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!
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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