The Butt and the Bustle
Willa Paskin: Before we begin, a heads up that this episode contains adult content and descriptions of racism. Heather Radke remembers when she started to think there might be something wrong with her.
Speaker 2: But this thing happened in high school. It’s like, so small, but you know how these things are. They really get you.
Willa Paskin: This was in Lansing, Michigan, in the 1990s when heroin chic and waifish models like Kate Moss were all over high fashion magazines and a slim, small, stereotypically white woman’s rear end was the mainstream ideal.
Speaker 2: What was in the super mainstream teen magazine Pop culture at the time was thin like, but less. Maybe some boobs, but not even like too much boobs. That was what was in.
Willa Paskin: Heather’s weight too. But that wasn’t her body.
Speaker 2: When I was like a teenager, I got a big bump. My mom has a big.
Willa Paskin: But Heather hadn’t thought much about it one way or another, though, until the thing happened.
Speaker 2: Somebody reported back to me that my body had been discussed at a cross-country practice. One person was like, I, Oh, my butt’s getting so big. And the other person was like, Well, this is not as big as Heather’s. It’s not like that’s like a horrific story of bullying or something. But I remember that moment being like, I guess there’s something wrong with my body. It definitely, like, whatever gave me a small complex, obviously.
Willa Paskin: But as Heather got older and left her predominantly white high school and went to college, she noticed that people started reacting to her butt differently.
Speaker 2: What was considered sexy started to change, and it was a really odd thing to experience, like a body that I had had a lot of shame about. People would comment on it and tell me that it was sexy or beautiful or whatever.
Willa Paskin: Heather’s personal experience was part of a larger transformation in mainstream but ideals. Oh, my.
Speaker 2: God. Becky, look.
Willa Paskin: At her butt. Basically, big booties got fashionable.
Speaker 3: I like big bucks, and I like you. Other brothers did not. And when a girl walked in with any body weight.
Willa Paskin: This change is largely credited to hip hop and male performers like Sir Mix-A-Lot, fetishization of the butt and the black female body in particular. And as hip hop culture was becoming mainstream culture in the 1990s, it brought black beauty ideals with it. By the end of the decade, the butt had what is widely considered to be its breakout moment.
Willa Paskin: Thanks to Jennifer Lopez here on Entertainment Tonight.
Speaker 2: How do you feel about your butt?
Speaker 3: Are you kidding me? You did not just ask me that. We will talk about.
Speaker 2: All of that.
Willa Paskin: And people did talk about it all the time. Lopez’s rear was the subject of leering nationwide fascination. And in the decades that followed, the butt only got more and more attention.
Speaker 3: I don’t really understand this Brazilian butt thing, but apparently it’s this huge shoes.
Speaker 2: Everyone wants to be everybody a monkey.
Willa Paskin: Derriere, Pippa. That’s daytime talk show host Kathie Lee Griffith and Hoda Cosby bantering as they try a so-called Brazilian butt workout inspired by the Brazilian butt lift, which has become the fastest growing elective cosmetic surgery in the country in a relatively short period. Mainstream ideas about what makes a butt desirable have changed dramatically, and Heather found that intriguing.
Speaker 2: So then I started to think about like, Well, what is the kind of history of this?
Willa Paskin: She ended up writing a whole cultural history of the female behind a book called Butts A Back Story. And while she was working on it, she learned that this was not the first time a full backside seemed to suddenly become fashionable. It had happened before 150 years ago.
Speaker 2: So the Bustle is an undergarment that women in the late 19th century wore underneath their dresses.
Willa Paskin: Western European and American women would strap a Bustle around their waist beneath their clothes, and it would make their dress very, very robust in the back.
Speaker 2: It’s a big butt maker, right?
Willa Paskin: And as Heather considered this article of clothing, she kept circling one question.
Speaker 2: Why did these ladies want to have such big butts?
