A fascinating journey into the scientific and cultural history of the female butt, for fans of Mary Roach and Leslie Jamison.
Whether we love them or hate them, think they’re sexy, think they’re strange, consider them too big, too small, or anywhere in between, humans have a complicated relationship with butts. It is a body part unique to humans, critical to our evolution and survival, and yet it has come to signify so much more: sex, desire, comedy, shame. A woman’s butt, in particular, is forever being assessed, criticized, and objectified, from anxious self-examinations trying on jeans in department store dressing rooms to enduring crass remarks while walking down a street or high school hallways. But why? In Butts: A Backstory, reporter, essayist, and RadioLab contributing editor Heather Radke is determined to find out.
Spanning nearly two centuries, this vivid cultural history takes us from the performance halls of 19th-century London to the aerobics studios of the 1980s, the music video set of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and the mountains of Arizona, where every year humans and horses race in a feat of gluteal endurance. Along the way, she meets evolutionary biologists who study how butts first developed; models whose measurements have defined jean sizing for millions of women; and the fitness gurus who created fads like “Buns of Steel.” She also examines the central importance of race through figures like Sarah Bartmann, once known as the “Venus Hottentot,” Josephine Baker, Jennifer Lopez, and other women of color whose butts have been idolized, envied, and despised.
Part deep dive reportage, part personal journey, part cabinet of curiosities, Butts is an entertaining, illuminating, and thoughtful examination of why certain silhouettes come in and out of fashion—and how larger ideas about race, control, liberation, and power affect our most private feelings about ourselves and others.
About the Author
Heather Radke is an essayist, journalist, and contributing editor and reporter at Radiolab, the Peabody Award–winning program from WNYC. She has written for publications including The Believer, Longreads, and The Paris Review, and she teaches at Columbia University’s creative writing MFA Program. Before becoming a writer, Heather worked as a curator at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago.
“Whip-smart. . . Marked by Radke’s vivacious writing, candid self-reflections, and sophisticated cultural analyses, this is an essential study of ‘ideas and prejudices’ about the female body.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Heather Radke’s Butts: A Backstory is rigorous, generous, and utterly compelling. The range of its research is thrillingly expansive—from the deep origins of twerk to the sleek silhouettes of Coco Chanel, from the “mono-bum” of the Victorian bustle to the brilliant subversions of drag—allowing Radke a range of fascinating vantage points from which to explore the histories our bodies hold. With humor, intelligence, outrage, and compassion, Radke excavates the social and historical forces that haunt our most ordinary moments. This fiercely intelligent, frequently witty "backstory" is a journey through centuries of history that will transform how you think about the butt, and—quite possibly—how you consider the value of exploring those parts of ourselves we don’t take seriously enough.” — Leslie Jamison, bestselling author of Make It Scream Make It Burn and The Empathy Exams
“From the first, I have been delighted and deeply informed by Heather Radke's writing. She has a mind like no other. This book contributes not only a great deal to the complicated discussion around women's bodies, it illuminates what unites us all: being human.”
— Hilton Als, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author of White Girls
“Juicy and scholarly, Butts is a heck of a ride. At turns troubling, wild, painful, surprising and flat-out fun, Radke’s reporting unearths a set of largely overlooked historical figures with outsized effects on cultural evolutions, from the discovery of the first hominid butt, to the creation of the frightening statues Norm and Norma, to the gruesome tale behind the bustle, these gripping stories work together to elucidate the crushing web of cultural, commercial, and pseudoscientific forces shaping our very private senses of discomfort, envy, and belonging. Her book is teeming with rebels—drag queens and fat activists and twerkers—who flip supremacy the bird and offer another path through. Don’t let the cute cover fool you, inside is a serious feat of reporting and scholarship.” — Lulu Miller, bestselling author of Why Fish Don't Exist
"A deeply thought, rigorously researched, and riveting history of human butts — Radke knows exactly when to approach her subject with levity and when with gravity. A pitch perfect debut." — Melissa Febos, bestselling author of Girlhood and Body Work
“Heather Radke takes a subject so familiar as to be practically invisible and trains a sharp reportorial eye on it, touring the reader through the centuries of cultural history that shape our feelings about what's filling out our jeans. She has amassed a trove of surprising and fascinating case studies, from bustles and the "Hottentot Venus" to flappers, fit models, and Sir Mixalot. Butts is everything you want a piece of reportage to be: smart, creative, searching, deeply researched, political, and fun.” — Jordan Kisner, author of Thin Places