From Baartman to Bootylicious: A Cultural History of Big Butts

Cristen Conger

Fitness model Jen Selter's Instagram-fueled rise to Internet fame in early 2014 made the rare leap to traditional mainstream media with a photo spread in Vanity Fair, cheekily titled "Rear Admiral." The focus of the Vanity Fair writeup was how Selter, a Jewish woman from Long Island now better know as The Butt Selfie Queen, wielded social media to her Millennial benefit, though the brief profile was besides the point since derriere-centered photos did the loudest talking. But that a top-tier culture and fashion magazine like Vanity Fair would celebrate Selter's "assets" so fawningly stoked frustration rather than regard among many wondering why, all of a sudden, an ample behind was so coveted.

In a Think Progress post titled "Vanity Fair's Big Butt Story Rejects People of Color," Carimah Townes concluded:

"Thus, like many others, Vanity Fair puts the bodies of women of color in a precarious situation: they are either at odds with the standard of beauty or become that standard without being credited. And they are not allowed to be trendsetters or role models, whereas Jen Selter is inspirational and worth all of the "sponsorships, free gear, and most importantly, followers by the thousands" for showing her bodacious body."

Indeed, if you chart America's pop cultural appreciation for big female butts a la Selter and Kim Kardashian most recently, what started out as the target of pseudoscientific support for racial discrimination and the persistent hypersexualization and othering of black women has over time become a desirable attribute thanks in large part, not to Western society's evolving appreciation for African-American women, but to our gradual embrace of lighter skin-toned butts. In other words, as the "lovely lady lumps" of pop cultural note have gotten fairer, what was once stigmatized by became glorified.

Scholar Janelle Hobson pinpoints this pop cultural shift to emergence of Jennifer Lopez in the 1990s:

Interestingly, it was hip-hop culture, which routinely documents black male desire for derrieres, that first called attention to Lopez's body. Only then was she noticed by mainstream culture. Dominant culture came to celebrate Lopez's behind as part of a recognition of "exotic" and "hot" Latinas, women perceived as "more sexual" than white women but "less obscene" than black women. In this way, Lopez's body avoids the specific racial stigma that clings to black women's bodies. Despite the widespread appreciation of her endowed anatomy, Lopez has, it is worth noting, slimmed down considerably to conform to white beauty standards.

When it comes to what Hobson calls "the specific racial stigma that clings to black women's bodies," well-endowed buttocks historically were the primary physical targets of that ugly othering. And the horror of that very stigma was manifested most grotesquely in the tragic biography of Saartjie Baartman. In the early 1800s, Baartman, an orphaned member of the Khoisan ethnic group in the Cape of South Africa, was kidnapped by Dutch colonists (after they murdered her fiance) and sold into slavery. Then, in 1810, Baartman was taken to London to work as a domestic servant and go on public display in London under the exhibition name "Hottentot Venus." Six days a week, Baartman donned a revealing costume that featured a bedazzled codpiece to draw crowds' attention to her ample behind while she danced and played African instruments. Baartman caused such a sensation, her tour expanded to Paris where she was displayed alongside circus animals.

During this age of European exploration and the contemporaneous professionalization of the sciences, the "primitive" natures of indigenous African peoples became an emerging topic of study. For African women in particular, the natural size of their buttocks was pathologized by European doctors as being affected by a condition called steatopygia, a term first used in 1879 to describe so-called "excessive" fat accumulation around the rear end. Due to its proximity to the genitals, Victorian scientists also supposed African women's larger behinds signaled hypersexuality, both of which contributed to racist 19th-century ethnological theories of African peoples as animalistic and subordinate, as evidenced by their physical differences to white Europeans.

From A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Body:

"The fetishization and eroticization of the female buttocks was taken to the extreme in colonial contexts, especially in regard to the aesthetic lens through which African bodies were viewed. African women with exaggerated buttocks were, in many ways, thought to be exemplary of the shrewdness, ugliness, and hypersexuality of African bodies."

Baartman's exhibition name Hottentot Venus echoed the same racist ideology. Hottentot is a derogatory term for the Khosian people whose tongue-clicking dialect was presumed linguistic nonsense by Dutch colonists, while "Venus" is shorthand for the sexuality read into her posterior. Even the oversized codpiece she wore during shows was intended to imply that she also possessed a larger-than-average vulva, offensively referred to as the "Hottentot apron."

When she died penniless at 26, Baartman had persistently refused to ever reveal her naked vulva to the prying men who plied her for a glimpse of the alleged "Hottentot apron," but French anatomist Georges Cuvier obtained her body postmortem, dissected her, and put her body parts, vulva included, on display in the French Natural History Museum where they remained available to public viewing until the 1970s. Following an eight-year legal battle, France returned Baartman's remains to the South African government in 2002.

That we are now living in an era when a woman can create a lucrative career hailed in the pages of Vanity Fair, rather than derided in popular cartoon depictions like Baartman, largely by publicizing the size of her butt demonstrates, on the one hand, how our cultural concepts of sexy have evolved, and on the other hand, how ignorant we remain to history. In the light of Baartman's forgotten legacy, Miley Cyrus smacking the behinds of black female backup dancers becomes much less about the origin of twerking and more about how in 2014, the bodies -- and particularly the butts -- of black women are continually objectified, fetishized and devalued. Even when it comes to Beyonce, who's been celebrating and proudly flaunting the allure of her haunches since "Bootylicious" topped charts in 2001, it's often consternation over how she chooses to publicly display her butt that feeds arguments that, among other insults, she's not the feminist she claims to be. Bottom line: there remains a racially-rooted mistrust in the sexual signaling associated with an ample female butt, especially when it belongs to a woman of color.

The problem, therefore, isn't that a Butt Selfie Queen even exists, or that Kim Kardashian's derriere has helped propel her celebrity, but that their respective rears are somehow safer and more palatable for our mainstream cultural consumption. Of course, I'm all for all women accepting, loving and even showing off their butts of all shapes and sizes -- and I'm also a firm believer in the power of asking why? Why is a physical feature on one type of body desirable, or in the words of Carimah Townes, "inspirational and [worthy]," and less so on another? Its answer likely -- and uncomfortably -- intersects with the why not long after Saartjie Baartman, whose so-called "steatopygia" was considered a sign of beauty among her Khosian relatives, made a stir among the terrified and titillated white European crowds, well-to-do ladies suddenly began sporting a new sartorial signal of status and femininity, the bustle.

Courtesy: Louise Kate Anderson

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