Butts: A Backstory (Hardcover)
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“Winning, cheeky, and illuminating….What appears initially as a folly with a look-at-this cover and title becomes, thanks to Radke’s intelligence and curiosity, something much meatier, entertaining, and wise.” —The Washington Post
“Lively and thorough, Butts is the best kind of nonfiction.” —Esquire, Best Books of 2022
A “carefully researched and reported work of cultural history” (The New York Times) that explores how one body part has influenced the female—and human—experience for centuries, and what that obsession reveals about our lives today.
Whether we love them or hate them, think they’re sexy, think they’re strange, consider them too big, too small, or anywhere in between, humans have a complicated relationship with butts. It is a body part unique to humans, critical to our evolution and survival, and yet it has come to signify so much more: sex, desire, comedy, shame. A woman’s butt, in particular, is forever being assessed, criticized, and objectified, from anxious self-examinations trying on jeans in department store dressing rooms to enduring crass remarks while walking down a street or high school hallways. But why? In Butts: A Backstory, reporter, essayist, and RadioLab contributing editor Heather Radke is determined to find out.
Spanning nearly two centuries, this “whip-smart” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) cultural history takes us from the performance halls of 19th-century London to the aerobics studios of the 1980s, the music video set of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and the mountains of Arizona, where every year humans and horses race in a feat of gluteal endurance. Along the way, she meets evolutionary biologists who study how butts first developed; models whose measurements have defined jean sizing for millions of women; and the fitness gurus who created fads like “Buns of Steel.” She also examines the central importance of race through figures like Sarah Bartmann, once known as the “Venus Hottentot,” Josephine Baker, Jennifer Lopez, and other women of color whose butts have been idolized, envied, and despised.
Part deep dive reportage, part personal journey, part cabinet of curiosities, Butts is an entertaining, illuminating, and thoughtful examination of why certain silhouettes come in and out of fashion—and how larger ideas about race, control, liberation, and power affect our most private feelings about ourselves and others.
About the Author
Heather Radke is an essayist, journalist, and contributing editor and reporter at Radiolab, the Peabody Award–winning program from WNYC. She has written for publications including The Believer, Longreads, and The Paris Review, and she teaches at Columbia University’s creative writing MFA Program. Before becoming a writer, Heather worked as a curator at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago.
"Engaging, personal. . . . don't be fooled by the cheeky peach emoji." —The New York Times Book Review
"Winning, cheeky, and illuminating. . . . What appears initially as a folly with a look-at-this cover and title becomes, thanks to Radke's intelligence and curiosity, something much meatier, entertaining, and wise. . . . Radke is an eager, inventive reporter...[and] an engaging storyteller." —The Washington Post
“This crackling cultural history melds scholarship and pop culture to arrive at a comprehensive taxonomy of the female bottom. … Radke leaves no stone unturned… Lively and thorough, Butts is the best kind of nonfiction—the kind that forces you to see something ordinary through completely new eyes.” —Esquire, Best Books of 2022
“Deeply reported and wildly entertaining… Radke takes readers through an absorbing cultural history that asks how this human body part came to be on the receiving end of so much attention.” —TIME, 100 Must-Read Books of 2022
“It is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I could go on and on and on about it. . . . It's astounding to me, the stuff that I learned." —Liberty Hardy, BookRiot's All the Books Podcast
“Butts: A Backstory traces a complicated fascination from Empire-era spectacle to MTV. . . A contoured yet amply scaled study.” —Vanity Fair
“An ambitious mash-up of pop culture, science, and history, this breakout debut from Radiolab reporter Radke tracks the evolution of attitudes toward women’s butts from the “Hottentot Venus” to Miley Cyrus. Along the way, Radke delves into eugenics, hip-hop aesthetics, the physiology of posteriors, and more. It adds up to one of the year’s most ingenious and eye-opening cultural studies.” —Publishers Weekly, Best Books of 2022
“By all rights, this could have been an asinine bathroom book, full of paper-thin factoids and cheeky humor, but Heather Radke has a brain that just won’t quit. A funny and studious storyteller, the Radiolab reporter leads us on an eye-opening journey that starts in Kenya 1.9 million years ago, where 'the first known hominid with a butt' enters the fossil record, and marches through centuries of changing art, fashion, and cultural norms to the modern era where the dreams of Sir Mix-a-Lot are finally being realized. But what is a butt, biologically speaking? And how did it become such a hot-button issue in conversations about race, gender, and class? The butt, as it turns out, occupies a prominent space in the human story even though, as Radke points out, we rarely get a good look at our own.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Fascinating and frank… [with] top- notch reportage, assured and respectful voice and invitation to butt-centric contemplation… [Radke] guides readers on an impressively well-researched tour of butts throughout history, beginning with a functional analysis (hominids and horses take center stage) and ultimately alighting in the present (twerking, social media and celebrity butts).” —BookPage (starred review)
