A juicy new e book explores the cultural historical past of the butt

Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN

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In the introduction to her e book “Butts: A Backstory,” journalist Heather Radke recollects a second when, at 10 years previous, she and a pal have been cat-called by two teenage boys whereas out using their bikes.

“‘Nice butts!’ we heard them say,” Radke writes. “The fact that they said something unprompted about our butts felt uncomfortable and bizarre… I was aware that there were body parts that were considered beautiful and sexy and were coveted by others, but it had not occurred to me that the butt was one of them.”

That episode was only one a collection that led Radke to comprehend how massive of a task backsides play not simply in {our relationships} with our our bodies, however within the cultural, social and gender-specific experiences that outline womanhood.
“Butts, silly as they may often seem, are tremendously complex symbols, fraught with significance and nuance, laden with humor and sex, shame and history,” she writes. “The shape and size of a woman’s butt has long been a perceived indicator of her very nature — her morality, her femininity and even her humanity.”

It’s from these observations that “Butts” — a completely researched cultural historical past of the feminine butt — stems.

Weaving collectively memoir, science, historical past and cultural criticism, the e book addresses the physiological origins of our behinds and takes readers from the cinched waists of the Victorian period all the best way to Kim Kardashian’s Internet-breaking bottom and the popularization of the Brazilian butt carry. In between, Radke examines the position of eugenics, style, health fads and popular culture in defining the racial and misogynistic requirements surrounding the butt.

“I only know what it’s like to be a White woman with a big butt, which obviously has its limitations,” Radke stated in a cellphone interview. “It was important to me to challenge our ideas about where bodies come from by listening to different voices.”

“Since the rise of the transatlantic slave trade, there’s always been a kind of racial undermeaning in any conversation around the butt, as well as gendered approaches to questions like ‘What is a feminine body? What is a beautiful body? And how feminine can a beautiful body be?'” she continued. “The answers to those questions have oscillated through time, but our deep preoccupation with this specific body part reveals how the butt has long been used as a means to impart control, prescribe desire, and install racial hierarchies.”

Butt-based prejudice and appropriation

A recurring determine in “Butts” is Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman — the so-called Hottentot Venus (the time period Hottentot, now broadly thought to be offensive, was traditionally used to consult with the Khoekhoe, an indigenous tribe of South Africa). Baartman was an Indigenous Khoe lady pressured to exhibit her “large butt” for White audiences in Cape Town, London and Paris within the nineteenth century.

Radke’s account of Baartman’s life, and of how her physique turned “a fantasy of African hypersexuality,” underlies a lot of the e book’s narrative, as she traces the stereotypes created by European “racial scientists” of that period and, later, the skewed and prejudiced legacy of big-butted ladies as extra extremely sexual — particularly Black ladies — instantly again to the exploited Baartman.

Radke highlights the bustle garment widespread within the nineteenth century. Credit: De Agostini Editorial/Getty Images

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Radke spoke with Janell Hobson, a professor of ladies’s, gender, and sexuality research on the State University of New York at Albany who has written extensively on Baartman. Hobson hyperlinks the fetishization of Baartman’s determine to the seeding of colonialism and the continuation of slavery into White society.

“(Baartman’s) show perpetuated ideas around African savagery and primitive Black womanhood, ” Hobson explains in within the e book. “So when white people were looking at Sarah Baartman, they were projecting all of this stuff they’d already inculcated in the culture.”

“Baartman’s story is still with us in a lot of ways,” Radke stated. Although she died in 1815, “her body was on display in Paris up until the 1980s, then again in the ’90s. That really isn’t that long ago, and tells you just how much we’ve turned her into something grotesque to gawk at — a stereotype and symbol of exploitation.”

Radke later factors to the bustle — an undergarment popularized within the late nineteenth century designed to make a lady’s bottom look huge — as a obtrusive instance of White appropriation of Baartman’s determine. “It was a way for Victorian women to look like Sarah Baartman, while at the same time asserting their own whiteness and privilege, as it could simply be taken off,” Radke stated. “That behavior would be repeated again and again through history.”

Miley Cyrus performs during her Bangerz tour at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 1, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Miley Cyrus performs throughout her Bangerz tour on the MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 1, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: David Becker/Getty Images

Shee explores that very same butt-based cultural appropriation — and monetization — as exercised by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus, whose well-known twerking routine on the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards and through concert events on her “Bangerz Tour” that very same 12 months (the place she used a big prosthetic butt as a part of her choreography) was, Radke writes, a prop to “‘play’ in Blackness.”

Alongside addressing the visible tradition of Black music movies, cosmetic surgery and the current belfie (a portmanteau of butt and selfie) craze in the identical vein, Radke additionally highlights durations in up to date historical past the place developments skewed in numerous, oppositional instructions. She highlights the rise of “buttless women” within the 1910s — a glance finest represented by the glossy look of the flapper — via the invention of sizing and the 90s model of “heroin chic” captured by the supermodel Kate Moss. Such an aesthetic is “something that’s never really gone away,” Radke famous.

“I didn’t aspire to write an encyclopedia of the butt, but rather give a historical context to the way it has been perceived and portrayed, and how women’s feelings around it have shifted alongside it,” Radke defined. “Whether consciously or not, we, and society at large, have always been paying attention to our butts — hiding them, accentuating them, fetishizing them. Which is kind of funny, when you think it’s actually a body part we cannot see ourselves unless we’re in front of a mirror.” As she writes in her e book, “the butt belongs to the viewer more than the viewed.”

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Reclaiming the butt

While most of the tales uncovered in “Butts” are steeped in bodily struggling — diets, limiting shapewear, surgical scalpels — there’s additionally pleasure to be discovered.

To counter the intense exercise regimes of the 80s, just like the “Buns of Steel” health craze that equated a sculpted butt to self-control and self-respect, Radke profiled the fats health motion that emerged throughout the identical decade, which reimagined “what was possible for people who often felt excluded from mainstream fitness culture” to supply a type of resistance.
Drag queens dress using padding and stockings  prior to the NEPA PrideFest Royale drag pageant at the Hilton Conference Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania on June 25, 2022.

Drag queens costume utilizing padding and stockings previous to the NEPA PrideFest Royale drag pageant on the Hilton Conference Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania on June 25, 2022. Credit: Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

In Astoria, Queens, she hung out with a gaggle of drag queens who sculpt foam butt pads to decorate their backsides, turning the butt into one thing joyous and judgment-free.

“A history of bodies — especially female bodies — is always going to be a history of control and oppression, but I felt it was important to also show the other possibility: liberation,” Radke stated. “Those stories were some of the most fun research I did, and some of the most surprising, too, as they allowed me to meet people who have overcome societal prescriptions, and embraced a different way to think about bigness, which helped me reframe it, too.”

Ultimately, Radke stated, what’s maybe most compelling concerning the butt is that it would not should imply something.

“Butts have the power to make us feel so miserable or angry, especially when we’re in a dressing room trying on a pair of jeans that just won’t fit,” she famous. “But that angst is the result of centuries of history, culture and politics. It doesn’t come from our bodies, it has been placed on them. If we take a step back, we’ll see that butts are just a body part. They could mean nothing at all.”

"Butts: A Backstory."

“Butts: A Backstory.” Credit: Simon & Schuster

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Top picture: Kim Kardashian walks up the steps to the Met Gala in 2019.