“Kim Kardashian bares all,” teased the been-there, seen-that headline for Interview’s September cover story, studded with red-blooded American tropes: banner-size flag, platinum hair, blue jeans and jacket surrounding two impossibly round cheeks. “A jockstrap is just a frame for a great butt,” editor in chief Mel Ottenberg told her, referring to the item (“stylist’s own”) he lent for the occasion. Part homecoming queen, part quarterback, Kardashian is known to call the plays, even in—especially in—full glam. Months after her whittled down Marilyn moment rebroke the internet, stirring talk (and before-and-after photos) of a noticeably minimized backside, her cover arrived as, well, a rebuttal.
“Butts are a bellwether,” curator and writer Heather Radke explains in her new book on the subject—a contoured yet amply scaled study that touches on bipedal anatomy, pseudoscience marked by racism, Buns of Steel, drag padding, and “Bootylicious”—a word that Beyoncé defined for Oprah, in 2003, as “beautiful, bountiful, and bounce-able,” a year before the Oxford English Dictionary made it official.
Who determines what titillates, offends, earns copycats or notoriety? In Butts (Avid Reader Press), Radke rewinds to 1810, when a Khoe woman from South Africa—known to scholars as Sarah Baartman and to leering crowds, derogatorily, as the “Hottentot Venus”—took the London stage, exploited for her exoticism. After garish cartoons of Baartman’s figure made her a household name, the bustle rose to curious popularity among well-to-do Victorians. “The more a lady resembled a sofa,” Radke writes of the puffy rears, “the richer she appeared.”
Two centuries later, following swings toward the other extreme (flapper waifs, heroin-chic Kate Moss), a sizable butt is again a prize, entwined as ever with ideas about race, gender, and class. In lieu of tailor-made contraptions, today’s newly minted butts come from plastic surgeons, who are busy relocating fat for hourglass figures. But even the genetically blessed heed that tricky balance. In “Thique,” off this summer’s Renaissance, Beyoncé warns, “She say she on a diet, girl, you better not lose that ass though.”
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Janell Hobson, professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the State University of New York at Albany, sees “echoes of history” in the butt discourse. “We are definitely vying for which national body is going to identify us moving forward,” she says of the tension between the “all-American blond ideal and the Black or mixed-race big-booty ideal.” Kardashian, in a stars-and-stripes thong for Interview, with her ever-present blended family, appears to be hedging her bets.
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