Bootylicious! Why bottoms have always been top
Butts: A BackStory
by Heather Radke (Simon & Schuster £20, 320pp)
Whenever you look for a picture on the internet using Google’s ‘image search’ function, say a prayer of thanks to Jennifer Lopez’s backside.
After the singer’s appearance at the 2000 Grammy Awards, wearing a green Versace dress that highlighted her derrière (and most of the rest of her), so many people went online for a photograph of the event that the boffins at Google invented the image search in response.
Whenever you look for a picture on the internet using Google’s ‘image search’ function, say a prayer of thanks to Jennifer Lopez’s backside
When it comes to the list of body parts that have fascinated humans down the ages, the butt (to use the word favoured by American author Heather Radke) is far from bottom of the list. Victorian women wore false ones, in the form of the bustle, an ‘accordion-like cage or puffy pillow tied to the waist’.
Originally it was a way to stop the heavy skirts of the time getting stuck between your legs, though women also valued it (so one theory goes) because it made their waists look small by comparison.
The 20th century saw a move towards clothes like those of Coco Chanel, whose dresses suited ‘women who looked like her — skinny women who had few curves and barely any butt’.
The trend was accelerated by World War I, when women needed practical clothes for the jobs they were doing while the men were away fighting. Dieting became popular around the same time — bathroom scales were invented in 1917, and the ‘Slim Club’ decreed that your hips should be no wider than your shoulders.
This isn’t to say a thin butt can’t be a toned butt. The 1980s exercise regime Buns of Steel was so successful that the presenter of its workout videos, Tamilee Webb, once bent over to pick something up in an airport only for someone to tap her on the back and say: ‘Aren’t you the Buns of Steel lady?’
There’s certainly money in them butts. Vinnie Cuccia runs a business in New York making foam backsides for drag queens.
‘When people think about being a woman,’ he explains, ‘it’s all about the breasts and hair and face. But you put these hips on and this butt on, everything changes dramatically.’ After all, the gluteus maximus (the buttock) is the largest muscle in the body.
One possible explanation for the way women store fat (needed for child-rearing) in their backsides is that anywhere else it might disrupt their centre of gravity: ‘To have a very fatty shoulder would make us top-heavy; to have a very fatty knee would make it hard to walk.’
Radke is a fan of theorising, both her own and other people’s, and the book has plenty to say about society and race and gender.
But there are some lovely stories and facts in there too, not least when we arrive in the 21st century, where big is once again beautiful.
The 2001 Destiny’s Child hit Bootylicious is pretty clear in its meaning (‘read my hips’), but I’d never noticed that Meghan Trainor’s 2014 song All About That Bass doesn’t, after all, relate to the musical instrument. That’s because I’d never really listened to the lyrics, such as ‘I got that boom boom that all the boys chase.’
Perhaps the most famous standard bearer for the fuller figure these days is Kim Kardashian.
In the very first episode of her reality TV series Keeping Up With the Kardashians, she is described (by her own mother, no less) as having ‘a little junk in the trunk’.
So famous did her bottom become that rumours arose about her having had implants. In a later series of the show, Kardashian decided to prove this was untrue by having her butt X-rayed.
That, you might say, put an end to the rumours.
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