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Butts: A Backstory
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This is one of those interviews where I sit around for a solid ten minutes trying to think of how to open it when I really just want to say: just trust me. So that’s what I’m going to say. That, and: I’m so glad you get to spend a little corner of your day thinking about butts with me and the brilliant Heather Radke, author of Butts: A Backstory.
I loved the central framing of the book — that the butt “never represents itself.” Can you break down what you mean by that, and how you arrived at that understanding?
It is an idea I actually borrowed from historian Sinder Gilman, who said “The buttocks have ever-changing symbolic value. They are associated with the organs of reproduction, the aperture of excretion, as well as the mechanism of locomotion through the discussions of gait. They never represent themselves.”
When I read that, I began to see the way the butt never represents itself in so many different places. You can’t see your own butt, you are always seeing it through reflection, photography, or other people’s gaze. We don’t have a proper word for our butts, only euphemisms, which is unique to our butts. We have many euphemisms for other body parts that carry shame, but we ultimately have “correct” words like vulva, vagina, breasts, penis, etc. But primarily, I realized that, unlike breasts, for example, where the biological function is so deeply related to the symbolic meaning (maternity, femininity, etc.), butts really don’t have much inherent biological meaning. And yet their symbolic meaning is so complex and layered. They are deeply tied up with notions of race, femininity, and even hard work (think of the phrases like “work your butt off”). But those associations are ones we have projected onto the butt, and they are always changing. I wanted to trace the histories of those ideas and to try and understand why and when our feelings about what constitutes a “good” butt change, largely because I wanted to show how arbitrary, and yet how powerful, these symbolic associations with bodies can be.
What is a butt good for? [I ask — and I ask this early — because I appreciated how you started the real exploratory section of the book with these vivid, surprising descriptions of what it is good for, descriptions that put me in this new headspace of “butts really are awesome.”]
Oh I love this question! First, I should specify that my book is about the cheeks, not the hole. This is important because the hole is good for some very important things (pooping and sex, for example) but because it wasn’t the focus of my book, I can only acknowledge those qualities as a grateful amateur, with no real claim to expertise.
The butt cheek is a relatively simple part of the body, but as you point out, it is also awesome! There are two parts: the muscle and the fat. The muscles of the butt evolved to allow us to run. Running is one of the most important steps in human evolution because it helped early hominids to hunt prey that was highly caloric — a necessity for having a big brain — rather than only gathering berries and leaves. Basically, early hominids ran down their prey until they were super tired and then they bashed them over the head with a rock. And although we aren’t particularly fast runners, we can run incredible distances, which is what allows us to outrun very fast quadrupeds like kudu or antelopes. There is a whole set of adaptations that allow us to be excellent long-distance runners: our achilles tendons act as a spring, our sweat glands let us cool off as we go, our heads pivot on our necks so we don’t get dizzy. And our butts act as a mechanism to prevent us from falling forward. A run is, essentially, a controlled fall. You propel your body forward and the muscles in your butt pull you upright.
The second part of the butt is the fat. Fat is, of course, a much more fraught part of the body to understand. There are real limits to how much we can know about fat in evolutionary biology because fat isn’t part of the fossil record. I found this fascinating when I was writing the book because I think many of us assume that early humans were lithe and thin, a notion that suggests that a fatless body is in some way more “correct.” But we really have no idea what early humans looked like, and probably there was a good bit of body diversity then, as now.
Another thing I learned is that women have a lot more fat on their body than men. In order for a woman to be considered healthy (aka not starving), she needs to have 8-12% body fat. For men, that number is only 4-6%. This is because if a person is going to carry and breastfeed a baby, they need stores of fat. You need about 300 extra calories a day while pregnant and 600 extra calories a day when you are breastfeeding, and so early humans needed fat stores to make that more possible.
This gets us back to the butt. Even if women have a lot more fat than men, they conceivably could store it anywhere. We could have fatty elbows or feet or necks, but most women store their fat in their butts, hips, and breasts. There is a ton of pseudoscience about why this is. You can find articles that say that if a woman has a big butt she is more fertile, more capable of foraging in the savannah, etc. But the truth is probably much more simple. Well the real truth is we don’t know. But the likely truth is that storing weight in the middle of your body is physiologically convenient. It doesn’t mess up your center of gravity too much, and it doesn’t get in your way like big fatty elbows might.