Willa Paskin: This is decoder ring. I’m Willa Paskin for about two decades. Towards the end of the Victorian era in the 1870s and eighties, a large Bustle enhanced bottom was the height of fashion. In this episode, we’re going to explore why we’ll look at the Bustle’s history and construction. Consider the various theories about its popularity and then hone in on the theory that connects the Bustle to one historical figure in particular a woman who also connects the Bustle to today. The Bustle may be old fashioned, but it still has a lot to tell us about race, sex, power, influence, desire, and how much people know or let themselves know about what they put on every morning. So today on Decoder Ring, what does the rise of the Bustle have to tell us about the rise of the above?
Willa Paskin: So first things first. In order to figure out what was going on with the Bustle, we needed to see some Hi. So Katie Shepherd Decoder producer and I went on a field trip.
Speaker 2: I Willa, this is Katie.
Speaker 4: Hi. I’m always happy to talk about one of my favorite subjects.
Speaker 2: Thank you. Thanks. And where are we?
Speaker 4: We’re at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and.
Willa Paskin: Kristina Haughland is an associate curator for costume and textiles and an expert in historical undergarments.
Speaker 4: Yes, that’s it. My particular research interest is the history of women’s underwear. So, yes, bustles are one of my passions.
Willa Paskin: Christina wrote the entry for the Bustle in the voluminous Encyclopedia of Clothes and Fashion, and she collects women’s historical undergarments herself, something she began doing so people could see and touch them when she was giving lectures.
Speaker 4: I just started years ago, 35 years ago, to buy things in thrift stores and stuff. Then when eBay first came in, I just started buying things, got a little crazy, and now I have like, I don’t know, 5000 pieces of underwear, but it’s something like.
Willa Paskin: You went down.
Speaker 2: The underwear rabbit.
Speaker 4: I totally have gone down. Many underwear rabbit holes.
Willa Paskin: Christina had prepared for us by filling a 20 foot long table in a high ceilinged research room with dozens and dozens of bustles and bustle adjacent items. It looked at first glance like a display of steampunk fanny packs. As we sidled up to the bustles, Christina started to tell us what had come before them.
Speaker 4: So before the start of the Victorian era, there was the neoclassical period when everything was very close to the body.
Willa Paskin: Picture those empire waisted bodice hugging, loose flowing gowns inspired by Grecian statuary the characters wear in Jane Austen adaptations. And you’re there in the early 19th century. Women wearing these styles would sometimes place a small pad over their rears. This wasn’t to make their butts look bigger, but to preserve the line of their close fitting dresses, basically to keep the dress from clinging to their actual what’s. But then the shape of women’s dresses started to change.
Speaker 4: Fashion evolves very dramatically, so you have periods when very large skirts were in fashion and they get to an extreme and then they deflate and something else comes in. So in the mid-19th century, women’s skirts started to get larger and larger.
Willa Paskin: This change, in addition to reflecting fashions, almost a reflexive chase of the new, also reflected the Victorian beauty ideals of the time. These skirts accentuated women’s differences from men and showcased what the culture found attractive and of value. Small, rounded shoulders and outsized child bearing hips, but appearing to have such big hips took effort.
Speaker 4: Women are wearing more and more petticoats to support the skirts, and often they were heavy. They were had to be laundered. They were starched.
Willa Paskin: Women were going around with layers and layers of undergarments, maybe a dozen petticoats, a shift, and possibly underpants. Though these were not underpants, as we now know them. This is fully a tangent, but underpants back then were crotchless so women could go to the bathroom more easily. Anyway, women were wearing all these layers. And then in 1856, along came the sprung steel hoop skirt.
Speaker 4: If we’re talking about the Bustle, you really can’t talk about the Bustle without talking first about the hoop skirt.
Willa Paskin: The sprung style hoop skirt works like an exoskeleton, though it collapses down like a slinky when hung off the waist. It extends creating a structure that can support a large, voluminous outer skirt without all the weight, heat and expense of multiple petticoats.
