The comparison to rhinoplasty is not so far-fetched. Part of what separates our current obsession with bottoms from other obsessions of the past is that today there's pressure to sculpt our flesh through diet, exercise, and liposuction to suit the cultural ideal. If a girl in 1895 wanted a tiny waist, she laced herself into a corset. If a girl in the 1950s wanted a bigger bosom, she stuffed her bra with Kleenex. "The locus of control has changed," says Brumberg. "We're expected to change the shape of our bodies, which is difficult and sometimes impossible."

From fitness magazines to infomercials to ads for gyms that entice us to buy memberships and personal training sessions by playing to our insecurities about our shape, we're surrounded by messages that tell us there's an ideal butt and it's our responsibility to get it. "If you believe you can do something about it and you don't, you may feel as if you're falling behind your peers," says Nancy Etcoff, PhD, author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. Maybe you've never given your butt a thought—after all, it stays nicely tucked out of your own view. But the more you're surrounded by messages that there is an ideal shape, the more you may feel the need to perfect your own.

Caroline Myss, PhD, author of Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing, agrees that we're encouraged to compare ourselves with other women and strive for an unreasonable standard. But she maintains that our bodies can offer us "tribal wisdoms"—clues about why we feel the way we do about ourselves. "The butt," she says, "is the seat of our power, representing our ability to give birth and our groundedness." She doesn't find it surprising that two of the most common phrases heard in women's dressing rooms are "I hate my butt" and "Does this make my butt look big?" To Myss, "discomfort with our bottoms is a metaphor for discomfort with ourselves as women." Research supports her idea: Psychological tests show that our sense of who we are is deeply connected to how satisfied we are with our bodies and that women are, in general, most dissatisfied with their hips, thighs, and buttocks. In other words, if we don't like our bottoms, we're not likely to accept ourselves.

Following Myss's line of reasoning, we can interpret "Does this make my butt look big?" as "Do you think I'm too powerful?" It's an interesting question: The gluteus maximus muscles in the buttocks, in conjunction with our abs, are what make up our core strength—you can feel it in everything from Pilates to kickboxing. The challenge, Myss believes, is not to give in to the cruel and impossible expectation of the cultural ideal but to create our own individual standards instead.

What Myss says about not giving in resonates even weeks after we speak. It's ridiculous to think we can achieve one so-called perfect size. I like shapely butts because I have one. Wouldn't we all be happier if we idealized a shape that hewed more closely to our own?

Veronica Chambers is the author of a memoir, Mama's Girl (Berkley).

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