So! Butts are good for running! They are good for breastfeeding! They are also biologically pretty straightforward, even though they are culturally very complicated.
In your detailed chapter on the life of Sarah Baartman — who later became known as the “Hottentot Venus,” displayed and exploited in ‘freak show’ performances in London in the early 1800s, made to “display” her butt — you write that “her days were long and likely lonely. It was imperative to the success of the show that Baartman be understood as a specimen rather than a person, so her social life was severely limited.”
Humans aren’t plants, but the phrasing reminds me of the way that the colonial governments were also bringing back specimens of what we now think of house plants, limiting their existence to the hot houses, placing them on display for larger consumption. The producers who brought Baartman to the U.S. wanted to make money, but they were also contributing to the larger colonial project — *and* confirming ideas about the morality of enslavement that were beginning to unravel, however slightly.
Can you talk more about that process — but also the process of researching and writing Baartman’s story in a way that didn’t unwittingly reproduce the same sort of exploitative processes?
The story of Sarah Baartman is tragic and also crucial in understanding what butts have come to mean in Western culture over the past two centuries. When the producers of her freak show brought her to London from South Africa they knew the show would be massively popular, and it absolutely was. Whether or not they realized it consciously, the show was, as you say, part of a much bigger colonial project. Just down the street from the place where Baartman was displayed, there was a giant hall of plants and animals imported from across the British colonies, a display that was bringing in huge crowds. Working-class and middle-class people in England were curious about the colonies because they were paying for the empire through their taxes (and, to some extent, their labor). These kinds of shows and displays made the empire appealing in a number of ways, including by suggesting that the people in England were more civilized, and even more human, than people from Africa, in particular. It was a show of exoticism, but also a way to justify the colonial project. By displaying Baartman as a specimen, by objectifying her, her captors were helping to suggest that it was morally justified to colonize places like South Africa.
After her death, a French scientist named George Cuvier conducted her autopsy, and displayed her remains in his museum of Natural History. Her remains stayed on display in France until the 1970s. Cuvier was an anatomist and paleontologist who was deeply interested in the question of human hierarchies. He believed that white Europeans were more human than people of other races, and was looking for scientific justification for that belief. He claimed to find it when he conducted Sarah Baartman’s autopsy. He used the autopsy report to codify the idea that African women with big butts were more sexual than white women, and that African people, particularly people from Baartman’s indigenous group, were not fully human. None of this, of course, is true. But because Cuvier was one of the most important scientist of his time, and because so many people in positions of power were deeply invested in the idea of a racial hierarchy, this supposed-evidence was used widely as a justification for enslavement, colonization, and the rape of enslaved women.
Clearly, Baartman’s story is important, but also very intense, and I thought a lot about how to research and write her story in the book. I wanted to give her as much interiority as possible, and to tell her story from her perspective. Of course, this is very hard to do with the historical record that we have, but I built on the work of scholars like Clifford Crais and Pamela Scully, who had done a lot of research into Baartman’s life, and looked closely at the historical documents that exist about her. I also researched what life was like for Khoi women in South Africa at the time, and talked to Khoi people who live in South Africa now. I interviewed scholars in the US and in South Africa who have thought a lot about Baartman, and also read as much scholarship as I could find about her.
Baartman is a very important figure in women’s studies, African diaspora studies, and the history of science, and so there are a lot of secondary sources about her. I also thought a lot about how to represent her on the page. I wanted to make it clear how difficult her life was, but didn’t want to flatten her story, or participate in another kind of exploitation of her life by making her story seem too salacious. One very clear decision I made early on was that I didn’t want to include images of Baartman. The images that the producers of her show used to advertise were seen widely around London (and Europe more broadly) and depicted her as freakish and subhuman. The images were part of her exploitation — they were cartoon depictions of an African woman with a big butt. If I had included those images of Baartman — the only ones we have — I think it would have felt like I was encouraging people to leer at her again, just as so many had leered at her in Piccadilly in 1810, something that I very much did not want to do.
