Dynamist Blog

Some Bootylicious Thoughts on Changing Fashions in Body Types

The 1900 version of Nicki Minaj's figure.

For this Hollywood Reporter story, which quotes me briefly at the end, fashion writer Merle Ginsburg emailed me some questions about the fashion for big butts. I wrote the following, somewhat disjointed, thoughts in response:

When I saw a profile shot of Nicki Minaj at the Grammys my immediate thought was that she was a throwback to the S-shaped ideal of the late 19th century. She had the bustle shape without the bustle.

The rise of hip-hop and dance music showcased both beautiful female performers who aren’t ashamed of their bodacious butts—Jennifer Lopez was the pioneer here—and men who appreciate a little junk in the trunk. That’s Sir Mix-a-Lot, of course, but also countless rap videos where success equals being surrounded by scantily clad women whose curves include big butts. The effect, over a couple of decades, was to reveal an underserved taste. Combine that with the friendly fit of Lycra-enhanced fabrics and fashion’s restless quest for new looks and you get clothes that highlight well-rounded backsides, whether on the red carpet or at the mall. It’s worth noting, too, that this isn’t just a “black thing” and it isn’t just about bigger being better. The very white Lululemon was built on the insight that women would pay extra for yoga pants that made their butts look good. (Great story here.)

What is different is that the ideal of curves coexists with the ideal of the athletically toned body. (By curves I mean curves—particularly the waist-hip ratio—not a euphemism for fat.) In the past, they’ve been seen as opposites. The slim silhouette of the 1920s was a youthful, active ideal. The same thing happened in the 1960s and ‘70s and carried over even through the glamazon era. A “womanly” shape meant softness all over—and culturally it implied domesticity and weakness. Now we have curvy, hard-bodied performers like Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé—and Scarlett Johansson as a cat-suited action hero. The Crossfit movement builds up butts and thighs rather than slimming them down.

I don’t agree that butts have replaced breasts. Rather, we’re seeing in beauty ideals the same thing that we’ve seen in clothing fashions—think hemlines—where lots different possibilities are stylish at the same time. Instead of one ideal body type, there are multiple ones. Nobody is going to write off Penelope Cruz or Charlize Theron as sex symbols because their butts aren’t big enough. Margot Robbie’s body is stunning—as we learned in great detail in The Wolf of Wall Street—but her butt is distinguished more by its shape than its size.

All of these are still ideals, attainable only by a few highly disciplined genetic freaks. But ideals are more inspiring and less oppressive when you can see something of yourself in them. I was a teenager in the 1970s, when the one and only ideal was the Golden Mean (Farah Fawcett, Cheryl Tiegs)—a tan bathing suit body with long legs and moderate curves. If you were flat-chested or dark-skinned or, like me, had an untannable English Rose complexion and a tiny waist and big booty, you were just out of luck. Not only weren’t you perfect, you couldn’t even picture yourself that way.

Fashion change is mysterious. The Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson, who uses baby names as a case study, identifies three factors: “external events of social, political, and economic significance; internal mechanisms of taste that generate changes even when the external environment remains constant; and the unique historical conditions of a fixed point in time.” In this case, the external events would be things like the rise of hip-hop as a cultural influence; the internal mechanisms would be fashion boredom with earlier silhouettes; the unique historical conditions might be something like reality television as a showcase for the Kardashians, one of whom just happens to provide a model of a white woman with a big butt.

On cycles and possibly relevant to the plastic surgery question: Fashion often changes by exploring all of the aesthetic possibilities in a certain direction until they’re exhausted. Shirts get shorter and shorter and then get long. Shoulders get wider and wider and then get narrow. This doesn’t have to be the pattern. Sometimes there’s a big break, as in the 1920s or the early 1960s. Today many different silhouettes are popular, although some things (mom jeans, big shoulders) are still out of style. And it’s still really hard to find clothes that fit if you have a small waist and a big butt.

Random fact: Body scanner data on large samples of the general U.S. population finds that Latina and Asian women have larger waist-hip ratios than black and white women. I don’t know how this maps to butt size, since I know it in the context of waist fit. But I suspect that the rising proportion of Latinos in the U.S. population works both for and against the emphasis on butts. On the one hand, in some Latin cultures (Brazil being the most famous) the butt is a major focus of male attention and beauty ideals. On the other, aspiration aside, Latinas may not actually be as curvy as black and white women, and East Asians definitely aren’t. (“White” is way too broad a category, but it’s what we have.)

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