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Ifs and butts: the long history of the derrière

Heather Radke’s ‘Butts: A Backstory’ is a witty look at the historical progress of society’s relationship with the butt

Heather Radke, photo courtesy and copyright: Ye Fan

By Jen Thomas

LAST PUBLISHED 20.11.2023  |  04:00 PM IST

I remember the exact moment my butt came into view, so to speak. I was 15, standing in my parent’s kitchen, and my brother and I were arguing. Scrambling to find an insult big enough to hurt my feelings, he yelled, “You have a pumpkin butt!"

Until that moment, my butt had given me no second thoughts, only a mere hinge on my body, something so unremarkable it wasn’t worth commenting on—until someone did. I looked at my mother—she also had a butt that resembled a pumpkin. So did my aunts. The women in my family all had them, but I could tell you one thing: None liked their butts. And thrust into the open, my bottom now the subject of its first insult, I realised I not only didn’t like mine—I simply couldn’t. After all, it was the shape of a pumpkin!

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In the years to come, I sported a very complicated relationship with my butt, this thing attached to my back. And no matter its shape or form, it was destined to follow me everywhere. I realised my discomfort was not only because I had limited control over its size and shape; it was because I had very little control over how it was viewed, judged or objectified.

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In the 1990s, Kate Moss’ thin body was the gold standard in femininity, and then, some years later, Jennifer Lopez and her ample booty splashed on to the scene, and big butts were glorified. Because of her, I took a few tentative mental steps towards accepting my butt. However, as the big-butt trend seemed to snowball, Kim Kardashian and her sisters infiltrated our collective consciousness. They created almost a cartoonish and racially ambiguous figure for women to aspire to. And what did we women do? We tried to obtain it, and oh yes, we did. Imagine spending years trying to minimise your butt and being told big butts were all the rage (but only when accompanied by thin waists). It made my head spin.

Butts: A Backstory by Heather Radke, perfectly adorned with bright orange peach on the cover, reflects this complicated relationship and the journey towards self-acceptance on every page, and it’s a book most women will relate to. Radke is witty, engaging, meanwhile staying sensitive, peeling back the historical progress of our society’s relationship with the butt.

Radke expertly weaves a human story of the butt, from its first appearance on homo erectus to the Instagram pages we flick through every day. She uncovers a story of our fascination, obsession, and shame around our butts.

Butts—A Backstory: By Heather Radke, Simon & Schuster, 317 pages, 470

Through the centuries, women have been buffeted back and forth by the shift in the male gaze. Radke explains that in the Victorian era, the age of bustles and corsets, the desired shape was a dainty hourglass, but there was one problem: European women generally didn’t have that shape. The solution was the corset, a tightening undergarment that created an accentuated bosom and tiny waist. When paired with a bustle (a glorified bum-pad) under the skirt, voilà, a woman whose curves would generally resemble a bumpy tree branch could also have this socially acceptable and strongly desired shape.

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The 19th century continued to love big butts, and curves defined what it meant to be feminine. However, as Radke explains, the winds shifted, and women suddenly cast off corsets, bustles and hobble skirts. Over the next few years, the corset suddenly became ludicrous and these accessories to enhance a woman’s shape were cast off.

Replacing it was a new era in feminine fashion: the flapper girl. In the 20th century, women got to shed layers and exoskeletal parts and dive into the slinky, higher hemlines of the flapper dress era of the 1920s. Here, rail-thin, boyish figures were the rage, and the butt virtually disappeared. This was fashion freedom, as women could scrap their heavy clothes and wear less, but simultaneously they were told their bodies had to conform to meet the change in fashion. Women now dieted and exercised to the body shape that littered every magazine cover. To achieve these shapes, Radke says women now had to demonstrate “masochistic self-control, or even self-harm".

Plastic surgery is a solution for those with money to burn and a lack of aversion to dodgy anesthesia. As Radke explains, some procedures conducted on women’s backsides to enhance their figures can have dire consequences when done without caution. And yet, we do this to ourselves because we believe that, at some level, something about us is wrong.

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As Radke goes through each change in social consciousness, all the mixed marketing messages women have consistently received over the years, you can instantly see that it is as tyrannical as it is insane. Radke’s book leaves you feeling that it is easier to accept how your body was created rather than constantly chase a flickering ideal. You ask yourself the same question she asks herself every time someone says her butt is too big—compared to what?

Jen Thomas is a master women’s health coach.