Heather Radke’s winning, sassy and enlightening “Butts: A Backstory” arrives with a voluptuous peach gracing the cover. Filtered through a feminist lens, “Butts” is a hybrid memoir and research exclusively on the rear of women – and those with a predisposition to drag. While curious and comprehensive in her research, Radke chose to leave some behind. Her interest lies in glutei maximi that tend to maximal. This book has back, as Sir Mix-a-Lot might say. (The song, which Radke describes as “deploying a warm, goofy glee,” of course deserves its own chapter.)
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Radke is a reporter at “Radiolab” and an instructor at Columbia’s MFA writing program. She is an enthusiastic, inventive reporter, who enjoys her quest to better understand why so many women, starting with herself, have such complicated relationships with their buttocks. She is an engaging storyteller. During her investigation, she tracks down the creator of the “Buns of Steel” training tapes, an outsized character with a seemingly elastic relationship to the truth. Radke examines the hustle, popularized in 1868, a rare historical moment when women chose it increase the appearance of their behinds to “create the desired gluteal lump”.
We learn that callipygian Greek is for “have a nice buttocks,” and that in 1917 the scales in the bathroom, that household instrument of unending masochism, began to damage self-esteem. refuses to disclose its readings “as if it were a trade secret.”
Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, an artist, fashion designer, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and sage and fit sage, tells Radke, “You have to remember that your clothes have nothing to do with your body. Clothing is a series of questions that concern the bottom line, not the correctness of the product.” Our clothes may fight against our natural forms and do little to strengthen or increase self-esteem because, as Glaum-Lathbury surmises, “our bodies are unruly.” Wisdom for all ages.
Race figures prominently in “Butts,” including the disturbing, mournful 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 by butts’. including the sounds and smells they emit. Spectators who paid extra were allowed to pinch or poke her behind with an umbrella, “turning Baartman into whatever they wanted: a body to taunt, a specimen to study, an object to desire, a symbol to control.” . Her butt became “a symbol of the growing empire and a fantasy of African hypersexuality,” writes Radke. Baartman wasn’t the only African woman treated so inhumanely and so curious about her body, Radke notes, she was just the Her book explores the differences in how white and black women view their backsides, with the latter often accepting larger sizes, and society’s ongoing preoccupation with the body part in both races in different ways.
Twerking, Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj contribute to making 2014 “a very butty year.” Who knows? The year also marked the rise of the “belfie” — the selfie but for, you know, butts. The “Bootylicious” section includes chapters dedicated to Kate Moss, Lopez, and Kardashian, who are booty icons or, in the case of the British superwaif, a decided lack of one, given her “overall rudeness.”
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Radke proves to be a witty, astute observer, especially when she avoids academic jargon. (If the word “mainstream, hegemonic, western culture” never comes up again, we’ll all be better off.) She’s smart about social history but falters when she gets personal, indulgent in feelings about her own behind and dating history that have little adding beyond blunting her feminist and modern outlook. The book’s introduction is weak and unnecessary, littered with quotes from unnamed women who feel coerced. As with many recent book launches, it’s a lot of telling, not showing, and reads like a dressed-up exercise that dilutes the intent and intelligence of the book.
For many women, the butt is central to assessing their self-worth. “We understand the butt as a place of attraction, a place of repulsion, a body part that is inseparable from associations of race and gender, but those associations don’t come from the bone layers, muscles. and fat that create the biological reality of the buttocks,” writes Radke. “They come from all the layers of meaning and history that we put on top of them.”
What initially seems like a silliness with a take-on-this cover and title becomes something much meatier, more entertaining and wise thanks to Radke’s intelligence and curiosity.
Karen Heller is National Editor-in-Chief for Style.
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