Big Booty Beauty and the New Sexual AestheticJanuary 7, 2009
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.”
What are we to make of this apparent notice of what plastic surgeons call the “gluteal aesthetic?” Commenting on the popularity of Lopez’s butt, Frances Negron Muntaner contends that it offers “a way of speaking about Africa in(side) America.” In Muntaner’s reading, a big butt is an “invitation to pleasures construed as illicit by Puritan ideologies, heteronormativity and the medical establishment through the three deadly vectors of miscegenation, sodomy and a high-fat diet.” Further, Latinas are said to be embracing another standard of beauty and reclaiming, along with Lopez, “a curvaceous Latin body.”
Several critics express this optimism, maintaining along with Mary Beltran that for Lopez “to declare beautiful and unashamedly display her well-endowed posterior … could be viewed as nothing less than positive — a revolutionary act with respect to Anglo beauty ideals.” Frances Aparicio notes that the bodies of Jennifer Lopez and Selena (similarly marked by curvy bottoms) have become symbols of ethnic pride. Given JLo’s status as Hollywood’s most highly paid Latina actress, her abundant assets represent both figurative and literal booty. Thus while Lopez’s remark that she likes to accentuate her “curvaceous Latin body” may express ethnic pride, it also signals the commercial viability of a voluptuous tush.
Racialized Bodies and Sexual Stereotypes
Buttocks have long been a source of cultural capital in the West, serving as emblems of sexual, racial or ethnic difference. As Gilman and others have noted, difference is that which threatens order and control, the polar opposite of our individual or group identity. Valdivia puts it this way: “We can go so far as noting that Jennifer is represented in terms of her butt, and that her butt represents ethnic difference.”
It is therefore not surprising that all the gossip and craze inspired by the JLo butt reminded me of another infamous butt — that 19th century colonized rump belonging to Saartje Baartman, dubbed by her masters and impresarios, the “Hottentot Venus.” This young African woman’s steatopygia — large, protruding butt — served as a sign of all that perplexed, fascinated and horrified Europeans in the early 1800s about their darker others. Displayed throughout Europe, Baartman’s sign value as alien body persisted even after her death at age 25. Doctors dissected and preserved her genitals in glass jars, her large buttocks displayed for curious spectators eager to see bodily evidence of the African woman’s propensity to excess, deviant sexuality.
We should not underestimate the symbolic value of buttocks. Butt metaphors helped European cultures categorize and describe their others, ascribing to bodily differences certain moral and intellectual attributes. Gilman argues that, “Beginning with the expansion of European colonial exploration, describing the forms and size of the buttocks became a means of describing and classifying the races. The more prominent the more primitive …” (Making the Body Beautiful). British culture, in particular, identified the buttocks with primitive or debased sexuality (Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex). Non-Western women were associated with the “lower regions” of the body and characterized in terms of their abundant backsides. Similarly, in American culture, the U.S.-Mexico border marked a figurative divide between Northern mind and Southern body, rationality and sensuality, domestic and foreign. This bodily trope culled associations between the lower body and the inferior, more primitive “under”-developed “torrid zones” south of the border; it often served to rationalize U.S. military interventions or corporate exploitation of Latin American labor and resources.
Brazilian Butt-Lifts and the Big Booty Look
But in today’s transnational economy, the buttocks have become a precious commodity. Avital Levy’s documentary film, Bootyful World, which explores social attitudes toward female butts, includes a brief interview with Dr. Anthony Griffin, a famous plastic surgeon who claims that requests for his “Brazilian butt-lift” surgery have surpassed all other surgeries in popularity, despite his $15,000-plus fee. Marketed as a sign of authenticity (of “real women”), big butts also help sell a range of products. Literally expanding their target demographic, Dove’s “Real Beauty” advertising campaign featured full-bodied women in their underwear, prominent hips and thighs in proud display. Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign included a “Big Butts” promotion; full-page ads featured a protruding female butt in profile. Big-butted models have even been gracing the pages of fashion magazines that once catered exclusively to Kate Moss wannabes. As a result, women without a sufficiently endowed behind are getting implants or buying butt reshaping cushions on eBay.
Of course, hip-hop culture has consistently celebrated the physicality of a big butt, and many a male rapper has sung the praises of a bountiful booty. As Tara Lockhart points out, Sir Mix-A-Lot has earned a hefty profit with his 1992 song, “Baby Got Back” (which was re-released on the 2000 Charlie’s Angels soundtrack). Sir Mix-A-Lot’s lyrics situate the fondness for a big butt “squarely within portions of the black community.”
In this context, as in my Little Havana neighborhood, a woman with a generous posterior signals an invitation to sexual pleasure. Several specialty men’s magazines have sprung up to feed this increasing market demand for models with ample booty. Unlike Playboy or Maxim, which cater to “breast men,” magazines like King, Sweetsand Smooth appeal to men who covet women with voluptuous derrieres. They sell “authenticity” as well, turning “booty love” into a sign of ethnic masculinity.
“Urban men, we like butts, we like hips. It’s a black and Hispanic thing,” says Antoine Clark, publisher of Sweets. Big booty isn’t just profitable these days for magazine publishers, ad execs, retailers and rap artists. Some women’s careers now ride, literally, on their butts. African American model Buffie the Body owes her fame and fortune to her huge butt. As a highly paid model in men’s magazines, Buffie has found her calling in life by embodying the fantasies of butt lovers everywhere.
“People normally see the light-skinned, small girls … in magazines, and maybe they were just tired of that and wanted to see something different, something real,” she told Ben Westhoff in an interview. “Even white guys are coming out of the closet, admitting their fetish for big butts! They were just always shy about it, sort of scared, before I hit it big. But now there are people from Switzerland, the U.K., Ireland and Canada who order calendars from me.” Buffie concludes that if it weren’t for her big butt she “wouldn’t have made all this money.”
Body Politics of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton
Perhaps, as Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote recently in Salon magazine, “Lord knows, it’s time the butt got some respect.” Noting that a protruding butt has been “both vilified and fetishized as the most singular of all black female features, more unsettling than dark skin and full lips,” Kaplan goes on to celebrate the emergence of Michelle Obama’s “solid, round, black, Class A boo-ta” on the nation’s political stage. With the election of Barack Obama, Kaplan argues, America finally has a first lady with an unabashedly bounteous behind: “As America fretted about [Barack] Obama’s exoticism and he sought to calm the waters with speeches about unity and common experience. … Here was one clear signifier of blackness that couldn’t be tamed, muted or otherwise made invisible.” Kaplan rightly reminds us that, “Black women are not the only ones with protruding behinds. … How many gluteally endowed nonblack women have been derided for having a black ass? Well, Hillary [Rodham Clinton], for one.”
It may well be that America’s butt fling signals a growing acceptance of difference — a desire to broaden the repertoire of acceptable body types and beauty myths. If this celebration of fulsome booty helps women move beyond the self-hatred and anxiety attached to body fat, or encourages ethnic pride in women whose bodies have historically been pathologized and denigrated — then power to the butt, indeed. But then again, in a consumer society, fashion trends are short-lived, and the demand for novelty fuels profit. Will the buttocks be relegated to the margins of culture once more, disavowed and disowned by a fickle mainstream culture? Either way, I’ll still be dreaming of a time when (to loosely paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), women will be judged by the content of their character and not the size of their butts. Now that would be truly bootyful.
Myra Mendible teaches media and culture studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she is chairwoman of the Literature and Languages Department. She has published widely in a variety of peer-reviewed journals and is the editor of an interdisciplinary collection of essays, From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture (University of Texas Press, 2007).