In the (frankly amazing) chapter about the bustle, you go through all the different explanations for its popularity — and how they all seem to be missing the VERY OBVIOUS. “To me, these popular explanations ignore the obvious: the bustle is, definitionally, about bigness.”
First, for people who don’t know much about that era of women’s fashion, can you tell us what a bustle is and what it looks like....and then what you think is actually going on with its massive (lol, sorry) popularity in the Victorian age?
The bustle! What a thing! Even if that word doesn’t mean anything to you, you’ve probably seen a bustle in a period movie or a play. It was a very popular fashion in the 1870s and 1880s and was, essentially, a giant fake butt that women attached to their actual butts. They were made out of pillows, springs, or metal cages and tied around the waist. Poor women sometimes stuffed newspaper in their underwear to achieve the same effect. It’s a very strange thing to do! But it was massively popular. My question was simple: why did women do this?
Fashion history is strange. A lot of writing about the history of fashion suggests that trends in the clothes we wear emerge out of nowhere, or are merely a reaction to other fashion trends, as opposed to historical or cultural events. The most common theory about fashion I found is the pendulum theory, which is the idea that when bigness becomes popular there is always inevitably a push back and smallness will become popular (and vice versa).
There is some truth to this, and you can see the pendulum swing throughout the history of fashion. But clothes are part of human culture. In fact, they are a very important part of human culture that often gets short shrift, likely because clothes are coded as “female” and most people think they aren’t as serious as, say, painting or music. But like all parts of human culture, clothes are artifacts that reflect their historical moment, and can tell us something about the people who wear them.
That is a very long-winded way of saying that most people who have a theory of the bustle situate it as a part of a 19th-century obsessions with corsets. Essentially, having a big butt makes you look like you have a small waist, and so some people think they are an extension of the corset. Also, bustles are part of a long pendulum swing — for the entire second half of the 19th century, fullness on the bottom became hugely popular.
Again, there is some truth to that. But! It ignores the obvious. Women were strapping giant fake butts to themselves. It’s a weird thing to do! And I don’t think they were entirely confused about the effect it was creating, because that effect was not subtle. Maybe it made them look like they had a small waist, but it also made them look like they had a huge butt.
As I researched the bustle, I quickly encountered a theory that I found compelling. The silhouette of a woman in a bustle bears a striking resemblance to the silhouette of Sarah Baartman that was plastered all over Paris and London in the beginning of the 19th century. And although the fashion became popular about sixty years after Baartman’s death, her story was very much still a part of the way people thought about butts in the 1870s. Images of Baartman had been plastered on playing cards, there had been plays written about her, and her body was still on display in Paris. In fact, it was put on special display at the World’s Fair in Paris that was up just before the bustle became popular.
I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that the bustle was an explicit attempt for fashionable European women to wear a garment that made them look like Sarah Baartman, but I do think that appropriation was a part of what was going on. There is very clearly a visual echo between Baartman’s body and the bustle, and there was still a fascination with her body and with the idea of the hyper-sexual big-butted Black woman. Part of what must have felt exciting to the women of the 1870s was that they were playing with these ideas in fashion. And that “playing in the dark,” as Toni Morrison calls it, stays with us through the 21st century. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s (and still today) you see the appropriation of Black women’s bodies via the butt very explicitly, in everything from Kim Kardashian’s entire internet presence to Mily Cyrus’s performance at the 2013 VMAs to how interested white women become in twerk.
Is it weird to say that I appreciated that the sections on Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus were there but *short*? You can’t talk about contemporary butts without talking about them, but I also find their own lack of awareness so wearying. Like, this assessment is just so good:
“What are white women seeking when they dabble in Black culture? The answer may be different for each of us, but for me Kelechi Okafor offers a good place to start: access to sexiness, an opportunity to rebel, a way to push beyond the rigidity of white femininity. But those needs aren’t always ones we can articulate easily, or thoroughly, and so we resolve them thoughtlesssly.
By turning Blackness into an attempt to solve these problems of whiteness, white women turn away from the origins of the shame we carry about our bodies, a shame that comes from the construction of whiteness itself, a shame that exists to enforce the idea that some bodies are innocent and others are sexual, that some bodies are better and others worse.”
