Booty. Rump. Bubble butt. Whatever the term, big backsides — and people’s reactions to them — tell us a lot about American culture.
The many names, affectionate and derogatory, we use in reference to female buttocks suggest the range of ambivalent associations they elicit.
“Booty” holds the promise of illicit pleasures. “Fanny” desexualizes the female behind, turning it into a sweet but inconsequential body part. The command to “get off your fanny” is less hostile than “get off your ass.” A “tush” is small and tight, a “rump” is round and fleshy, a “can” is fat and lazy. Sander Gilman points out the “buttocks are an ever-shifting symbolic site in the body. … Never do they represent themselves.” Female buttocks function as metaphors for traits that a society values or rejects. Their meanings vary between cultures and among ethnic groups; while a bounteous butt may bring out disgust or disdain in some social circles, it evokes a range of positive associations in others.
In mainstream U.S. culture, “bubble butts” have typically been associated with “lowly” subject positions or “vulgar” sexuality. Calling too much attention to one’s behind is considered uncouth in polite society, a nasty reminder of forbidden or distasteful acts. A big butt is associated with “unnatural” sex, excrement or the excess and physicality identified with “darker” races. This body metaphor helps us constitute social identities and subject positions.
Like most females growing up in America, I learned early on that bodily attributes such as butt size, hair texture, skin color and body shape could convey a woman’s status and desirability. During my teens, achieving the “all-American girl” look that graced the covers of fashion magazines meant dieting the butt into submission. A woman’s failure to rein in an unruly butt connoted her lack of discipline and self-control, and by association, her inferior moral character. It also marked her place in the social order: “high class” women did not carry excess baggage in the trunk. A skinny ass identified you with the elegant and never too rich, never too thin social elite; big butts with the mammies and maids.
But growing up in Miami, where Latinos compose a majority, meant that I also had to negotiate another repertoire of butt metaphors and associations. While my American girlfriends dreamed of acquiring bigger breasts, the Cuban women in my family stressed the value of a bounteous derrière. Thus, in my Little Havana neighborhood, a generously endowed backside earned appreciative glances or wolf whistles. I knew that the size and shape of my butt identified the degree of my cultural assimilation. Thus buttocks registered a cultural divide: flat butts signaled conformity to American beauty standards, voluptuous hips expressed ethnic pride.
To my mom, my refusal to put more meat on my bones seemed a deliberate form of rebellion, another sign of my increasing distance from her native culture. Straightening my hair and speaking without an accent helped downplay my ethnicity, but nothing screamed “Latinness” like an unabashedly big ass. After all, my mother and her friends delighted in their fulsome booties. A skinny ass provoked pitying looks from the matronly Cubanas, for whom it portended sterile, passionless marriages and unfaithful husbands. But to their more assimilated daughters, big culos were associated with “cubanazas” — those too loud, too fat, “too Cuban” women who were the butt of our jokes. An older generation of Cuban women considered abundant buns an asset, but to those of us who came of age with Twiggy images, a fat ass was a shameful reminder of our ethnic difference.
In recent years, however, Americans have been enjoying a butt fling. Voluptuous female buttocks have become a valuable commodity, exploited in advertising campaigns, music videos and specialty men’s magazines. This butt appeal has produced a profitable commercial market for “bootyful” women. What sparked mainstream culture’s lusty fondness for women with big butts? Angharad Valdivia credits the famous JLo butt, arguing that Jennifer Lopez single-handedly ushered in a butt focus within contemporary U.S. culture, intervening “into codes of beauty and femininity, which until quite recently … relied exclusively on that nearly buttless look …” One London magazine reported that Lopez’s rounded posterior made “curvy bottoms trendy” and created “a demand for silicone buttock implants” (Daily Mail2003). In an article in Vanity Fair, Ned Zeman claims that Lopez “created a phenomenon in which a pair of buttocks became, in and of themselves, a cultural icon. Entire news articles would focus on The Lopez Ass, as if it were a separate life-form.”
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