Speaker 4: Earlier, large skirts had been really reserved for the elite, so only the court and very wealthy people could afford to have these and all of the fabric that went over it. By the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution has really made fabric much more affordable. So there are factories where they’re churning out thousands of these a day. And even factory girls, it’s said, are wearing hoop skirts to work in the factories. Hard to sit and the hard to do a lot of things. But if you’re determined to be fashionable, as many people still are, you want to do that.
Willa Paskin: At first, hoops girls were in the shape of a dome or a belt. They supported skirts that were evenly full on all sides, skirts so big and wide they could always fit through a doorway. But in the late 1860s, the desired silhouette started to change and the volume of skirts began to concentrate in the rear. As this fuller rear silhouette became more and more fashionable, people started to boost it with bustles. But these bustles were different from what came before, and one of the ways that they were different is there were a lot more of them.
Speaker 4: I liken some of the patents and inventions to the dot com where everybody is getting in.
Willa Paskin: By the 1870s there were scores and scores of different kinds of bustles. They came in all shapes and sizes and materials. Some were homemade. Women use sacks of straw or bunched up newspapers, but others were manufactured and made of wire, wood, wool and sponge.
Speaker 4: So this one here that’s made of stiffened horsehair. And this could just use to give a little spring to the back.
Speaker 2: This looks like an apron that you wear in reverse.
Speaker 4: This one was covered in a red paisley print is stuffed with down. So it’s very it’s.
Speaker 2: Just a pillow.
Speaker 4: It’s got a a crescent shape. And some of my favorites really do look like a kind of upholstery. This one is one of the most extreme projecting out are these curved springs. Just really looks like part of a sofa. Got up and attached itself to your rear end to give you that projection.
Willa Paskin: In the 1870s, bustles were relatively low and sloping. By the 1880s, they had become dramatic.
Speaker 3: I’d like.
Speaker 2: The little fellow here.
Maria Garcia: For modern wishes, of course. But I should point out that bustles are getting smaller. For most.
Willa Paskin: People.
Speaker 2: I am not.
Willa Paskin: Most people any 19th century Ladies journal or more recently, any episode of HBO’s period drama The Gilded Age or show a bustle supported dress that looks gravity defying. It protrudes from a woman’s back at a right angle like a shelf, and then extends over a foot, creating enough volume. As one artist observed, for a woman to fit a whole extra pair of legs underneath it. The bustle made the back of a dress the absolute focal point of the outfit, detailed festooned burr ribboned and bedecked. It was easy to mock, but impossible to ignore.
Speaker 4: This was the norm. It would have been remarkable to see a woman walking around without either a bustle or extra drapery at the back of the skirt.
Willa Paskin: From the late 1870s into the 1890s. Wearing a bustle was just what European and then American women did. What we’re going to try and figure out next is why.
Willa Paskin: So after our trip down to Philadelphia to look at all those bustles, we sat down with Heather Radke, the author of Butts, a back story to sort through the various scholarly ideas about why they got so popular.
Speaker 2: There’s different theories about it, and like I think they’re all interesting theories.
Willa Paskin: Now, I’m just going to say up front, it can be hard to suss out why something is fashionable, in large part because when something is fashionable, we aren’t usually thinking about why women were wearing bustles in many of the same ways we wear eyeliner or tank tops or one of those winter coats with the giant furry hoods. Because they’re in because they’re what people wear. Because we like them, Because we like what they say about us. Because we find them flattering and attractive or believe other people will. But while we’re thinking about all those things, how they’ll make us look, basically, we’re not often consciously thinking about the deeper structural and cultural reasons. Looking that way might be so popular. But that doesn’t mean those reasons don’t exist. And the first theory about the bustle is rooted in the Industrial Revolution and its impact on workers, seamstresses in particular.
Speaker 2: In the 19th century. The way garments are being made changes.
Willa Paskin: Factories began churning out affordable fabric, and the home sewing machine arrived around mid-century. Women were more equipped to make elaborate dresses for themselves than ever before.
