What is it about butts, exactly, that has made them such a source of fascination throughout history? In her debut book, Butts: A Backstory, reporter Heather Radke seeks to answer that question with wit, empathy and verve. The author spoke with BookPage about what she learned when she looked at butts head-on.
Congratulations on your first book! Did you always want to be an author? What’s been the most exciting aspect so far?
Yes! I have wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl wearing bifocals, thumbing through the pages of Anne of Green Gables at Schuler Bookstore in Okemos, Michigan. It is incredibly difficult to write a book, and a true honor and thrill to have it published. For me, one of the most exciting parts was doing oral histories with different women about their bodies for the initial background research. I spoke with people who had very different bodies from mine and came from very different backgrounds, and it was always fascinating to hear how people feel about their bodies and what helped shape those feelings.
What made you decide that butts merited more than an interview or essay, but instead an entire book? Why were you moved to write about butts now?
I started this book as an essay about the connection between the bustle and the life of Sarah Baartman—a Khoe woman from rural South Africa who was taken to London in 1810 and put on exhibit so people could pay to view her butt—but I quickly realized that the questions I was asking had answers that were much larger than a single essay could contain. In order to understand the symbolic significance of womens’ butts, I would need to explore many historical moments, as well as the science of the butt and the recent explosion of interest in mainstream pop culture. It was this recent interest in the butt that made me think it might be a potent topic to write about now. One of the questions I had was about why and how mainstream beauty standards change, and the butt is such a powerful example of what that looks like.
It’s clear that you put a great deal of time, effort and care into learning about a dizzying variety of people, places, eras, fashions, cultures and more for Butts. Will you share a bit about what it was like to manage such a massive amount of information?
It was a lot of information! It felt like I was trying (and failing) to become an expert on everything, from Jane Fonda’s career to the gender politics of drag to the history of South Africa in the 18th century. I tried to read as widely and deeply as I could on each subject, talk to scholars in the various fields I was covering, and report on the people whose lives were touched by the topics in each chapter. In a lot of ways, it felt like what I used to do when I curated exhibits at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and I used some of the organizational and research tools I learned when I did that work. But there is always a bit of a feeling of drinking from a firehose when taking on such an enormous topic. I’ll never be able to learn as much as I want!
Was there anything you had to leave out of Butts that you wish you could’ve included?
The butt is a HUGE topic, because it’s as old as the human species and as varied. I wish I’d been able to research and include more about other parts of the world besides the United States and Europe, but I decided that it made sense to narrow the scope because of my own personal experience and the enormous influence the U.S. has had on beauty standards worldwide. I also did some research on art history, pornography and the midcentury pinup girl, each of which could have been its own chapter!
“The work is to try and interrogate our assumptions about bodies and ask where they came from, if they are true and why we cling to them.”
In your Introduction to Butts, you reflect on your childhood view that your mother’s butt was “a body part like any other, something to love because I loved the human it was part of. It was not a problem or a blessing. It was only a fact.” Of course, as your book amply illustrates, “butts are not so simple.” Do you think we will ever be able to back off of butts enough to view them as fact, to see them as a body part rather than a symbol?
Honestly, no. We use bodies and body parts as symbols constantly—whether breasts, skin, hair or butts—and that feels very unlikely to change. I think the real problem isn’t actually using bodies symbolically but doing so unconsciously, or confusing the symbolism for reality. The work is to try and interrogate our assumptions about bodies and ask where they came from, if they are true and why we cling to them. Maybe then we can find new kinds of symbolism, or new ways to make meaning that aren’t so hurtful to so many people.
Considering race is vitally important when examining attitudes toward butts and the women they belong to. From Sarah Baartman and the racist so-called “scientific inquiry” that was used to exploit her, to the more modern-day obsession with Jennifer Lopez’s posterior—there is a seemingly endless mix of fascination, envy, desire and anger projected onto the butts of women of color. When you think about that aspect of your work in Butts, what has stayed with you the most?
As a white woman, I was very interested in when and why white women become interested in the butts of women of color. Of course, there isn’t a single answer to that question, but something that twerk instructor Kelechi Okafor said really stuck with me. She talked about how many white women she encountered as a dance instructor were uncomfortable with their own sexuality and turned to twerk as a way to express themselves sexually. Obsession with butts is almost always adjacent to angst about sex and race. The more we can talk about that openly, the more likely it is that fewer people will be objectified and harmed by that obsession.
“Because they are funny, and easy not to take seriously, there is a lot of subtext that goes unexamined in butt-related cultural products.”
“Baby Got Back” is a song that everyone knows, and your deep dive into its origins offers lots of interesting context in terms of how the song and its creator, Sir Mix-A-Lot, were received in 1992—and the ways in which its lyrics and video still affect our perceptions of butts today. But while the song and video are in many ways a celebration, you also note that one professor called it “empowered misogyny.” Can you share a bit more about that dichotomy?
I think that “Baby Got Back” is a very complicated text, largely because it is so popular. I believe that Sir Mix-A-Lot meant for it to be a celebration of a beauty standard that, at the time, was not mainstream. But when I watch it now, my conversation with Kyra Gaunt, the scholar who called the song “empowered misogyny,” is the one I think about the most. She talked about how it was part of a larger trend in hip-hop of objectifying women, but that because it’s about butts and therefore seems like a joke, it’s easier to give it a pass. It is one of the things that is truly fascinating about butts: Because they are funny, and easy not to take seriously, there is a lot of subtext that goes unexamined in butt-related cultural products.
You note that when you were around 10 or 11, suddenly exercise was “no longer a game. It was a necessity.” Aerobics were a rite of passage for women in the 1980s, especially “Buns of Steel” and Jane Fonda videos. Is there any form of exercise today that occupies the same sort of butt-obsessed space in our culture?
There were lots of classes in the mid-2010s that promised to help create butts that looked like Kim Karashian or Beyonce. Those classes, which likely used very similar exercises as “Buns of Steel,” promised to create a big butt, whereas “Buns of Steel” was much more invested in a small, tight butt. It’s in these promises that you can really see the ways that trends around body shape ebb and flow.
“The things that we don’t take seriously, the things we laugh about or feel are too small to notice, are often things that hold tremendous meaning.”
What were you most hoping to convey or accomplish with Butts? What’s been the most surprising reaction to the book so far?
I’ve definitely gotten the sense that some people are surprised that a book like this exists. When I posted the cover on social media, there were a few retweets where people said, essentially, “Is this some kind of joke?” But in a way, I suppose that is part of the bigger point I’m trying to make with this book: The things that we don’t take seriously, the things we laugh about or feel are too small to notice, are often things that hold tremendous meaning. Butts contain multitudes, and it can be both meaningful and fun to discover just what those multitudes are.
What’s next for you?
Great question! I just had a baby, so my hope is that a little more sleep lies in my immediate future. Beyond that, I’m working on a couple of projects that take up some of the themes of Butts—gender, identity, the importance of the small—and explore them from very different angles.
Author headshot of Heather Radke © by Andrew Semans