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No iffs, only butts

Op-Ed 2024-04-09, 12:25am


Sudhirendar Sharma

Sudhirendar Sarma

We are humans, thanks to our butts. 

Rarely is the derriere taken seriously enough to be written about, but there have never been any ifs about butts. People with big butts are as worried as those with small, as both want to suit the size they deem fit. The entire health industry with its gadgets and diet plans is geared to fulfil such body-reshaping desires. But a butt always remains what it is. If it were not butts, evolutionary biologists explain, humans would neither have traversed long distances nor escaped predation. ‘We are humans, thanks to our butts’. Butts: A Backstory traces the evolutionary biology and cultural relevance of this enigmatic body part.

Butts, a backstory

Cheeky and entertaining, Heather Radke presents the cultural history of a body part that has long been perceived as an indicator of women’s nature – from femineity to morality. It offers a perspective-shifting reading on a body part, from mania for Sarah Baartman’s butts during 18th century to fetish for Kim Kardashian’s backsides in the 21st. The deeply researched narrative examines society’s obsession with derrieres and elaborates what butts are and what butts mean.  Within butts’ cultural histories are embedded stories of tragedy, anger, obsession, lust, and joy. It turns out to be an absorbing reading on a subject so familiar as to be practically invisible. 

The objectification and commodification of butts has remained a work in progress. Fascinating is the fact that all throughout modern history women have found their butts under influence of male gaze. No wonder, Kate Moss’ small butts were once the gold standard in femineity and few years later big butts of Jennifer Lopez were glorified. The story of butts is all about male fascination and obsession for a body part that female have continued to pay dearly to avoid being shamed for carrying the size and shape not in vogue. The book makes significant contribution to the complicated discussion around women’s bodies.  

Radke raises question on why have women been enamored by male gaze to take evolution into their own hands - by hiding, accentuating, ignoring or sculpting their butts. ‘In the process, not only do women harm others, but harm themselves by never really understanding where the shame comes from.’ Butts are essential for being human, but during last two centuries women’s butts have been talked around the ideas of race, gender, fitness, fashion, and market. No wonder, feelings about butts are trapped in ideas and prejudices. 

The cheeky peach emoji on the cover may hold a sales-pitch but the book is a curious but intelligent peep into the world around butts. The narrative offers more than what any reader may have expected, raising empathy on physical suffering butts were once subjected through bustles and corsets. Such stuff has long been dusted but fashion freedom has now subjected women to wear the flapper dress to demonstrate masochistic ‘self-control, or even self-harm.’ Plastic surgery is for those who wish to burn their butts to conform to new body shape.  

Butts: A Backstory chronicles each change in social consciousness around butts that drove the market for women in the last three centuries. It is intriguing how this human body part came to be on the receiving end of so much attention. Placing her own body in the center, the award-winning essayist and journalist concludes that howsoever women may have treated their butts, our bodies have their own agenda not to obey us. Whether one wants it big or small, a butt always remains what it is. The human body stubbornly refuses to oblige. 

Deeply researched and ingeniously written, Radke argues that the cultural history of butts has a enduring message for everyone to not only understand past mechanisms on body-shaming but develop new meanings on how our bodies ought to be seen. The author leaves reader with the answer she offers those who ask ‘your butt is too big’ – compared to what?  

Butts: A Backstory

by Heather Radke

Simon & Schuster, London

Extent: 310, Price: Rs. 599.

(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer and researcher specializing in development issues. He is based in New Delhi, India)

First published in Deccan Herald on April 7, 2024