Let’s just get this out of the way: yes, that title is brilliant.
Butts: A Backstory is a deep dive into our cultural fascination in the West with butts, and specifically women’s butts. Heather Radke—a curvy, queer white woman—wanted to know why we’re so hooked on butts, and because she’s a journalist, naturally she wants all of us to know why too. Frankly, I’m glad. Thanks to NetGalley and Avid Reader Press for the eARC in exchange for a review.
Radke quickly rejects evolutionary psychological explanations for our obsession with butts. She thoroughly explains why evolutionary psychology, unlike evolutionary biology, is unreliable and pseudoscientific. While we have plenty of possible theories for the adaptive value of the butt, its role in sexual selection might forever be occluded by that pesky thing called culture.
So Radke investigates how, in Western society at least, we started to care so much about what was behind us. She begins the story in South Africa and London, tracing the life as best she can of Sarah Baartman, a Khoe woman who became better known as the “Venus Hottentot.” Is it any surprise that our obsession with butts is wrapped up in Europe’s history of white supremacy? Of course not. For centuries now, white Europeans have sought to hypersexualize and dehumanize people of African descent. Therefore it is no coincidence that big butts became associated with Black people while the ideal—embodied, of course, by white people—was a flat, more demure behind.
From this inauspicious beginning, Radke moves through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Much of our journey centres upon fashion: the bustle, changing hemlines, the flappers, etc. Some of it, too, is rooted in celebrity and media, from the starlets of the early twentieth century to the models and music videos of the nineties. Exercise fads and diets come and go. The one constant? Change. Sometimes big butts are in, sometimes out. The message, however, is the same: for women, your butt is a synecdoche. A sign of how well you meet your generation’s ideal of femininity.
Radke echoes this in some of her personal anecdotes throughout the book. She would tag along, as a young girl, on her mother’s shopping mall trips. Changing room try-ons and the betrayals of clothes—or bodies. For, you see, that’s how Radke reports her mother framing the situation, language that she then inherited: my butt is too big. Never that the clothes are wrong, but rather her body is wrong. Whoa.
So of course I thought about my body. All my life I have had thin privilege, have never had to contend with being called or understood to be fat. Most of my problems with clothes not fitting are a result of my height rather than waist, hips, or weight. As an asexual person, I didn’t really pay much attention to others’ bodies, and I never thought of myself as a sexual being—and because, for the first thirty years of my life, we all thought I was a man, most of the world seemed content to let that be the case.
I thought my issues with my body came largely from how it was changing as my metabolism slowed. Then I realized no, it was because deep down I knew my body didn’t match with my idea of who I am, especially my gender.
Transition, then, has done wonders for my confidence in my body. But the euphoria I feel from how my body changes—hair growing, skin softening, curves emerging—is also accompanied by the unease that many women feel in our society. I want curves because I want to feel more feminine, yes, but surely some of my desire for a curvy booty comes from internalized ideas of beauty from my coming-of-age in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
So here I am in this liminal space of wanting to accept my body as it is yet also wanting to change it. Therefore, despite the butt holding very little fascination for me as a symbol of sexual attraction, I definitely understand the hold it has over us as a symbol of femininity, of my femininity. Reading Butts has helped me think about my body against the backdrop of our wider cultural and historical zeitgeist.
This is a thoughtful, thorough treatment of a topic that many might dismiss as childish or prurient. Their loss. I might not be enamoured with butts, but I was enamoured with Butts.