“Radke thoughtfully, and without judgment, addresses the complexities and contradictions that this body part evokes and delves into some surprising topics that may spark further curiosity in readers. Her captivating writing and witty approach to a taboo topic will appeal to a variety of nonfiction readers, particularly those interested in cultural history and gender studies. . . A fun, fascinating, and surprisingly empowering exploration of the history and cultural significance of the butt.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Whip-smart. . . Marked by Radke’s vivacious writing, candid self-reflections, and sophisticated cultural analyses, this is an essential study of ‘ideas and prejudices’ about the female body.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Heather Radke’s social history of female butts promises to be a deeply researched and thoroughly fascinating look (ogle?) at a body part that has long captured the cultural imagination. Radke talks to evolutionary biologists, models, and fitness gurus, and dives into the history of the racist objectification of women like Sarah Baartmann and Josephine Baker in an effort to understand our complex relationship with the butt.” —LitHub
“Delving into this history, Radke provides fresh insights into why butts hold such sway over society—and what that says about our relationships to race, class, gender, and power.” —TIME Magazine
“How did butts become both sexualized and mythologized? Why do certain body types fall in and out of fashion? Who even makes those decisions? In this cheeky (sorry) nonfiction debut, Radiolab reporter Heather Radke examines society’s obsession with derrieres and how larger ideas about race, control, liberation, and power affect our most private feelings about ourselves and others.” —PureWow
“Here comes a story on the evolution and sensationalization of, you guessed it, butts! Radke takes a deep dive into the most emphasized human body part, taking a look at its physical evolution in relation to survival, as well as the part it has played in popular culture throughout the years. And you know Sir Mix-a-Lot's name will come up a time or two.” —The Every Girl
“Cheeky and entertaining.” —BookRiot
“An ingenious cultural study.” —The Globe & Mail (Canada)
“As women we have always been asked—been told—to lie about our bodies. Our culture subjects them to laws, myths, race bigotries, class pieties and sexual anxieties. With Butts: A Backstory, journalist and critic Heather Radke takes up these lies and takes them apart. The result is a bold and exuberant leap for womankind.” —Margo Jefferson, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author of Negroland and Constructing a Nervous System
“Heather Radke’s Butts: A Backstory is rigorous, generous, and utterly compelling. The range of its research is thrillingly expansive—from the deep origins of twerk to the sleek silhouettes of Coco Chanel, from the 'mono-bum' of the Victorian bustle to the brilliant subversions of drag—allowing Radke a range of fascinating vantage points from which to explore the histories our bodies hold. With humor, intelligence, outrage, and compassion, Radke excavates the social and historical forces that haunt our most ordinary moments. This fiercely intelligent, frequently witty 'backstory' is a journey through centuries of history that will transform how you think about the butt, and—quite possibly—how you consider the value of exploring those parts of ourselves we don’t take seriously enough.” —Leslie Jamison, bestselling author of Make It Scream Make It Burn and The Empathy Exams
“From the first, I have been delighted and deeply informed by Heather Radke's writing. She has a mind like no other. This book contributes not only a great deal to the complicated discussion around women's bodies, it illuminates what unites us all: being human.” —Hilton Als, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author of White Girls
“Juicy and scholarly, Butts is a heck of a ride. At turns troubling, wild, painful, surprising and flat-out fun, Radke’s reporting unearths a set of largely overlooked historical figures with outsized effects on cultural evolutions, from the discovery of the first hominid butt, to the creation of the frightening statues Norm and Norma, to the gruesome tale behind the bustle, these gripping stories work together to elucidate the crushing web of cultural, commercial, and pseudoscientific forces shaping our very private senses of discomfort, envy, and belonging. Her book is teeming with rebels—drag queens and fat activists and twerkers—who flip supremacy the bird and offer another path through. Don’t let the cute cover fool you, inside is a serious feat of reporting and scholarship.” —Lulu Miller, bestselling author of Why Fish Don't Exist
“A deeply thought, rigorously researched, and riveting history of human butts — Radke knows exactly when to approach her subject with levity and when with gravity. A pitch perfect debut.” —Melissa Febos, bestselling author of Girlhood and Body Work
“Heather Radke takes a subject so familiar as to be practically invisible and trains a sharp reportorial eye on it, touring the reader through the centuries of cultural history that shape our feelings about what's filling out our jeans. She has amassed a trove of surprising and fascinating case studies, from bustles and the 'Hottentot Venus' to flappers, fit models, and Sir Mixalot. Butts is everything you want a piece of reportage to be: smart, creative, searching, deeply researched, political, and fun.” —Jordan Kisner, author of Thin Places