Speaker 2: And there’s a need for seamstresses to kind of prove that they’re still needed.
Willa Paskin: And the Bustle was a great means to do so. It was an almost literal stage where seamstresses, a big part of the fashion industry, such as it was, could showcase difficult, extravagant, brocaded beaded, ruched expensive work.
Speaker 2: By sort of pushing the Bustle into fashion. They make it so that like you, you kind of need to still go to a seamstress if you want this kind of fashion.
Willa Paskin: Seamstresses weren’t the only ones to profit from the Bustle. There were also the fabric manufacturers and pattern makers, the guys treating the Bustle like part of a dot com boom. The next theory centers the people actually wearing the Bustle, and it’s a much more practical one. It has to do with a problem created by the hoop skirt.
Speaker 2: The famous thing is that they can’t fit through the doorway. And so there’s a lot of interesting theories about like, what does it mean that a woman, like, literally can’t, like, walk into a room, but also like, it was a big problem because you need to walk through a doorway, right.
Willa Paskin: By making the dress really big, but only in the one direction. The Bustle solved that problem. And even as it was drawing attention to the but it was covering up what was explicit about it.
Speaker 2: For a lot of people in the 19th century, like they’re living all up in each other’s business. Most classes of people know buttons are for pooping and like sex. And one of the things about a bustle is it actually like, obscures the crack. So even as it’s making it bigger, it’s actually also like obscuring its function.
Willa Paskin: And then there’s the dominant theory about the Bustle’s popularity, which is all tied up with another undergarment.
Speaker 4: I take a deep breath. Oh, well, don’t you think I could be a sensation without the caressing.
Willa Paskin: Women or corsets regularly for about 400 years? And they appear frequently in movies, including the Judy Garland classic Meet Me in Saint Louis. In these movies, typically someone is tugging on the corsets, lacing, trying to give the protagonist an itty bitty waist.
Speaker 4: I feel elegant, but I can’t breathe.
Willa Paskin: Most women did not wear a corset so tightly. There are much more analogous to the contemporary bra. There was a wide variety of them for all different occasions, and women would complain they felt unsupported without them. But corsets do shape the waist, and scholars have tended to see the Bustle in these terms, too.
Speaker 2: The theory is that they did bustles to make their waists look small.
Willa Paskin: It’s all about comparison and proportion. If your body is very big, it can make your waist look smaller, relatively speaking. Now, we still live in a moment when the small waist is a highly prized characteristic. So it’s not hard to get in a headspace where you can imagine clothes designed to accentuate that. But we also live in a time when a full rear can be a prized characteristic, a deeply desired characteristic, as it has been in many cultures and many times. But the theories we’ve mentioned sidestep.
Speaker 2: That by making it about the waist. It’s not about the thing that it’s actually about, which is it’s like.
Speaker 3: When you go to see them, like, what do you see? You see like a lady who has a big but like, that’s it.
Speaker 2: That’s what you see.
Willa Paskin: Heather did learn of.
Willa Paskin: One theory that addressed the board in the Bustle Strait on June 1st came across it in a Village Voice article from 1991 by the writer Lisa Jones. Jones was writing about what she described as the veritable butt revolution sweeping across America. But she observed that even as Americans seemed to be embracing the big butt Western culture’s objectification of the bod, and particularly the black female body, it has roots that go back to Europe in the early 1800s and to the legacy of one woman in particular, a woman named Sarah Baartman. Sarah Baartman was an indigenous South African woman who was taken to London and Paris in the 18 tens and put on display in large part because of her bat. Though this happened decades before the Bustle came into fashion in the Village Voice piece, the poet Elizabeth Alexander suggests that there is a connection between the two.
Speaker 2: They talk about how the Bustle may have a relationship with Sarah Baartman and that it’s like a reflection of her body.
