some changes, both in content and format.  Please consider these a good thing.  While the appearance is different, the underlying core values of RE/VISIONIST have not been altered.  We are still fully committed to generating a full and multidimensional feminist dialogue.

That being said, welcome to our Pop Culture Issue!  No doubt, many will question this choice of topic arguing that it is shallow, inconsequential and without any redeeming academic value.  Some would likely even go so far as to say that the culture surrounding the female pop music star is inherently anti-feminist.  It is with these beliefs in mind that our contributors this month have come up with some counter-arguments and points of debate which shed new light on how we view female pop musicians, but also how we should view the gaze that surrounds them.  The pieces featured in this issue put forth ideas that help foster a contemplation of whether we should reevaluate, and in fact, re-value female pop musicians.

We love this issue, and hope you will too!  If nothing else, maybe it will pique an interest here and there in Britney Spears’ latest record (and Beyonce is nothing to sneeze at either).  Enjoy and thank you for joining us in this venture!

All the best,

Amanda

 (and Caroline. xx)

The Pop Culture Issue:

{ENJOY!}

BRITNEY: A MANIFESTO by Caroline Biggs

{Caroline Biggs is a graduate student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College, fashion addict, pop cultural junkie, and girl-about-NYC.}

Britney Spears changed my life. At first, this sentence may seem absurd to you for reasons including (but not limited to): 1. I am nearly 30 years old, 2. It is 2011, 3. I am an educated, self-described feminist, as well as an art, music, and culture-snob, and last [but most frequently] “how on earth could Britney affect anyone other than by providing something to dance to at last call or to make fun of when skimming through Us Weekly at the doctor’s office?” I understand where you are coming from. Defending the idea that Britney can affect anyone positively (above the age of 12 or of any intelligence) can be a daunting task, one that I have been confronted with for almost ten years. That being said, I am not here to sell you a Britney Spears download (although her newest album, Femme Fatale, is worth its weight in gold). Instead, I would like to offer insight as to why you have been socialized and conditioned to dismiss Britney’s value and/or more importantly, how you may have a thing or two to learn from her.

A lot of things are uncertain in this world, but here is one constant: Britney’s fans are the most loyal in the world and will defend her to the grave. Fail safe. To fall in love with Britney involves a lot of time, effort, and awareness–all of which have little to do with her music. Instead, it becomes about articulating your love for her in a society that has encouraged you to reject Britney for what she represents, while forcing her upon you from every which angle imaginable.  And anyone with half-a-brain knows that true devotion is always born of mass resistance and in turn, met with even more opposition.

Case in point: any Britney Spears concert you ever attend (July marked my third) will be sold out and filled with screaming, crying, and overly-protective fans; all of whom are most likely over the age of 20. They have been defending, admiring, and obsessing over Ms. Spears for a long time now—and her shows are a true place of celebratory demonstration. There are tons of joyous tears, fanatical dancing, and a loving-energy that remains unrivaled, in my experience–despite having attended countless shows of the cultish persuasion (Ani diFranco, Tori Amos, Lady Gaga, anyone?).  This is because to know Britney is to love Britney—and her performances are some of the only times in life where one can vocalize support without defense (for at least two whole hours!).

Here is another certainty in life: society is always critical of strong, successful, and powerful women—including the ones that do so while embracing their femininity and prescribed gendered norms. Certainly this is not to suggest that subversive or androgynous women don’t have their own uphill (if not greater) battle (see also: “gaga has a penis”) but rather that we tend to condemn female social power based on appearance (and sexuality) without considering the backlash of the male gaze (and perhaps just as detrimental—the female gaze). Or more aptly put: WE (both men and women) tend to be a lot more critical of the gendered ideal forced upon us by our very own practices—and who has been more sexualized, idealized, and pushed upon us in the past decade than Britney Spears?

But who has been more debased than Britney Spears? First, there was the controversial David LaChapelle photo shoot depicting a 17-year-old Spears stripped so bare you could see the hairs on her tummy. Without any regard for the artistic vision of the famed photographer or Rolling Stone magazine, Britney became the teenage personification of our deepest Freudian Madonna-whore complexes.  And then there was the tumultuous break-up with Justin Timberlake–where the public treated him like the new Michael Jackson (sans the obvious)–yet, despite his talent, he still felt the need to dump all over her publicly to sell his records. By the time she was 21, Britney had become the living, breathing manifestation of our deepest sexual paranoia. She wasn’t the virgin that her publicist and record company made her say she was and as a trained gymnast/dancer (and poster child for the idealized female form) she could DANCE and ENTERTAIN and BE PROUD OF HER FIGURE (heaven forbid she do the job she’s paid to do). Then,to top it all off, she wasn’t apologizing for it. The world was obsessed with her and hated her for it, too.

