“Although she was known as Sarah Baartman, historical scholars aren’t sure if she ever knew her birth given name. She was a daughter of South Africa. She went to Europe willing, thinking she would find riches and fame. They fooled her in Europe; she found only humiliation. Forced to be a spectacle, because many of them had not seen a naked Black woman’s body, they nicknamed her the Hottentot Venus. They were fascinated with her big hips and buttocks. The worth of a big rear end, riches and fame, like all my big butt sweet sisters if they are caught with their guard down they will become ill artifacts of our social system.”–Crenshaw Street Poet Lil Dee
Sarah Baartman was a servant in Cape Town, South Africa, when she was induced by ship’s doctor William Dunlop to travel to England. Had Baartman, whose real name was Saartjie Baartman, known that she would be exploited and treated as a freak she probably would not have gone. From a European perspective, Baartman had an unusually large buttocks, a characteristic that was not unusual for Khoisan women.
In 1810, the 21-year-old was taken to London where she was put on exhibit, ogled and fondled and in essence labeled a “freak show.” In addition to her large buttocks, Baartman, who became known by the derogatory term, the Hottentot Venus, had enlarged skin that covered her female genitalia. This was apparently a characteristic noted on some of the women of Khoisan tribe from which Baartman came. The Khoisan were the first people to inhabit the southern tip of Africa.
“The young woman, who lost her father and husband/fiancé to a Boer raid on her tribe, was reportedly promised riches and fame, if she ‘agreed’ to go to the United Kingdom.
“Baartman was later sold to a French entrepreneur, who took her to Paris where she was exhibited as part of circus show for about 15 months. She died in 1815 or 1816, and was publicly dissected. Her sexual organs and brain were pickled by Napoleon’s surgeon and along with her skeleton were put on display in a Paris museum. Then in May 2002, after years of negotiation initiated by then-South African President Nelson Mandela, the young woman’s remains were returned home to her town of Hankey in the Gamatoos River Valley.”
Hundreds of years since Sarah Baartman, the fascination with the female buttocks has grown, and the Black buttocks is not always the main subject of the conversation.
Media historian Victoria Zdrok believes the interest in the buttocks was taken from the African American female and thrown into mainstream media in the late ’70s with the designer jean rage. White models were seen on television strutting for the cameras in Jordache and Sergio Valente jeans. One major factor in design of these form-fitting jeans was moving the company logo from the waistband and placing a smaller logo on the back pocket, thus creating a focus on the rear end and added symmetry, she says.
Zdrok says despite an overt fascination with butts during the designer jean explosion, mainstream media and society continued to shun Black women with larger hips and buttocks, making fun of the African American woman’s physical structure, even forcing some to experience insecurities and creating countless stereotypes.
For years, African American women have been at the heart of derogatory jokes and insulting comments. In a backwards attempt to glamorize the African American female body, many urban artists created poorly contrived musical tributes that made some even more self-conscious about their bodies.
Now, it appears that things have begun to change.
Kim Kardashian, the Armenian reality TV star whose body is proportionately shaped like an African American woman’s, has become very popular and has glamorized the “butt.”
The official Kim Kardashian’s web twitter account gets an average of 3 million hits per day, and as of Aug. 5, 2012, she had more than 16 million followers, according to examiner.com.
Kardashian uploads a new photo of her derriere in a bikini or a risqué outfit daily for her cross-cultural fans who are both males and females. Of course, for years African American women, even celebrities with the same shape have received no such kudos.
Even before Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez helped break down the buttocks barrier.
Other entrepreneurs are cashing in on the current butt rage with art sculptures, books, and butt-enhancing creams. In 1998, White artist-designer Spencer Davis started adding material to an otherwise skinny “Barbie doll.” Utilizing photographs of ebony nude female models from the African American male magazine, Black Tail, and taking “a few liberties of his own,” according to his website, the first Booty Babe was conceived.
After his prototype, Davis models were a collection of women of African heritage with huge breasts, large rear ends and massive thighs. The toy models are 11 inches high and have voluptuous, often physically overstated bodies, and depict suggestive sexual posturing. They range in price from $100 to $1,200.
“In the early 1900s, tinplate toy makers created stereotypical depictions of African Americans as banks [for coins], dancing jiggers, and smiling clowns,” says African American doll and antique collector Harriet Robinson. “I wonder how will the provocative figures of artist Davis influence non-Blacks who view them. Will his art say look at the promiscuous female with an insatiable sexual appetite. He has no sensitivity to the Black female, molding her as a oversexed vixen.”
Canadian photographer Raphael Mazzucco, and Jimmy Lovine, chairman of Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records, have launched Culo, a coffee-table-size book that features mostly, but not exclusively White versions of the female buttocks. The book is described by its publishers as “an art, fashion, and pop-culture movement that defies all national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries. No matter if you were raised to call it derriere, tush, rear end, or booty, Culo [Italian for buttocks] is the new epicenter of female sexuality, desire and empowerment.”
