There’s no doubt about it, as a culture we worship butts. But why do some people have big butts, while others have small, and we have to pick which is better? Marion Winik explores the evolution of the booty and how it impacts our own body image. Part of our series on our bodies and body image at midlife.
The 21st century has been full of surprises for us baby boomers: A black president, talking cash registers, portable phones that are smarter than we are, the ubiquity of hummus. But nothing has made my jaw drop further than the phenomenon of big butt worship.
I constantly compared my body to other people’s, whose cute little butts I could see a lot better than I could see mine.
I grew up hating my big fat butt, in fact, feeling humiliated by it. Oh sure, many other body parts were on my shit list as well, but only my thighs could really touch my butt (ha ha). I now know that girls of all shapes and sizes also felt this way, but I was bona fide chubby. I constantly compared my body to other people’s, whose cute little butts I could see a lot better than I could see mine. In fact, the only good thing about my butt was that I didn’t have to look at it. When I did, for example in a department store three-way mirror, I would feel a degree of self-loathing that eventually caused me to avoid department stores. And while some of my negative body consciousness lightened up around the time I became a mother, I still had enough rage against my butt in my 40s to come up with the Butt Assessment Test (see sidebar).
In 1992, we first heard this line on the radio: “I like big butts, I cannot lie.” That was Sir Mix-a-Lot in his landmark cut, Baby Got Back. In 1998, Juvenile begged us to “Back that ass up.” These songs certainly made me smile, but as I had already gotten the impression that African-American culture did not have the same boner for anorexia that plagued the white world, I wasn’t all that surprised.
Big Butt Worship: What’s…uh…Behind This
Now, in 2018, big butt worship has crossed all color lines, with Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, and Jennifer Lopez leading the charge. My 18-year-old daughter has explained to me that the ideal figure now is something called “thick”—skinny waist with big butt and thighs. She showed me a whole series of pictures that girls have posted on Instagram to show off the size of their hips and butt, a sort of imitation of Nicki’s iconic poses in the music video of “Anaconda.” One of these Instagram posts drew the comment “You been eatin’, girl!” This, she explains, is a compliment.
Wow. Good news for the post-Twiggy generation: we who pretty much invented eating disorders.
Now, in 2018, big butt worship has crossed all color lines, with Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, and Jennifer Lopez leading the charge.
When I checked with my African-American friend Cija, a 42-year-old academic advisor who grew up in Harford County, MD, she basically agreed with my initial assessment that a few extra pounds have generally been better tolerated in black culture than white. Cija attended a predominantly white high school in the ‘90s, where girls with big butts were mocked for having a “wide load.” However, her African-American friends who attended a more racially diverse public high school talked about “the booty girls”—narrow-waisted girls with naturally generous butts who were admired for the perfect thick figure that is now sought after by one and all.
These days, the conversation has gotten quite a bit more complicated, as our devotion to ideal body aesthetics meets our more enlightened feminist attitudes. Cija called my attention to a 2017 storyline on Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It where a character—an aspiring dancer named Shemekka—has silicone implants in her rear. The episode where these implants exploded during a performance was supposed to be funny, but it drew sharp criticism from women writers on the internet as a severe example of mansplaining and body shaming.
There’s a great article by Elizabeth Enochs on Bustle, “How America’s Ideal Butt Has Changed Over the Last Century.” She shows that the big round butt of today actually had a precursor in 1910 with the hourglass of the Gibson Girl, and the pin-ups of the ‘40s and ‘50s had curves for days. The no-butt years heralded by Twiggy in the ‘60s gave way to the aerobicized superfit butt that came into vogue with Jane Fonda and stayed until things blew up, as it were, with our big butt pop culture queens.
Sadly, the focus on having a perfect body, no matter how perfect is defined, is always going to mean some people are miserable
Sadly, the focus on having a perfect body, no matter how perfect is defined, is always going to mean some people are miserable. I wish I could say that my demographic has aged out of this sort of thing, but that would be a big lie. Though I bet they see very few midlife women at the butt-injection clinic, it’s because they’re all over in line for Botox, collagen, and facelifts.
Even if I’m more or less out of the game, the whole “thick” thing makes me happy. When my daughter explained that it applies not just to the butt but to the thighs, it took my breath away. It’s too late for me to grow up sane, but she and her friends are beautiful, curvy girls and happy about it. A more generous social ideal for women’s bodies can only be a good thing.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the celebrated author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead and other books. She also hosts The Weekly Reader podcast on WYPR.
More In Our Body Series
A version of this article was originally published in June 2018.