Willa Paskin: The voice piece is illustrated by a drawing of Baartman from the early 19th century, where she is shown naked in profile, her butt sticking out. Next to it is a historical illustration of a woman in an elaborate dress and bustle. The visual echo between the pictures is unmistakable, and it suggests a connection between the two. But before we can explore that possible connection, we have to talk more deeply about Sarah Baartman. Sarah Baartman was likely born in 1770 on the Eastern Cape of South Africa as it was being genocidal, colonized by the Dutch.
Speaker 3: What we know of her is that she was a victim of warfare. Her people were almost wiped out.
Willa Paskin: Janell Hobson is a professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at University at Albany and the author of Venus in the Dark Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, which looks at Sarah Baartman and her long contemporary influence.
Speaker 3: She is considered Poisson, which means that she is both a mix of both the sone who were derogatorily referred to as Bushmen and Bushmen, and the quick joy who were derogatorily referred to as Hottentot.
Willa Paskin: Under the rules of the Dutch colonial system, indigenous South Africans cannot be formally enslaved. Only people from other parts of Africa could be. But Baartman would have had a liminal status where she was neither officially enslaved nor fully free.
Speaker 3: Hottentot actually is a Dutch word that when translated, it means to stammer. The Dutch, when they encountered the indigenous people on the Cape, she couldn’t comprehend the cliquish sound that they were making in their language because they couldn’t understand, nor could they actually replicate it. They just reduced it and dismissed it as a stammer.
Willa Paskin: Baartman mother died when she was young and she grew up on a farm before being sent to Cape Town as a teenager where she remained a servant. Cape Town was a bustling port city. Baartman learned some Dutch and some English. She had two children who both died. She had a partner who left at some point in the 1800s after she’d been in Cape Town for a decade or more, her employer began to show her to soldiers and sailors at a hospital where a British surgeon saw her and is thought to have approached her employer with a plan to take her abroad.
Speaker 3: Because of the kinds of folklore and oral tales and written tales that Europeans have been writing about their encounters in Africa, they imagined that they could really make quite some money if they were able to turn her into an exhibition.
Willa Paskin: European accounts of so-called Hottentot women claimed that they were hypersexual savages with unusually long labia and large buttocks.
Speaker 3: There was nothing strange about her size or at all. She just had a different kind of shape that the Europeans at the time considered strange.
Willa Paskin: In 1810, Baartman arrived in London and began appearing on stage in Piccadilly Circus as a freak show act advertised as the Venus Hottentot.
Speaker 6: She’s called the Venus Hottentot because it was supposed to be a kind of a paradox or a joke.
Willa Paskin: Pamela Scully is a historian at Emory and the co-author of Sarah Baartman and The Hottentot, Venus A Ghost Story and a Biography.
Speaker 6: You Couldn’t Be a Venus, which was a voluptuous, beautiful, desirable woman and a Hottentot was a racist designation, said this juxtaposition of Venus. Hottentot was Ha ha ha. Yes, she has a woman, but she’s. Is she really a woman? And we can laugh at her on stage.
Willa Paskin: She would sing and play an instrument while appearing almost naked in ersatz African accessories.
Speaker 6: She was put on stage and people could pay extra to touch her and people wanted to poke her. And if she refused to do so, first on stage would beat her.
Willa Paskin: The display became a sensation. There were illustrations and caricatures of the so-called Hottentot Venus in newspapers, and the term entered the vernacular. It spread further still when the British Anti-Slavery Society filed a lawsuit because they believed Baartman was being held against her will. This was just three years after the British had abolished the transatlantic slave trade.
Speaker 3: From what we could interpret of what she said, she she seemed to have said that she did not. She was not held in slavery. Of course, people go back and forth, goes like, Does she say that freely?
Willa Paskin: In 1814, Baartman was sold to an animal trainer who brought her to Paris.
Speaker 6: She is made to go into these restaurants and sort of show herself off. And also, she’s been in Europe for five years. She speaks. She’d always spoken some Dutch, some English not also speak, but a French. She’s not a naive. This is a person who could understand what people were saying about her.
