Britney Spears’ debut album, …Baby One More Time turns 20 on January 12th. Here, an HG contributor reflects on her childhood spent simultaneously adoring Spears’s debut music video and navigating low self-esteem as a Black girl.
Twenty years after her debut album’s release, I still remember the first time I heard Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time.” I was in the parking lot of Walmart, listening to the car radio after seeing The Rugrats Movie with my family. I was in seventh-grade, and that distinctive “dunh dunh dunh” immediately grabbed my attention. I instinctively reached for the radio dial and turned it up—and I’ve never been the same.
When I saw the music video a little while later on MTV, I was in love. It was, in my mind, perfect. The outfits, the dancing—this video had it all! I may or may not have chosen my all-girls Catholic high school based on the similar uniform I’d get to wear (I’m only slightly kidding here). But little did I know that Spears’ video and song would begin a long, hateful relationship with my skin color and identity as a Black teenage girl.
Growing up, I’d idolized R&B singers Brandy and Monica, often donning box braids to look like the Moesha star. Back in the ‘90s, #BlackGirlMagic (though it wasn’t called that yet) was everywhere. Sister, Sister was a hit, and I’d sometimes sneak in episodes of Living Single—the Black ensemble cast that basically created the template for whitewashed favorites like Friends, Sex and the City, and, later, Girls.
But somewhere around the early aughts, the blonde pop princess emerged as the formula for mainstream success. And I took notice.
Brandy and Monica never quite received the amount of magazine covers and accolades that their white peers accumulated seemingly out of nowhere. And as someone who was easily impressionable and subscribed to nearly every teen magazine (a dangerous combination, if ever there was one), I began to feel self-conscious about my appearance.
With dark hair, brown eyes, full lips, a wide nose, and emerging curves, I looked nothing like the thin, busty, blonde-haired and blue-eyed singers covering my favorite magazines.
Being a typical teen, I’d tear out the covers and photo spreads, essentially using them as wallpaper for my bedroom. I so desperately wanted to look like Britney, Christina, Jessica, and Mandy that I’d pray to God to make me white so I’d be deemed beautiful by society’s standards. When I’d share my insecurities with my mom, she’d assure me that I was fine just the way I was…but that’s what she’s supposed to say, I’d think. She’s my mom, after all.
Besides, when I was a 12-year-old girl, no one’s opinion mattered more than a 12-year-old boy’s. And I already knew what they thought—two years earlier, I managed to sneak a peek at the “rankings” that the boys had given the girls in our fifth grade class. My light-skinned best friend with the “good hair” received three “pretty’s” next to her name, while I earned a lowly two “ugly’s” next to mine. Skipping a grade certainly didn’t help my popularity either.
Oh, what I would have given to be able to emulate the looks of my favorite pop stars! In an effort to channel my inner diva, I dressed up as “Oops!…I Did It Again” Britney during the fall of my freshman year of high school. I wore patent red leather pants, a black tube top, and a Britney Spears-branded microphone headset as a finishing touch. (Yes, such a thing existed.) Eighteen years later, I still know all the choreography to “Oops!” You can say I was obsessed.
But, as is the case with most obsessions, it wasn’t healthy. At a young age, I’d already internalized that I wasn’t “good enough” or “pretty enough” because I was a Black girl. It wasn’t until Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” music video came out in the spring of 2001 that I started to come around to the idea that maybe, just maybe, I was perfectly fine the way I was.
As I mentioned in a previous essay, that song became my anthem, giving me newfound strength after years of enduring middle-school bullying and having feelings of low self-esteem.
I still loved Britney, but Beyoncé was quickly taking the throne of pop queen in my heart. I began replacing some of my Britney posters with pictures of Destiny’s Child and Jennifer Lopez—their curves more accurately reflecting my own. In fact, I’d plastered the border of my mirror with their images so that I’d literally and figuratively “see” myself in them. They gave me hope.
Twenty years later, I’m still rocking out to Britney, for she’ll forever hold a place in my heart.
But thankfully, due to learning a lot of self-love, unlearning internalized self-hate, and nearly two years of therapy and inner work, I’m no longer the insecure Black girl I was back then.