A good thing, really. Hairstyles may come and go; depending on my level of exercise, my stomach is either presentable or not. But my butt stays pretty much the same, and it's gotten me enough compliments over the years that I am grateful—to steal a line from rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot—that I've got a motor in the back of my Honda. Growing up in an African-American and Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn, I was programmed to be proud of a big bottom. My teenage years were punctuated by brothers calling out affectionately in singsong, "Can I get some fries with that shake, cutie?" and "Shake it but don't break it / It took your mama nine months to make it." It wasn't until I graduated from college and began working with women of different backgrounds that I realized most American women don't aspire to a big butt. On the contrary, I learned, most of them don't even like their rear ends.
Case in point: A couple of years ago, I was invited to a black-tie event. I went shopping for an evening dress with my friend Carrie. I tried on dress after dress. Finally, I settled on a rose-colored Gianfranco Ferre with a draped neckline. "I love it," I said. "I want to buy it." Carrie paused; her expression was pained.
"What?" I said.
"I like it from the front," she said, letting out a sigh, "but it makes your butt look big." It didn't take me more than a second. "Sold!" I said.
Carrie didn't get it—and not just because she's a white girl. So many times I've heard people say that my healthy perspective about my butt is a function of my being black. But that's not entirely true. Race isn't necessarily a good indicator of one's aesthetic. There are black girls with large butts who are as unhappy about them as Carrie would be.
What I want to know is how we all got here—why are so many of us, for better or worse, obsessed with our butts? Why has liposuction become the most popular cosmetic surgery in the United States? A headline in one popular magazine promises a "firm, sexy butt—fast." You can pop any number of butt-reducing tapes into your VCR—starting with the classic Buns of Steel
or Brand New Butt and More...
. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, PhD, author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls
, agrees that the female bottom is receiving a new level of attention. According to Brumberg, our focus on various body parts is cyclical. "At different points in time in this country, from the 1800s to the present, women have had preoccupations with different areas of their bodies," she says. In the late 1800s, we coveted a wasp waist and suffered in corsets and bustles. In the 1920s, shorter hemlines encouraged us to focus on the leg. The 1940s and 50s brought a focus on bosoms, which has lasted, says Brumberg, more than 50 years and is now joined by our fascination with the bottom.
Outside of the western ideal, in almost every other culture in the world, a big butt is sexy, a sign of fertility. I know what you're thinking: That's nice, but I don't live on the Discovery Channel. I feel the same. But still I believe there's a way to shift our point of view. For example, we can learn from our Victorian ancestors that a big bottom half can give a woman presence. Though bustles were a trope—a style that alluded to the bottom while keeping it well hidden—a woman wearing one walked with the stately carriage of a racehorse. The bustle literally cleared the space around her and demanded attention.
As has mine. I spend as much time at the gym as the next girl, but I'm not trying to change my rear end. I have my mother's butt; she has my grandmother's. When I look at myself in silhouette, it reminds me of who I am. Changing the shape of my bottom would be like Barbra Streisand getting a nose job.
Changing the shape of your body is nearly impossible. So stop trying!