But anyone who wasn’t born in a cave yesterday knows that you can machete Britney’s public image into two parts: BEFORE and AFTER the nervous breakdown (B.B. and A.B., respectively). Britney B.B. was ostracized for being a sexualized “virgin” who embraced her appearance and her career as an entertainer (Gaga went through Heathrow in a thong but because she doesn’t fake-bake was off the hook) and hit levels of fame that kept her confined to her own diving bell of celebrity. And then she lost her mind (as most of would under that level of scrutiny) making it superlatively heartbreaking to watch her crumble.

That being said, any person who has taken a Psych 101 class should have a pretty good grasp on what Britney A.B. was doing. Having been a child star, developing a sense of self based on others less-than-stellar perceptions can prove a scathing task (um, Dubois, anyone?) So, like most of us have and would–she looked for love in all of the wrong places, got mixed up with some bad crowds, and acted out in ways never before imaginable. Then, after losing custody of her children (followed by a very public hospitalization) the world decided they preferred their Britney a virgin-whore after all. And the world watched in horror and anticipation as the paparazzi and collective industry took on a whole new level of invasiveness.

Britney’s seventh Rolling Stone cover (a feat rivaled to date only by Madonna) in March, 2008 pictured an almost obituary-esque black and white photo of Spears with the macabre headline: “Inside an American Tragedy.” Except that she wasn’t dead, in fact, she was alive and fully aware of the way she was being presented. Britney had gone from virgin to whore, to crazed, bald, umbrella-bearing freak, to terrible mother, to fat, to now the object of public pity all in less than nine years.  The most alarming development of Britney A.B. came with the unprecedented but terrifying decision by the State of California to grant her estranged father legal conservatorship over her life, money, career, home, and physical self (a ruling normally reserved for quadriplegics on life-support not 29-year-old, successful women). Even the law had rendered Britney helpless. Suddenly, the world wanted nothing more than the resurrection of our fallen American-icon, despite still wielding the bloody murder weapon.

And born again Britney was.  Within three years she went from proverbial public trash to the Second Coming—complete with sold-out tours, platinum records, a new doting- boyfriend, and children in tow. And although from the outside she seems to be doing it happily and effortlessly, one should not ignore that she is still under her father’s complete legal control—a one-woman assembly line, providing jobs for hundreds under the guise of “See! She’s all better!” Despite being thrilled for her public turn-around (don’t call it a comeback!), it’s hard to not see her like a broken but bandaged-up baby-doll in the right lighting.

In fact, it’s bittersweet (and quite emotional) as a devoted fan for ten years to be writing this piece on the eve of the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards–where they have been relentlessly plugging a tribute to the legendary Spears. Apparently, just as there was money to be made off of her downfall, there is plenty to be gained from her reclamation. The very people that plotted for both her success and subsequent demise have equal stake in her eventual triumph.

And so, as a feminist and fan of Britney Spears, I have spent over a decade watching and observing what exactly happens when a woman tries to make it on her own by doing exactly what society asks of her. She bleached her hair, stayed fit, danced when asked, made records, and did it all while we hated her for it. And when she tried to deviate from her own circumstances, we punished and pitied her—called her “tragic” in the very magazine that used her image six-times prior to boost sales and circulation.

That being said, I want to be careful to not portray Spears in the oft-criticized second-wave-feminist “victim” role that we are so desperate to subvert and infuse with agency in current feminist activism. Rather, I would like to suggest that Britney fell into the impossible “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” binary that plagues most women today—where she was wrong for embracing her beauty, sexuality, and career and even more at fault for not being able to stay that way.

Not to mention that everything we attack Britney for–whether it be her sexuality, boobs, motherhood, or vagina–is inherently female and (more often than not) a manifestation of our own projections of what female should or shouldn’t be. Or perhaps most importantly, we are jarred by the possibility that what made us so fascinated–and yet so critical–is that deep down, we all have a little Britney in us.

Especially now, as we celebrate “Britney Spears: the Phoenix” rising from the ash of our worst fears and transforming into a near-perfect shell of her former self. It’s hard to use words like “full circle” when you know that at 30 years-old, she still has no legal control over her own life. That’s why I can say unabashedly that “Britney Spears changed my life.” She showed me from a very young age what happens when you follow the proscribed rote of womanhood—complete with a career, looks, and a modern family–where you can do everything right and everything wrong and still not be certain of the difference it makes.