BOMB Magazine | The Big and the Small: Heather Radke Interviewed

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BOMB Magazine | The Big and the Small: Heather Radke Interviewed
BOMB Magazine | The Big and the Small: Heather Radke Interviewed

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“Butts are a bellwether,” Heather Radke writes in the introduction to her debut narrative nonfiction book Butts: A Backstory (Avid Reader Press). “The feelings we have about butts are almost always indicative of other feelings—feelings about race, gender, and sex, feelings that differ profoundly from one person to the next.” Radke unpacks what lies underneath those feelings by seamlessly blending memoir, science, history, and cultural criticism to investigate how the female-identifying butt has always been more than just an anatomical feature, but the site of shifting cultural symbolism and power.

A contributing editor at Radiolab from WNYC and an essayist who teaches creative writing at Columbia University, Radke takes us from the nineteenth century’s racist exploitation of a large-butted Khoe woman named Sarah Baartman—“the Hottentot Venus”—to the Miley Cyrus twerking debate of 2013 and the dawn of the Brazilian butt lift. Along the way, we pass through fashion fads that play butts up (bustles) or down (flapper dresses); meet the creator of the Buns of Steel workout, fat fitness activists, and men who sculpt foam butt pads for drag queens. The book also visits the set of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” music video and explores how Kim Kardashian broke the internet with a champagne glass balancing on her butt. Through zooming in on how we consider the female butt, Radke illuminates how a history of race, gender, and culture has shaped our very personal ideas about our own bodies.

I first met Radke years ago at Columbia, when we were students in the MFA program and she was working on an essay about bustles and Sarah Baartman that was the seed for Butts. Radke and I sat down to talk about the personal and intellectual roots of her book, what she wishes we would all understand about butts, and the rewards of examining the seemingly mundane.

—Kristen Martin

Kristen Martin I know that you started writing the book at Columbia while you were in the MFA program, but the deeper roots seem to go back all the way to adolescent consternation about butts and your butt, and also to your work at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum where you were thinking about material culture.

Heather Radke There’s one version of the origin story that’s like, Heather at twelve. I suppose anything we write comes from our childhood and adolescence, right? The first essay I wrote about [butts] was in Hilton Als’s class, the first semester I was at Columbia, but it coalesced into a book during my last semesters there. I got interested in how body types come in and out of fashion, which struck me as so odd. It had been a very specific experience I had had about my body, feeling like the kind of body I had was not “fashionable” in the world I grew up in and then all of a sudden, it became fashionable.

The approach to that question comes very much out of my years at Hull-House [a museum in Chicago that links history to social justice issues by serving as a memorial to Addams and the settlement houses she helped to create]. I became interested in material culture and how objects convey meaning, and maybe specifically how the objects that we think don’t convey meaning actually do. In the book, there’s a lot of discussion of clothes and bustles. Fashion is often seen as frivolous. Even if people take it seriously, they often take it seriously as an economic force, not as a cultural one.

At Hull-House we were always exploring the many different threads to any kind of question. That’s true of a book too because it has a historical thread, a temporary thread, a personal story. But then there are also these reported moments like the drag queens or the fat fitness people. I wanted to not only outline the problematic histories, but also to add in a little bit of where people can test those histories and try to push beyond them…

Hull-House will always influence me in some way because I had my creative awakening of sorts there.

KM You mentioned that you started this book as an essay. When and why did you start to think that this could be a book?

HR With writing an essay, you can sort of start to feel when the question you’re asking can’t be contained inside the essay, and you have two choices. You can make the essay smaller or you can make the project bigger. My question ended up becoming: what is the symbolic meaning of butts that are coded female? It’s a huge question. It couldn’t even be contained in this book. In the essay, I was interested in the connection between the bustle and Sarah Baartman. That’s a really specific question, but the only way to answer that question is to get much, much bigger and to see the resonances in the past and the present. So, I started to think it could be a book when I had that feeling about that essay.

The other thing was just the way people reacted to it. I’d spent four years saying “butts” to people, so I’m a little immune to it now, but people get a little excited when they hear that. They have a strong reaction. I started to think, there is something here that I don’t quite know if I understand. It’s a little different than if I were saying “breasts” or “elbows” to people. That felt interesting to me. 

KM You did a ton of research and reporting for this book that took you all the way from Arizona for the man versus horse endurance race, to Paris to the museum where Sarah Baartman’s remains were once housed, to London for bustles, and then tracking down the Buns of Steel guy and meeting up with these men who make pads for drag queens’ butts. What were some of the surprising moments?

HR There were people I was excited to find that I hadn’t planned on finding, like the fat fitness activists. I’d known the outlines of the Jane Fonda aerobics revolution in the eighties. I did a lot of JSTOR-style research in the beginning of every one of the chapters, and I found this relatively obscure article about fat fitness activism in Vancouver, and I talked to the woman who wrote it. I was sort of surprised and delighted to encounter that group of women who were finding a way to be part of something that maybe didn’t want them to be part of it. And then when I talked to those women, Deb and Rosella, they were some of the most fun people I interviewed.

The butt pad people too—I was thinking a lot about gender identity and femme body types. I had this idea that I was going to report on shapewear and I went to this store in Times Square that makes shapewear for Broadway. The woman told me about the pad company Planet Pepper and the people who run it are delightful and exciting people too.

KM I loved all that stuff about the shapewear, and thinking about both restricting and expanding.  It seems to be one of the main themes throughout the book—these moments where restriction is in style versus where expansion is in style in terms of butt and body types.

That was something that I really admired in terms of the craft of the book is that you’re covering this enormous swath of history from, you know, the first hominid that had a butt…

HR I skip a bunch!

