Review: Butts, A Backstory
Butts: A Backstory, by Heather Radke (2022)
Not my words but an apt, brief description - this book melds "history, personal anecdotes, scholarly research, feminist political frameworks, and plenty of pop culture." I would say it is heavier on the personal anecdotes and pop culture than history, which was a little disappointing since it was billed as an approachable, scientific examination (à la Mary Roach or Robert Sapolsky) - not a memoir. But the parts based on evolutionary evidence, historical context, and cultural norms were compelling.
The book opens with a section about the evolution of the butt itself - why humans have a fleshy, prominent butt, why we evolved this way, why other animals don't have it. This was the most interesting part of the book to me, but was relatively short. The rest of the book is primarily focused on, specifically, the history of the "ideal" female body shape in the USA. It is certainly limited in scope, in that way. I didn't mind that, I just wish the book wasn't billed as a more overarching historical account.
Butts is an "Anglo-focused exploration that centers on cultural hang-ups and appropriation of African Americans by white Americans." Radke is a self-professed large-butted (white) woman, a fact that has, for her, carried with it a lot of anxiety, discomfort, and shame. In essence, she sets out to assuage those feelings by putting her butt in context. It was interesting to hear her perspective on this, since I am also a white woman with a big butt... but never felt particularly self conscious about it. I wonder if that is a factor of where I grew up and who I was at school with, because I have been told many times by many different black men that I have a "black girl butt" and they always meant it to be complimentary. Whether I was interested in hearing their opinions about my body is another thing entirely! But regardless, I did grow up being praised for my back side (even if it was objectification). Does it also help that Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" (I like big butts and I cannot lie!) came out when I was in the 7th grade? Most likely. Just as my body was starting to change and grow, there was a song out there saying it was beautiful.
Anyway, Radke starts her historical account by describing he life of the so-called "Hottentot Venus," one Sarah Baartman, an African woman who was taken to England in the early 1800's to be exhibited as part of a "freak show," with special emphasis on her large behind. What follows is a long string of fascinating connections from Sarah Baartman to the creation of Victorian bustles (basically recreating the fetishized "African butt" on skinny white ladies), to contemporary pop culture references, like songs about big butts by Sir Mix-A-Lot, J-Lo, and Beyoncé, or modern-day appropriation, like Miley Cyrus strapping a fake butt and twerking on stage.
I enjoyed this book a lot, despite it's somewhat limited field of reference. If you're looking for a feminist take on the history of cultural norms for female bodies in the USA (and, to a lesser extent, England) - this is for you. If you want to know all the ways white women have appropriated the black female body over the past, say, 200 years - this is for you. If you're looking for something more scientific &/or something that incorporates attitudes in other countries - not so much.
UP NEXT: Horse, by Geraldine Brooks