In her fascinating and frank debut, Butts: A Backstory, journalist Heather Radke ponders why this body part is so polarizing, the collective cultural obsession so enduring.
As the author notes in her introduction, “Butts are a bellwether. The feelings we have about butts are almost always indicative of other feelings—feelings about race, gender, and sex.” Radke explores the societal forces that underlie such feelings as she guides readers on an impressively well-researched tour of butts throughout history, beginning with a functional analysis (hominids and horses take center stage) and ultimately alighting in the present (twerking, social media and celebrity butts).
In between, Radke considers the persistent, pernicious attitude toward women’s bodies as things to critique. She shares the story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman of the Khoe tribe who was effectively enslaved and exhibited in England and France in the early 1800s under the guise of scientific inquiry. From there, Radke segues into eugenics and its emphasis on big butts as supposed markers of sexual deviance.
These so-called scientific endeavors have had a ripple effect, Radke explains, influencing media and pop culture, creeping into beauty standards and body image. She offers examples of butt-obsessed media with positive posterior impacts, too; a deep dive into the 1992 hip-hop sensation “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot is entertaining and edifying, and Beyoncé’s 2001 hit “Bootylicious” gets a shoutout as well.
Radke also touches on fitness sensations (“Buns of Steel”) and fashion trends (Victorian bustles), as well as her complicated feelings about her own “generous” butt. While she, like so many others, has felt shame about her body shape, Radke also believes that “a close examination of the parts of ourselves that can feel unbearable . . . can be transformative.” Certainly, Butts can usher readers onto this more positive path, thanks to its top-notch reportage, assured and respectful voice and invitation to butt-centric contemplation.