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Navel piercings are surprisingly divisive. People seem to either love them or hate them, whether among the fashion conscious, parents, and the politically minded, whenever the topic comes up you can expect disagreement to arise.
Britney Spears is generally considered to have popularised the belly button ring among women and girls around the turn of the millennium. At that time, she was one of the biggest stars in the music world, and every fashion statement she made was sure to be imitated wordwide. I recently came across a blog post arguing that Britney Spears’ decision to get her navel pierced in 1999-2000 was a big step forward for the acceptance of body-modification, and a feminist statement to boot. I hadn’t considered the star’s actions from this angle before, and it does make a kind of sense to me. Although navel piercing is a rather minor form of ‘body modification’, it was never previously a mainstream trend. Ear piercings were the only ones common among women. In the wake of the navel-ring fad, however, other more daring piercings have become commonplace, along with expressive tattoos and other forms of body-modification. The extreme stuff is still fringe, of course, but there’s a marked increase in mainstream popularity which can easily be traced back that way.
Britney became synonymous with the belly button even before the piercing, prominently displaying her midriff in many of her music videos and photoshoots, including an infamous Rolling Stone cover. This prompted other female pop stars such as Christina Aguilera to follow the trend immediately. Belly buttons were in, they were fashionable, and they were sexy.
Of course, as sure as each generation will rebel against their parents, parents will always worry about the safety and implications of new trends for their young ones. The age-old question, “At what age should I let my daughter get her ears pierced?” became “At what age should I let my daughter get her belly button pierced” practically overnight.Those in the more cautious camp have argued that baring her midriff and piercing her navel were expressions of Spears’ sexuality, which many felt was too early for her, let alone the young girls who followed her every move. To them, Britney’s influence was irresponsible, making way for the sexualisation of young girls. Of course, to what extent this has been acceptable has varied wildly across history, and it could be argued that Britney was herself presented in a sexualised manner by her management without being entirely aware of it. On the other hand, it is widely documented that Spears herself had a lot of input into the design and costuming of her first video, Baby One More Time, and is even credited with suggesting not only the schoolgirl outfit and location, but also the iconic midriff-baring knotted shirt; “The outfits looked kind of dorky, so I was like, ‘Let’s tie up our shirts and be cute'”, she is recorded as saying.
It’s certainly a valid question, then, whether Britney got her piercing under her own agency. Did she seek permission from her parents or management, did she do it without permission, or was it a move co-ordinated by those in charge, to further cement her place as a pop icon by associating her with a particular fashion trend? Sadly we will never know for sure, since it’s in all the above parties’ interests that she did it herself as an act of rebellion. That’s where the feminist theory hits problems, I think, because there is no certainty of her autonomy in the matter. Even if it were a statement of her individuality, couldn’t it be seen to have failed, since so many strove to copy her rather than go their own way?
Sexuality was a big part of Britney Spears’ brand from the beginning, whether she was aware of it or not, and remains so to this day. For many, she was a sex symbol and as a 90’s kid myself, even I have fond memories of her early music videos. They probably contributed to my own infatuation with navels, though personally I was never a fan of piercings beyond the increased tendancy for midriff-baring that naturally accompanies them.
There came a time, (around 2007 if memory serves me) when Britney dropped the navel ring from her regular wardrobe. Since this followed a fragile time for her during which she gave birth to two children, was publically scrutinised for her weight and famously shaved her head, it’s possible that this was an attempt at re-branding.
In recent times though, she has begun to wear the jewellery again. Maybe she is following the trend of the “90’s Comeback”, ironically copying the trend she herself set almost 20 years ago. More likely though, in my opinion, this time it IS a feminist statement. “I’m 35,” she seems to be saying, “and after all I’ve been through I can wear this crop top, this belly ring again and look darn good doing it”!
In coming full circle, so can her fans, and hopefully they can follow her in feeling good about themselves and taking ownership of their past, however rocky. Britney is touring again as we speak, baring her belly every night as if it were the year 2000 again. Maybe she was a teenager, exploited for her looks and talent, a victim of mental health problems brought on by the twin pressures of fame and motherhood. But now she’s Britney, she’s back, the navel ring is back, and she’s loving it every bit as much as the fans.