The reign of big butts may be ending, but experts say our obsession is worrying
Butt culture reveals history of exploiting and appropriating Black bodies, says author
After almost a decade of our cultural obsession with twerking, peach emojis and Brazilian butt lifts, 2022 apparently marked the end of the era of the big booty.
On TikTok, users speculated that Kim Kardashian had her butt implants removed (a procedure she never confirmed having in the first place). Cardi B recently shared that she had her own implants removed and cautioned others against getting butt injections. And the New York Post ran a headline that said "Bye-bye booty" and declared that heroin chic was back.
Some critics swiftly shot back, saying that women's bodies should not be reduced to trends. They also pointed out the inherent racism in declaring that a particular physical attribute that many women of colour have naturally is no longer desirable.
If all this debate and discussion over a woman's backside seems familiar, it's because this sort of thing has happened before — a lot, actually. Back in 2014, Vogue wrote that we were "officially in the era of the big booty" and was met with much backlash. (The original article is no longer available online.)
Butt obsession goes back centuries
But this cultural obsession with the derriere, both large and small, actually goes back much further than that — centuries, in fact. And it can tell us a lot about our relationship with gender, race and bodies, according to journalist Heather Radke, whose book, Butts: A Backstory, details the cultural history of the bottom.
"For me, butts became a sort of lens through which you can see the world and just kind of start to understand how we think about bodies," Radke told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.
Much of our complicated relationship with butts has to do with race.
Sarah Baartman, an 18th-century Black woman from South Africa, was "foundational to our obsession with butts," according to Radke. Nicknamed the "Hottentot Venus," she was brought to Europe and put on display for people to marvel at her large backside — at least larger than what Europeans at the time were used to. Black women and big butts started to become associated with hypersexuality.
Kim Kardashian's infamous Paper magazine cover from 2014 that "broke the internet" was compared to images of Baartman and accused by critics of culturally appropriating and sexually exploiting the Black female body.
"It shows how this really pernicious stereotype about Black women formed, and it formed in the performance halls of London," Radke said.
Bustles — padded or metal undergarments that were worn under skirts to add fullness to their backsides, popular during the Victorian era — are also thought to be inspired by Baartman's silhouette. For Radke, this propensity to turn Black women's bodies into fashion statements was an early example of what was to come throughout the next 150 years.
Rise of hip hop culture
After the heroin chic era of the late '80s and '90s, when waif-like models like Kate Moss were upheld as the ideal, there was another cultural shift — again toward bigger butts.
This was partly due to the rise of hip hop in popular culture, says Kyra Gaunt, an ethnomusicologist and social media researcher at the University of Albany. She says that when hip hop artists started catering to a more commercialized audience in the '90s, Black women's bodies became more commonly seen in MTV music videos.
Then in 1992, Sir Mix-a-Lot released his song Baby Got Back. Although it faced some controversy at the time for its overtly sexual lyrics, it became a de facto hit, spending five weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and becoming the second best-selling song in the U.S. that year.
WATCH | The music video for Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back:
"When Baby Got Back came out, that song was an attempt by at least that particular rapper to supposedly empower black women," said Gaunt, who disagrees with the notion that it did.
"[In Baby Got Back], the attention, the ogling and the exoticism that was associated with Sarah Baartman is still laid upon the visual gaze that people are constructed to have around Black female bodies."
As we entered the oughts and 2010s, big butts were becoming more and more celebrated — but not necessarily on Black bodies. In that Vogue article declaring the era of the big booty, the author used celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Iggy Azalea, Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus — non-Black women — as leading examples. Critics pointed out that Black culture had been celebrating big butts for a long time, but now only white women were being lauded for it.
WATCH | Miley Cyrus' performance during the 2013 MTV Music Video Awards featured lots of twerking:
"Although it might be the year of the butt for white women or for non-Black women, actually all of the celebration of the butt hasn't really been that helpful to Black women," said Radke.
And now this new cultural shift away from big butts is just as problematic, Gaunt said.
"Women whose bodies are naturally like that are not getting rid of them. It's not a trend," said Gaunt. "That's not going to change what happens with the … Black and brown female bodies for which this is their natural inheritance."