“Winning, cheeky, and illuminating….What appears initially as a folly with a look-at-this cover and title becomes, thanks to Radke’s intelligence and curiosity, something much meatier, entertaining, and wise.” —The Washington Post
“Lively and thorough, Butts is the best kind of nonfiction.” —Esquire, Best Books of 2022
A “carefully researched and reported work of cultural history” (The New York Times) that explores how one body part has influenced the female—and human—experience for centuries, and what that obsession reveals about our lives today.
Whether we love them or hate them, think they’re sexy, think they’re strange, consider them too big, too small, or anywhere in between, humans have a complicated relationship with butts. It is a body part unique to humans, critical to our evolution and survival, and yet it has come to signify so much more: sex, desire, comedy, shame. A woman’s butt, in particular, is forever being assessed, criticized, and objectified, from anxious self-examinations trying on jeans in department store dressing rooms to enduring crass remarks while walking down a street or high school hallways. But why? In Butts: A Backstory, reporter, essayist, and RadioLab contributing editor Heather Radke is determined to find out.
Spanning nearly two centuries, this “whip-smart” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) cultural history takes us from the performance halls of 19th-century London to the aerobics studios of the 1980s, the music video set of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and the mountains of Arizona, where every year humans and horses race in a feat of gluteal endurance. Along the way, she meets evolutionary biologists who study how butts first developed; models whose measurements have defined jean sizing for millions of women; and the fitness gurus who created fads like “Buns of Steel.” She also examines the central importance of race through figures like Sarah Bartmann, once known as the “Venus Hottentot,” Josephine Baker, Jennifer Lopez, and other women of color whose butts have been idolized, envied, and despised.
Part deep dive reportage, part personal journey, part cabinet of curiosities, Butts is an entertaining, illuminating, and thoughtful examination of why certain silhouettes come in and out of fashion—and how larger ideas about race, control, liberation, and power affect our most private feelings about ourselves and others.
This whip-smart history charts the changing symbolism and meanings associated with the female bottom in "mainstream, hegemonic, Western culture" over the past two centuries. Radiolab reporter Radke delves into the eugenicist underpinnings of Sarah Baartman's performances as the "Hottentot Venus" in 19th-century London, the giant faux posteriors of Victorian bustles, Jane Fonda's butt-centered aerobics in the 1970s, the "lineage of butts in mainstream hip-hop," and the concurrent rise of fashion's flat "Kate Moss" butt and the Brazilian butt lift in the 1990s, among other milestones in cultural attitudes toward women's rear ends. Radke also explores the physiology of running and various biological explanations for why humans developed butts, and interweaves recollections on her own early struggles to accept her "generous butt" with details about historical shifts in preferred posterior proportions. Throughout, Radke sharply challenges white women to examine how "women's butts have been used as a means to create and reinforce racial hierarchies," describing Miley Cyrus's twerking "as an almost cartoonish example of cultural appropriation." Marked by Radke's vivacious writing, candid self-reflections, and sophisticated cultural analyses, this is an essential study of "ideas and prejudices" about the female body.