Mood: Reflective, informative
Content Warning(s): Racism, colonization, cultural appropriation
In Butts: A Backstory, Radke explores the butt and its significance in Western culture. A satisfying mix of personal narrative and historical analysis, Radke uses one physical body part—the butt—as a jumping-off point to reevaluate the way we look at our bodies AND to question the very reasons we’re judging our bodies in the first place.
Radke’s analysis of butts and how/why they’ve been sexualized is also an examination of racism, cultural appropriation, and colonization, and the generations of harm caused by white people: “…white culture and fashion have both proved relentlessly adept at cherry-picking throughout the centuries, finding a way to poach the parts of other people’s culture, histories, and bodies that suit them and leave behind the rest.”
Refreshingly straightforward and well-researched, Butts: A Backstory has forever changed the way I perceive my own body and the bodies around me: “On and in our bodies, we carry histories…histories of our families, our lives, and of the world. Our feelings about our bodies are the legacy of people and stories from long ago.”
Review by Sophia
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A fascinating journey into the scientific and cultural history of the female butt–for fans of Mary Roach and Mark Kurlansky.
Growing up, Heather Radke always felt that her butt was too big. Whether she was sitting in dressing rooms with her mom as they tried on clothes, walking down the street to unwanted cat calls, or ignoring the kids snickering in middle school hallways during the era of rail-thin supermodels, the generous shape of her rear end made her feel unattractive and out of place. Until about a decade or so later, when she realized that curvy figures like hers were suddenly everywhere: song lyrics declaring love for big butts, advertisements, and on the covers of celebrity tabloids. What she had been once ashamed of was suddenly a kind of superpower: what had happened?
To investigate, Radke–now a museum curator and writer–set out to learn how butts became the most desired, sexualized, and mythologized part of the female body. Along the way, she explores the halls of Harvard, the fashion studios of New York and museum archives in Paris and London, interviewing evolutionary biologists who study the way our butts help us run, models whose measurements have defined jean sizes for decades, and creators of the glute-focused fitness crazes of the 1980s, like Buns of Steel. She explores the impact of Sarah Bartmann, known as “The Venus Hottentot,” flappers, drag queens, and the twerking craze.
Part deep dive reportage, part personal journey, and part cabinet of curiosities, Butts is an entertaining, informative, and thoughtful examination of how and why certain kinds of figures come in and out of fashion, and how larger forces, like equality, control, liberation, and power affect our most private feelings about our own bodies, contributing to how we see ourselves and one another.