KM Well, that was what I wanted to ask. How did you decide which historical moments and cultural figures to zoom in on as we’re going from that deep history all the way to the contemporary moment? And what were some of the things that emerged as threads to keep everything all tied together? It is something that feels really synthesized across the book. Even as we’re traversing this large span of history, you’re focusing on particular moments that feel meaningful, and they all seem connected.

HR  I was worried about that the whole time, because, by choosing something, you’re not choosing something else. You just don’t know what you don’t know… I think my sensibility is that I’m a person interested in history, for sure, but I’m an Americanist. I know the most about the past two and a half centuries—it was always going to be focused on that period. I knew some threads that were really important from the beginning. I was really interested in race—I mean, you have to be if you’re writing about butts—and specifically, I was interested in the construction of whiteness, and how body type was used to construct both whiteness and blackness. That is a project of the nineteenth century, primarily, so that was always going to be part of it. Sarah Baartman is a major figure in that. Fashion, also, as we know it doesn’t really exist until about those time periods. Knowing that those were the bigger threads, then I could dive into the smaller ones.

There’s also the science stuff. I work at Radiolab, I’m sort of a science journalist. When I would tell people about this project in the early days, [I would get] these evolutionary psychology comments that I found fascinating. I wanted to unravel some of those assumptions of evolutionary psychology because they’re really baked into how we think about bodies. There’s something about the way we use science to kind of excuse ourselves from making choices or being honest about the choices we’re making that I found really interesting. I just wanted to see how true it was—could it possibly be true that there’s one type of body that’s scientifically attractive? It sounds not true, and it actually is not true. That can really form an idea about a body, and it makes it so you don’t think harder about why you find something attractive or not attractive.

KM I remember when we were in the MFA together, you sent around this Google form at one point asking people about how they thought and felt about their butts. It seems like you had a lot more of those types of conversations with people as you were working on the book, as well. What were some of the things were revealing to you in those conversations with other people about their own butts, and butts in general?

HR If you’re going to write about bodies, and you’re not writing a memoir—as in, I’m not just going to write about my body—you have to listen. One of my responsibilities was to try to learn about how other people feel about their bodies. These are relatively mundane things… it’s a thing that women might talk to each other about, but it’s not the kind of thing that is easily researched or reported. In the first year, I would have like, hour, hour-and-a-half-long conversations with women, nonbinary people, and some trans people about their bodies. It was deep research. I know how I feel about my body, but I don’t know how other people feel about their bodies. I don’t know what it’s like to live inside another body. I don’t know what it’s like to not be a white lady from Michigan, but I also don’t know what it’s like to be a person who has a small butt.

Writing about race, in particular, was something I tried to be very thoughtful and careful about. In addition to interviewing people with many racial identities and asking folks from a variety of backgrounds to read drafts of the book, I also interviewed scholars, brought in sources from people who have been researching and thinking about the questions in the book for a lifetime, and talked with people like Kelechi Okafor, whose lived experience as a twerk instructor offer a lot of   insight into my questions about the history and practice of twerk.

Although it can be complicated to write about race as a white person, and I’m sure I didn’t do it perfectly, I also think it’s important for white people to ask and investigate questions about race. After all, we are raced people too, and my research very clearly showed the ways that creating stereotypes of black people was a project that also created the idea of whiteness. Looking closely at these histories, and stating clearly how they worked and who they benefited, was always an important part of this project.

A similarity across almost everyone I interviewed is that no one can find pants that fit them. If I had ever had the fantasy—and I think I probably did before I did those interviews—it was that if you looked a certain way, clothes shopping was really fun. I mean, I’m sure it’s fun for lots of people but it’s not fun because all the clothes fit you…

KM It sounds like a lot of those different ways of thinking helped you then find different avenues to do further research and reporting that you did in terms of shaping the book—like [the interviews were] foundational to what eventually became the book, even if they’re not visible in the book itself.

What is one thing that you wish that we would all understand about butts or something that you came to understand about butts in the process of working on this book?

HR Butts don’t have to mean anything. They just don’t have to mean anything. And we’ve done all this work—there are so many gymnastics we’re doing to make them mean something. But instead, they could just actually mean nothing at all. There’s no inherent meaning in them beyond like, it’s a joint. A woman’s butt has some fat on it probably because it’s a convenient place on the body to store fat so you don’t fall over. There’s something about how kind of stupidly simple the physiology of it is that makes you wonder why everybody’s feeling so many intense ways about this?

I mean, you don’t want to take away sex and fun and fashion and joy or any kind of thing like that. But the way racialized and gendered meanings of bodies have been created, it’s been so harmful to so many people. There’s just no inherent reason that has to happen. These aren’t meanings that come from the body, they’re put onto the body. That felt really important to me to learn.

KM Toward the end of the book you write, “I’ve often thought about how, despite the fact that this book is very much about butts, it could have been about almost anything.” Part of me kind of interpreted that as you writing about how tracking the cultural history of butts provides a lens on so many different aspects of history, from eugenics to the rise of fitness and beyond. But can you unpack that a little bit more?

HR At Columbia, I teach this class called “Small Potatoes: Writing the Nonfiction of the Everyday,” and something I’m really interested in aesthetically and artistically is just how any one thing can contain everything. It’s sort of a John McPhee way of thinking about writing and nonfiction, like his book Oranges, which I love. I think part of what I’m trying to say is, you could choose any object, any part of your body—I mean, you could choose the elbow, probably… and you could find the history of the world in it. You would always find a history of race, a history of gender. I think in some ways it’s a call to not overlook the small and to also take seriously things that are, at first glance, kind of funny. I don’t want it to be humorless—I really hope the book doesn’t come across as humorless. I’m saying that this thing you think is not worth noting on some level, is funny but it actually contains so much and what else might contain that much, you know? That feels exciting and full of possibility. It’s also a way to take the small things in the world more seriously.



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