Our Behinds, Our Selves

In Butts: A Backstory, author Heather Radke gets into the politics, symbolism and history of a body part simultaneously revered and scorned.

by Kate Dwyer

Imagery Courtesy of Getty Images; Animation by Ashley Peña.

Over the past few years, perhaps no one has spent more time thinking about butts than Heather Radke. In 2019, the writer and WNYC RadioLab reporter published an essay in the Paris Review about the shame attached to having a large backside while she was in high school. Part of her research entailed interviewing women who had very different experiences with — and relationships to — their butts. “Some wished their butts were bigger, some had mothers who told them to cover their butts because they were too sexy, some loved their butts,” Radke, 39, told me. Many of her peers felt strongly about this body part, and so Radke grew curious about how it became so charged. Early inquiries into the butt’s cultural history proved substantial, and Radke soon realized that it might take a book to untangle the derriere’s thorny symbolism.

The result, Butts: A Backstory (Simon & Schuster) is out now and examines how American culture’s complicated feelings about “the butt” are the product of science, eugenics, fashion design, and Big Fitness (even before such an industry existed). Here, the author breaks down some of what she’s learned.

You posed this rhetorical question on RadioLab, so now I'm going to ask you in earnest: "Why have butts come to mean so much when they could just mean nothing?"

It’s a good question, if I do say so myself! And one I’m not sure I really have an answer to. I feel like the journey of the book was answering the question of how butts have come to mean so much, but the question of why still eludes me. I think it is, for whatever reason, very tempting for humans to turn body parts into metaphors, to make our anatomy take on greater meaning than it innately holds. We see this with all kinds of things — breasts, butts, hearts, noses. The journey of writing the book for me was a journey to unwind those metaphors, to see what is behind them—pun intended!—in order to make visible some of the unspoken histories that are with us whenever we think about our bodies or the bodies of other people.

In the introduction, you write that “conversations about butts are almost always conversations about race.” What do you mean by that?

For several hundred years, Western scientists, explorers, writers, and thinkers used butts as part of a system of creating racial categories and hierarchies. In their project to, essentially, create the idea of race, scientists like George Cuvier and Frances Galton not only used skin color but physical features like the shape of a person’s head or the size of a woman’s butt. Using very flawed science, they created the stereotype of the big butted, African woman, linking big-butted-ness not only with Blackness but with hypersexuality. This stereotype has never really gone away. We see the way big butts are linked to both Blackness and sexuality over the past two centuries, particularly in places like Miley Cyrus’ 2013 VMA performance or Kim Kardashian’s Paper Magazine cover. In these cases, women who aren’t Black are associating themselves with the racial stereotypes of the hypersexual Black woman to showcase their sexuality, a butt-based cultural appropriation that we see not only in the 21st century, but in the 19th century with the bustle.

How did this understanding shape your approach to reporting? And the language you use in the book?

It was clear to me from the very beginning that the formation and legacy of racial stereotypes would be central to this book. As a white woman, I knew there were limits to how much I could know about the experience of living with these stereotypes, so I did as much research and reporting as I could to try to explain where these stereotypes come from and how they’ve been perpetuated over the last several centuries. I interviewed scholars, read histories, did archival research, and conducted oral histories with women from lots of different backgrounds. I quickly saw that I wasn’t only investigating a Black history, but also a white one: the creation of the stereotype of the hypersexual Black woman was formed, in part, to create a juxtaposition to the innocent white woman, and over and over again I saw how white women were part of the creation and perpetuation of those stereotypes. The meanings that men like George Cuvier had created about butts in the 19th century became foundational for moments of cultural appropriation over the past two centuries.

The author and fashion historian Valerie Steele argues that diet culture was invented in the 1920s. Today, diet culture is couched with the body positivity movement. Was there any kind of self-awareness about diet culture in the ‘20s? How do you think the conversation differs today?

As far as I know, there wasn’t much of a conversation about what we now call diet culture in the 1920s. When the so-called “rectangle body” first became trendy in the late 1910s, it was seen by older people as strange because it seemed as though younger women wanted to look ill and boyish. But it quickly became a dominant ideal of beauty and women were going on fad diets, having plastic surgery, and weighing themselves on bathroom scales for the first time. The body ideal that became fashionable in the 1920s has never really gone out of fashion, although we have a lot more awareness today of the problems associated with equating thinness with beauty. What may have seemed like a trend in 1920 is now a deeply ingrained beauty ideal that seems nearly impossible to move past. Although some of that work has happened in the last decade, we are already seeing the super-thin beauty ideal make a resurgence.

You cover the invention of sizing in the same conversation as the "Norma" and "Normann" eugenics sculptures, a set of “composite” statues made around the turn of the 20th century that were purported to represent the “average American male and female.” Did these statues quite literally invent the "normal" sizing that has haunted so many women throughout their lives?

The idea of the normal didn’t originate with the Norma and Normman statues, but those statues are a codification in stone of what powerful people in the 1930s and ‘40s thought normal should look like. The link to women’s sizing comes because Norma’s creators borrowed from data collected to create one of the earliest sizing schemes for women’s clothes. A woman named Ruth O’Brien measured thousands of women across the country to try to find standardized sizes that would fit all American women, although she threw out all the data collected about women of color. For a number of reasons, including the fact that O’Brien threw out that crucial data, her sizing system never really worked, and as most women know experientially, we’ve never found one that does work.

In the time since you filed your manuscript, how has the conversation around butts changed, and what do you think it means on a collective, societal level?

Recently, there has been speculation that we are in a new era of celebrating thinness and that the era of big butts is, essentially, over. It’s probably too soon to tell about that particular trend, but I think there are a few things to keep in mind as we think about changes to a body ideal. The idea of a body type coming in and out of fashion is really a question of commerce and control. The fashion industry, and the fashion consumer, demand newness and so eventually we tire of a look and want something different. The idea, though, that we would have to change what our bodies fundamentally look like to participate in a trend or to be fashionable is bizarre because it is so difficult to change what our bodies look like. To have the feeling that our bodies need to be radically altered in order to fit inside a trend is a way that various forms of power exert control over us, leaving us to feel bad about a fundamental aspect of who we are. This was one of the reasons I wanted to write Butts. I wanted to illuminate and question the idea that body types come in and out of fashion — to show how common, how harmful, and how strange that idea is.