Willa Paskin: Also, at this time, she came to the attention of the famous French scientist, George Cuvier, who, among other things, founded the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology.
Speaker 6: They are still statues to him in Paris, and he becomes really obsessed with her. He to think about, you know, is there something in her anatomy that will help him understand the quote unquote, missing link?
Willa Paskin: Cuvier was fixated on the hierarchy of species and whether there existed a so-called missing link, a person or peoples in a theoretically earlier stage of evolution who are neither fully human nor fully animal. Unsurprisingly, given the endemic racism of the time, he assumed the missing link would come out of Africa and thought that Baartman might be an example of it with her genitalia in particular, revealing that to be the case.
Speaker 3: She subjected to examination. She is being enticed with candy and alcohol at this time. She does resist. They were trying to examine her, for God’s sake, and she was like, No, you can’t. You can’t look at me down there. When you read the archival notes, it’s just like, wow, she’s totally in isolation away from her people and she’s subjected to this kind of behavior.
Willa Paskin: Around this time, Paris was so abuzz with Baartman, a vaudeville one act called The Hottentot, Venus or hatred of French Women was staged there.
Speaker 3: The premise of the show is about this white woman being jealous that Sarah Baartman is getting all this attention from all the men. So she decides she’s going to fool her fiancee by dressing up as the hot ant of Venus.
Willa Paskin: And to do this, the character, among other things, dons the Hottentot. Venus is most notorious body part. She puts on a fake, but she puts on abascal.
Speaker 3: The whole thing. We’re in a Bustle, you know, pretending to be, you know, this this African woman. I got to look like this African woman so that I can incite sexual interest in my man again.
Willa Paskin: It works. He falls in lust with her in costume. But at the end of the play, he sees an image of the real Hottentot, Venus, and is so horrified he falls all over himself with praise and relief when the white woman reveals her disguise, when she takes her Bustle off.
Willa Paskin: The play is a stark example of how Europeans were beginning to fetishize black women to associate them with bots and hypersexuality, something that would only continue over the course of the 19th century. And it’s also a stark example of how bats were this locus of lust and desire, as well as disgust and disdain, and of how those contradictory sentiments could be triangulated, could be resolved by the Bustle and optional. But a white woman could put on and take off at will. About a year after Sarah Baartman came to Paris, she died.
Speaker 3: George Cuvier is able to acquire her cadaver, and then he is able to actually examine her body at his own. At his own free will.
Willa Paskin: Covers Autopsy report on Sarah Baartman. His method of measuring her body parts in order to conclude she was not fully human became one of the foundational documents of 19th and 20th century eugenics and so-called a racial science. Her image also remained in wide circulation through the 1800s in cartoons and newspapers and on things like playing cards. Even as other African women were put on display in Europe as Venus Hot and Tots. And the idea is that Baartman image and silhouette and their associations continued to resonate for decades, a part of the groundwork that eventually led to the Bustle.
Speaker 2: Heather Radke thinking about the 19th century and the way people consumed images. I think that image would have been very known to a lot of people. It’s a way to kind of play with it and to play around with it while always knowing you can sort of literally take it off.
Willa Paskin: There are critiques of this theory. Styles, very similar to the Bustle had been in fashion before the 1800s, and the timelines don’t quite match up. There’s a 50 plus year lag between Bachmann’s death and the Brussels rise in the 1870s. But it strikes me that this lapse is necessary 50 years after her death. The fake bought the bustles link to Sarah Baartman could be latent subtextual part of what gave the shape a new resonance. What made it alluring? What subconsciously?
Speaker 3: I do think it’s plausible. It’s the idea of her. The image of her that’s floating around is loaded with notions of hypersexuality that, you know, proper ladies in the late 19th century can kind of assert their own sensuality by donning something like a Bustle. So that’s that’s where I see the connection happening. Not a direct link, but like an eventual appropriation, if that makes sense.
