Butts: A Backstory (Hardcover)
On Our Shelves Now
“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 So Far
A “carefully researched and reported work of cultural history” (The New York Times) that explores how one body part has come to mean so much—now one of the most anticipated books of 2022.
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.
“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 So Far
“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."
— All the Books Podcast, BookRiot
“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
“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)
“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, Most Anticipated Books of 2022