Will the Era of the Butt Ever End?Historians in the News
tags: art history, fashion, eugenics, bodies, history of sexuality
From the title of Heather Radke’s new book “Butts: A Backstory,” and its cover image of a ripe, callipygian peach, one might expect a book of provocative photos, or perhaps a chronicle of a personal fetish. But “Butts” is in fact a carefully researched and reported work of cultural history.
The blunt word choice for the title was intentional.
“You feel the sanitization in a word like ‘buttocks’,” said Ms. Radke, who has long, wavy dark hair and, on a Friday in October, was wearing a black linen jumpsuit and a black velvet blazer with Chelsea boots and blue socks.
She looked like a cool Brooklyn mom, which she is. Ms. Radke, 39, had a baby over the summer, and this was one of her first times venturing out without her child since giving birth. She had come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in search of butts.
Ms. Radke walked from the Great Hall through the wings of Greek and Roman art. She almost immediately spotted a marble female figure from 4500 B.C. that resembled the voluptuous figure of the famed Venus of Willendorf. “We think of them as fertility sculptures, but we don’t really know — it’s tempting to see these things and use our contemporary lens about what they mean,” she said.
The book, which will be published by Avid Reader Press on Tuesday, makes the case that rear ends can tell us a lot about society. “Talking about women’s butts,” she writes, “has, for at least two centuries, been a way to talk about, and around, questions of race, gender, and what bodies mean.”
Ms. Radke catalogs freak shows in 19th-century London, visits natural history museums in Paris and attends drag performances in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens. She writes about the importance of famous derrières on stars of the past and present, such as Josephine Baker or Jennifer Lopez, arguing that the shape of their behinds influenced what men desired and what women aspired to. She also makes the case that the fascination with those women’s shapes reflected the changing demographics and culture of 1920s Paris and 1990s America.
Ms. Radke also profiles lesser-known but still important figures in the world of butts, like Lindsay Wagner, the most in-demand fit model for denim in the garment industry, and Greg Smithey, who created the “Buns of Steel” workouts in the 1980s.