Willa Paskin: As the poet Elizabeth Alexander put it in that 1991 Village Voice piece, I dare say European women walking around in Brussels weren’t thinking about the Hottentot, Venus. Just as American women in Bo Derek Braids weren’t thinking about cornrows. And if you want another example of a popular trend that taps into blackness and distances itself from it at the same time, you don’t have to go back in time. You just have to look at today and back at the. But.
Willa Paskin: So I want to get back to the contemporary popularity of the Big Board. And to do that, I wanted to speak with someone in particular.
Maria Garcia: My name is Maria Garcia.
Willa Paskin: Maria is the executive editor at Futuro Studios and the host of the podcast Anything for Selena, which is about the life and meaning of the singer Selena, who was killed in 1995 when she was just 23. When I listen to Anything for Selena, there was one episode in particular called Big Butt Politics that I kept thinking about while working on this story.
Maria Garcia: So the impetus for this episode is that I have seen this like drastic 180 in the way mainstream white culture treated.
Willa Paskin: But just like Heather Radke, this change wasn’t observed from afar, but felt up close.
Maria Garcia: I grew up like the daughter of like working class Mexican immigrants and like in my community, butts, big butts were desirable. They were beautiful. And it was such a stark contrast from, like my white friends at school and like in magazines and in movies and in mainstream culture, I would see big bucks as like something that you had to work out to get rid of.
Willa Paskin: And Maria also wanted to know why there had been a change. And so she started with where she’d first really noticed it when the Selena biopic was being cast.
Maria Garcia: I remember so very clearly being young and hearing commentators in Spanish language media talk about how the person who played Selena had to have her curves, that that was sort of like a requisite to play Selena. Having a big butt became like a legitimate factor in playing Selena. So then comes J-Lo. Jennifer Lopez.
Willa Paskin: Jennifer Lopez ended up playing Selena in the movie, which came out in 1997.
Maria Garcia: She really makes her butt and her curves like a central part of her identity as an artist. And she talks about it all the time. She talks about how proud she is of her curves. She talks about how people make a big deal about her curves. She talks about how he will compare her to like a guitar. And she really embraces this narrative.
Willa Paskin: And so does everyone else. In 1997, 98, 99, Jennifer Lopez’s butt is talked about in magazine stand up sets on late night shows with Oprah. You know, like people always talking about her bottom. I have a.
Speaker 3: I have a you know, a large reader, I guess, for the norm.
Willa Paskin: As I said earlier, because of all of this, Jennifer Lopez’s butt is widely considered to be the breakout, but the part that brought butts into the mainstream. But as Maria dove into this moment, she kept wondering why it was Jennifer Lopez that was able to do this.
Maria Garcia: There were other women at the time, black women at the time who had very similar curves. But it was J.Lo who really spurred this, like arguably the spirit revolution. For me, it’s normal.
Speaker 2: What Norm?
Speaker 3: Not black women have had this bottom line.
Maria Garcia: What I discovered in my reporting and, you know, talking to scholars and just really like immersing myself in this time is that, you know, J.Lo was able to. Like embody black features while still being palatable to white audiences because of her racial ambiguity.
Willa Paskin: Beauty ideals are not static. Different places, different cultures, different times, different people have different ones. And in the years leading up to the butt’s big moment, it was black people in particular who had primed the culture for a crossover. But. But that crossover but was not allowed to be a black one.
Maria Garcia: There’s this history of desiring black features while rejecting black people. And I think this period in American culture really played into that history.
Willa Paskin: And you could say something extremely similar about the Bustle. And in fact, Elizabeth Alexander in that piece in The Village Voice did speaking about white people and Sarah Baartman, she said that which you are obsessed with, that you are afraid of, that you have to destroy is the thing you want more than anything. Black culture has been expropriated in this manner for centuries, detached from those who inspired it. Culture is siphoned off as style.