How did you approach the inclusion of contemporary celebrity in the book — what felt important to say, and what felt important to ignore? Who would you feel like you needed to talk about if this book came out this very minute, and where do they fit into this larger understanding of co-option and unaddressed shame?
Kim Kardashian haunted me the whole time I wrote the book. I knew I needed to include her, but I was honestly just not that interested in her. So much has already been written about her by people who are much smarter about contemporary pop culture than I am. I’m a historical thinker, and so contemporary celebrity exhausts me and kind of makes me panic. Give me twenty more years, then maybe I can tell you something interesting about it! At one point, my partner kind of gave me a talking to: you need to get curious about Kim. You need to at least get curious about why you aren’t curious about her.
I realized that I had a very clear question in the last third of the book: how and why did big butts become so popular in mainstream culture in the 2010s? It was a big shift, and one that surprised a lot of people, so why did it happen? If celebrities were a part of the engine of that change, they needed to be in the book. I didn’t need to include everything that had ever happened with Kim Kardashian’s butt, but I did need to sort out the key moments of her trajectory as one of the most famous people associated with the butt, and understand her role in that story.
In that way, I situated Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian (and Megan Trainor, Jen Salter, and even Beyoncé) as characters in a bigger story, instead of giving them their own chapters. I also realized that when I approached the aughts and ‘10s (eras I lived through and remember well) as a historian — looking at primary sources and reading secondary histories — there was a lot to discover that I had missed. I hadn’t realized how important Jennifer Lopez’s press tour for Out of Sight had been, for example. I also had been too busy in the aughts trying (and failing) to be an indie-rock cool kid to have really had any idea what was going on in mainstream culture. Reading tabloids like Us Weekly (which are surprisingly hard to find! Save the tabloids!) and watching early episodes of Keeping up with the Karadahians and The Simple Life was disturbing and illuminating. I was able to get a glimpse of how people thought about bodies then, and reflect on how those ideas shaped me and so many other people I know, even when I didn’t think they had anything to do with my life or values.
If the book came out right this minute, I think I’d still be tempted to stop the reporting about five years in the past. That said, I get asked a lot to talk about all the current rumors of Kim Kardashian taking out her butt implants. I’m interested less in whether or not that’s true and more in how much the rumor, and how the oscillating ideas of a “fashionable body” resonates with the story of the bustle and the gesture of putting on and taking off the butt, which is one of the ultimate signs of privilege.
You position our feelings about our butts as, really, our feelings about our bodies — and the histories our bodies carry. I personally would love to read a book that was just BELLIES but I’d love to hear what other body part deserves the BUTTS deep dive, and what we would find there.
Yes! Bellies would be great! I do think you could really do a deep-dive on anything and you’d likely uncover a similar set of questions about race, gender, fashion, class, and control. Breasts are sort of the obvious one, but I think I’d be more interested in arm flab, necks (a la Nora Ephron), thighs, or maybe even eyebrows? I’m sure women from different backgrounds and of different ages might have other ideas to offer.
I think any part of the body that carries a whiff of shame would be a fruitful study, because shame often suggests hidden, unexplored feelings and histories. We don’t always know where shame comes from, even though we feel it potently. Exploring that shame doesn’t exactly free you, but I do think it offers a deeper understanding and maybe even a greater sense of control. Realizing that the shame we have about our bodies comes from history and culture — that it is, essentially, a human construction and not a biological one — can offer a bit of freedom even if we still all feel bad when we go into a dressing room and try on pants. ●
Also: I’m thrilled that Heather’s agreed to be one of the first guests on The Culture Study Podcast, which is launching next month. The goal is to have it compliment (but not replicate) and build on the interview here, so we need questions from you about BUTTS (and about the process of writing about BUTTS) to guide us through the episode. You can submit them here.
We’re also still looking for questions about a whole bunch of topics as we record our first episodes. What do you want to know about F1, “Little Treat Culture,” WTF is going on with Harry and Meghan, the Britney memoir, why are clothes the way they are right now, Paw Patrol, weird TikTok corners like ice restocking videos, “contagious” divorce, cookbooks, and any other cultural object/phenomena you find interesting. Don’t put them in the comments below (I need them all in one place, you get it)….put them here. And stay tuned for the official pod announcement!