“‘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.”
It’s from these observations that “Butts” — a thoroughly researched cultural history of the female butt — stems.
“I only know what it’s like to be a White woman with a big butt, which obviously has its limitations,” Radke said in a phone interview. “It was important to me to challenge our ideas about where bodies come from by listening to different voices.”
Butt-based prejudice and appropriation
A recurring figure in “Butts” is Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman — the so-called Hottentot Venus (the term Hottentot, now widely regarded as offensive, was historically used to refer to the Khoekhoe, an indigenous tribe of South Africa). Baartman was an Indigenous Khoe woman forced to exhibit her “large butt” for White audiences in Cape Town, London and Paris in the 19th century.
Radke highlights the bustle garment popular in the 19th century. Credit: De Agostini Publishing/Getty Images
Radke spoke with Janell Hobson, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the State University of New York at Albany who has written extensively on Baartman. Hobson links the fetishization of Baartman’s figure 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 in the 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 said. 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 points to the bustle — an undergarment popularized in the late 19th century designed to make a woman’s backside look enormous — as a glaring example of White appropriation of Baartman’s figure. “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 said. “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. Credit: David Becker/Getty Images
Shee explores that same butt-based cultural appropriation — and monetization — as exercised by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus, whose famous twerking routine at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards and during concerts on her “Bangerz Tour” that same year (where she used a large prosthetic butt as part of her choreography) was, Radke writes, a prop to “‘play’ in Blackness.”
“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 explained. “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 book, “the butt belongs to the viewer more than the viewed.”
Reclaiming the butt
While many of the stories exposed in “Butts” are steeped in physical suffering — diets, restricting shapewear, surgical scalpels — there’s also joy to be found.
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. Credit: Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
In Astoria, Queens, she spent time with a group of drag queens who sculpt foam butt pads to embellish their backsides, turning the butt into something 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 said. “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 said, what’s perhaps most compelling about the butt is that it doesn’t have to mean anything.
“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 noted. “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.” Credit: Simon & Schuster
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