Books devoted to a solitary item, dubbed microhistories, are a relatively recent genre yet already an industry, generating volumes on topics such as salt, pencils, rats, bananas and, yes, soup and nuts. It was only a matter of time before somebody hit bottoms, an investigation into that body part over which so many people obsess yet never glimpse without assistance from a mirror, smartphone or partner.
Heather Radke’s winning, cheeky and illuminating “Butts: A Backstory” arrives with a voluptuous peach garnishing the cover. Filtered through a feminist lens, “Butts” is a hybrid memoir and investigation into women’s rears — and folks with an aptitude for drag. Though curious and wide-ranging in her investigation, Radke chose to leave some behinds behind. Her interest lies in glutei maximi that tend toward maximal. This book has got back, as Sir Mix-a-Lot might say. (The song, which Radke describes as “deploying a warm, goofy jollity,” naturally earns its own chapter.)
A reporter at “Radiolab” and an instructor at Columbia’s MFA writing program, Radke is an eager, inventive reporter, relishing her search into greater understanding of why so many women, starting with herself, have such complicated relationships with their rears. She’s an engaging storyteller. In her exploration, she tracks down the creator of the “Buns of Steel” workout tapes, an outsize character with a seemingly elastic relationship with the truth. Radke examines the bustle, popularized in 1868, a rare historic moment when women opted to increase the appearance of their posteriors to “create the desired gluteal lump.”
We learn that “callipygian” is Greek for “having beautiful buttocks,” and that the bathroom scale, that household implement of infinite masochism, began damaging self-worth in 1917. Radke tracks down the nation’s most popular jeans fit model — the notion of universal fit is an absurd construct — who refuses to divulge her measurements “as if they’re a trade secret.”
Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, an artist, fashion designer, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and sage on sizing and fit, tells Radke: “You have to remember, your clothes have nothing to do with your body. Clothes are a series of questions related to the bottom line, not the correctness of the product.” Our clothes may fight our natural forms and do little to enhance or increase self-esteem because, as Glaum-Lathbury surmises, “our bodies are unruly.” Wisdom for the ages.
Race features prominently in “Butts,” including the disturbing, dolorous history of Sarah Baartman, a Khoe woman from South Africa whose ample backside became a freak-show spectacle in London in 1810. We learn that Georgian society was “obsessed with butts,” including the sounds and smells they emit. Spectators who paid extra were allowed to pinch or poke her backside with an umbrella, “turning Baartman into whatever they wanted her to be: a body to be reviled, a specimen to be studied, an object to be desired, a symbol to be controlled.” Her rear became “a symbol of the growing empire and a fantasy of African hypersexuality,” Radke writes.
Baartman wasn’t the only African woman who received such inhumane treatment and salacious curiosity about her body, Radke notes; she was merely the first. Her book explores the differences in how White and Black women regard their backsides, the latter often more accepting of larger size, and society’s continued preoccupation with the body part in both races in different ways.
Twerking, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj contributed to making 2014 “a very butty year.” Who knew? The year also marked the rise of the “belfie” — the selfie but for, you know, butts. The “Bootylicious” section includes chapters devoted to Kate Moss, Lopez and Kardashian, those icons of booty or, in the case of the British superwaif, a decided lack of one, given her “overall lumplessness.”
Radke proves a witty, incisive observer, particularly when she steers clear of academic jargon. (If the word salad “mainstream, hegemonic, Western culture” never appears again, we will all be better for it.) She’s smart about social history but falters when she gets personal, indulging feelings about her own rear and dating history that add little beyond dulling her feminist and modern take. The book’s introduction is weak and gratuitous, littered with quotes from unnamed women that feel forced. Like many recent book introductions, it’s a lot of tell, not show, and reads like a tacked-on exercise that dilutes the book’s intention and intelligence.
To many women, rears move front and center in assessing self-worth. “We understand the butt as a site of attraction, a site of revulsion, a body part inextricably tied up in associations of race and gender, but those associations don’t come from the layers of bone, muscle, and fat that create the biological reality of the butt,” Radke writes. “They come from all the layers of meaning, and of history, that we’ve put on top of it.”
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.
Karen Heller is national features writer for Style.
By Heather Radke
Avid Reader Press. 320 pp. $28.99
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