Author Heather Radke discusses ‘Butts’ and back-burner social issues

and | Staff Writers

Columbia University Professor Heather Radke spoke about her new book about beauty standards (Yiwen Zha | Student Life).

Heather Radke, a professor for Columbia University’s MFA program and journalist at WNYC’s award-winning podcast Radiolab, gave a book talk on her recent book “Butts: A Backstory,” Feb. 15. The Washington University Writing Program hosted Radke as part of its 2024 Spring Reading Series. 

Radke’s novel explores the shift from thin beauty standards to an emphasis on women’s curves, a transition catalyzed by the increase in white men’s interest in hip-hop in the 1990s. Her book focuses on butts being a body part that’s not talked about, used to reinforce racial hierarchies and measure women’s availability. 

“I am fundamentally interested in the mundane. I never felt horrible about my butt or my body. I just felt bad every time I put on a pair of pants. It was to some extent what I call mundane shame,” Radke said. “It’s the way many of us feel every day about some aspect of ourselves, but because it’s not grand or terrible, we overlook it.”

The social complexity of butts hides in plain sight, as unlike other physical body parts, butts are associated with humor, shame, sex, and history, Radke said. She stated how women’s butts are often scrutinized by society, despite women having no control over their appearances. 

“The shape and size of a woman’s butt has long been a perceived indicator of her very nature, her morality or femininity, and even her humanity,” Radke said. 

One way women are encouraged to control their bodies is through fitness classes, Radke said. She added that fitness classes were partially derived from neoliberal beliefs on how controlling one’s appearance is a way to maximize productivity. 

“There is a real association between work and performance of work. There is a kind of new idea that not only can you control [your body], but you should control it,” Radke said. “One of the ways you are going to show the world that you are properly working hard enough is that your body is going to look under control.”

Radke said that her goal for “Butts” was to investigate what determines the value of a body part. 

“Why do we think some things are beautiful and other things are ugly? Some parts are sexy and some are functional,” Radke said. “Why is there a sense that some people are essentially better than others? Our bodies are biological, but almost all meaning attached to them is meaning we have to ascribe to them.”

Butts are associated with the origins of reproduction, Radke said. Given that people often refer to butts with euphemisms rather than “buttocks,” Radke questioned its proper terminology, sharing a quote on this topic from her book. 

“Buttocks seems to be the obvious choice, but it’s a word rarely used in real life,” she said. “The muscle has a scientific name, gluteus maximus, but that term refers only to the sin of a bundle of fibers that stretch from the pelvic bone to the thigh. The fatty layer on top is called the gluteal femoral fatness. But no one calls it that.” 

Radke also gave dramatic examples of hypersexuality. 

“To escape the larger mythology of purity, white women often mimic Black women, buying into stereotypes of hypersexuality,” Radke said. 

Stars like Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus, and Britney Spears went through a Hollywood “dirty” phase where they emulated an adulterated version of Black womanhood and culture, Radke said. To expand on this idea, Radke read a quote from her book.

“White women turn away from the origins of the shame we carry about our bodies, a shame that comes from the construction of whiteness itself, a shame that exists to enforce the idea that some bodies are innocent and others are sexual, that some bodies are better than others or worse,” Radke said. “In the process. Not only do we harm others, but we hurt ourselves by never really understanding where our shame comes from.”

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