Speaker 3: There’s a certain power that certain people have in being able to try out other people’s cultures and other people’s looks as long as they’re able to go back to their original power and their original privilege.
Willa Paskin: Janell Hobson again.
Speaker 3: They’re willing to achieve the aesthetic of a certain look, but they’re not really interested in the experience of play without reality.
Willa Paskin: In the years following Jennifer Lopez, a certain kind of curvaceous ness became more and more celebrated.
Speaker 3: Would you go and do all the junk inside your truck?
Willa Paskin: I’m a gig. Gig?
Speaker 2: Sheikh Yassin Sheikh. Some was at work.
Willa Paskin: By the mid 20 tens, the beauty had become inescapable, a ubiquity that has been a part of a robust public conversation about who gets to take off and put on black aesthetics. And it’s a conversation that has often touched on Kim Kardashian, who has the most discussed derriere of the last decade and has cultivated a kind of racial ambiguity while making her butt central to her persona.
Maria Garcia: I have said numerous times like, I haven’t had plastic surgery, I haven’t had breast implants.
Willa Paskin: In 2014, Kardashian famously broke the Internet by posing for Paper magazine. In the most famous of the photographs, Kardashian is standing in profile with her butt sticking out so far. It’s like a shelf. In fact, a champagne glass rests atop it. The photo was taken by Jean-Paul Goutte, who was restaging an image he’d shot previously of a Haitian model, part of a collection that knowingly trafficked and conversed with historically racist imagery and tropes. And as many observers of the Paper magazine images noted, if you take that champagne glass out of the photo of Kardashian and put the pictures side by side with a drawing of Sarah Baartman, the visual echo is again unmistakable.
Willa Paskin: Sarah Baartman is a historical figure, but that history is very near.
Willa Paskin: After her death, the French scientist George Cuvier, who examined and autopsied her, put parts of her body on display in a French museum where they stayed on view until 1982 and in the museum’s possession until 2002, when Bachman’s remains were finally repatriated and then buried in South Africa, where she is regarded as a national hero, her story has inspired Blaise and Mahomes and Beyoncé.
Speaker 2: Lyrics by Rodale that would sell pearls during my fifth go to hospital. My knee like I happened to fly away.
Willa Paskin: She’s all around us, and so is her maybe connection to the Bustle. You can see it in the butt lifting plastic surgery procedures that are a kind of permanent Bustle in a performer like Miley Cyrus strapping on a fake. But to talk in concert. In the recent speculation that Kim Kardashian is leaving the big board behind in the possibility that suggests that big butts might just be a trend, one that, like the bustle, could go away in the fact that the trend such as it is, is still objectifying a particular kind of bod in the same old way.
Willa Paskin: The but remains this locus of contradictions, of desire and disgust, of objectification and strength of female empowerment, and the male gaze of money and intimacy, of celebration and appropriation of body part and fashion accessory. We may never know for sure if Sarah Baartman inspired the Bustle, but considering that she might have helps us to know where to look and who gets to put a butt on and then take it off as they and fashion designer.
Willa Paskin: This is decoder ring and Willa Paskin. You can find me on Twitter at Willa Paskin. And if you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, you can email us at Decoder. Ring at Slate.com. I’d like to thank Wesley Stevens for taking the time to talk to me. This podcast was written by me. I produce Decoder Ring with Katie Shepherd. This episode was edited by Andrea Bruce. Derek John is Slate’s executive producer of Narrative Podcasts. Merritt Jacob is senior technical director.
Willa Paskin: I want to strongly encourage you to get Heather Radke book Box a back story. The Bustle and Sarah Baartman are just a part of it, and there are so many other interesting topics and ideas and insights in it. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe and rate our Feed and Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And even better. Tell your friends. If you’re a fan of the show, I’d love for you to sign up for Slate Plus Slate Plus members get to listen to Decoder Ring without any ads. And their support is also crucial to our work. So please go to slate.com slash decoder plus to join Slate Plus today. We’ll be back next week. See you then.