On the other hand, The Venus Revolution, is a grass-root publication that glorifies the bottoms of curvaceous Black women and seeks “to challenge and discuss current dominant standards of beauty, to provide a contemporary vision of a forgotten historical figure known as the Hottentot Venus,” according to owner Hotep. “The multimedia exotic arts and culture movement was started in 2006,” he said. “It displays sensual images of extremely curvaceous women in an awe-inspiring manner.”
Most of the models for the Venus Revolution are full-bodied, the type that African American men are attracted to. The Culo models are the type favored by Caucasians.
Sasha K (fashion director), 30:
“As very young women I remember being harassed. Even back to early elementary school, I was made fun of or taunted with attention that may have seemed positive to a woman but was a negative for me as a child. No little girl wants to be teased about her butt at the age of 10. From these experiences, I grew to be uncomfortable with my body. No matter how good it may have appeared. Throughout the remainder of my childhood, and until my current adult life I have dressed very conservatively so as not to show off the body God gave me, because doing so always produced a certain type of reaction from men. That made me very uncomfortable. It wasn’t until recently, when society deemed a woman’s physical body shaped like this as a positive, that I felt more acceptable.”
Barbra D. (journalist), 24:
“Being voluptuous at such a young age was difficult. Constantly being whistled at by grown men while walking home from school was really scary. In recent years, being curvy has become all the craze, but the catcalls and overt sexual remarks still make me very uncomfortable. It makes the possibility of being raped seem more likely.”
Debra H. (social worker), 50-something:
“It can be a burden, and sometimes it can work to your advantage. As a young adult, I learned to live with the harassment. Butt-slaps were really offensive. I just hated when a guy would not back down when coming on to me in a public place. I asked one guy why was he so persistent and he responded with, ‘I am afraid if I go home without your number I’ll never meet someone like you again.’ You have to be smart about it in the office, because you are going to encounter female superiors that do not have the same physical attributes as you. Males will move boxes for you, open doors and pay special attention to you. It would be to your advantage to make friends with all your female co-workers and female superiors. I do dress down a lot to cover up. However, if it’s the weekend I love having a full rear end. It’s nice to go to a club and not pay to get in and constantly not have to pay for drinks. I believe my butt size puts a lot of pressure on my husband, because he knows I am going to get attention when I go to the store so it works well for our relationship. It keeps down pressure.”
Derrick W. (firefighter), 45:
“Black men love the fact that Black women have more curves. The look is stimulating and pleasing to the eye, and we as men are visual. The butt must be proportioned to the body. We are attracted to the fuller bottoms as well as bigger hips and thighs. But, if too big, it takes away from the look, as does butts that are flat, square or too small.”
An article in the Aug. 8, 2012, issue of Nature magazine by Christie Wilcox, titled, “Stressed men like bigger butts,” attempts to answer the question of whether stressed-out guys prefer weightier women. Because, according to theories of evolution, more weight means a greater likelihood of survival in tough times.
“In contexts marked by prolonged stress as a result of resource deprivation, individuals may idealize larger body sizes because such body types are associated with better ability to handle environmental threat,” said the article. “These results are consistent with cross-cultural studies on attractiveness which found that ideal body size varies by socioeconomic status and resource scarcity. In other words, our evolutionary past has affected why different cultures throughout the world have very different ideals when it comes to beauty.”
Paul Grobstein, Ph.D., neurobiologist and chemical pathologist at Bryn Mawr College, developed an interest in the Negroid features of the African buttocks and attempted to understand its presence as a result of evolution. Prior to his death in 2011 he, as well as other academicians, were unsure if the Negroid buttocks was the result of sexual attraction or some other cause.
Grobstein theorized that African males may have chosen to mate with women with large rear ends, creating a large gene pool for that genetic characteristic. Or its size may have been a result of the combined influences of natural selection and cultural selection.
Further, in America, the size could have been the result of controlled breeding under the direction of a slave owner during slavery. Lastly, its size may have been the result of a condition known as steatopygia, which is, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “an excessive development of fat on the buttocks that occurs chiefly among women of some African peoples and especially the Khoisan.”
Steatopygia is believed by many in anthropology and biological science to be a physiological feature of African females adapting to harsh environments. African females living in an arid, semi-desert, or hot environment needed to be able to rid themselves of body heat through thermoregulation. The well-endowed buttock became a biological vent transferring heat outside the body. This large buttock, working with the sebaceous glands, creating sweat aided Black women in cooling their bodies.
The sebaceous glands are microscopic glands in the skin that secrete an oily/waxy matter, called sebum, to lubricate and waterproof the skin and hair of mammals. In humans, they are found in greatest abundance on the face and scalp, although they are distributed throughout all skin sites except the palms and soles.
A large buttock maximized an African female’s body surface-area to volume ratio and the larger surface area created a conduit to lose heat. This heat transfer requires no energy input. The storage of large amounts of fat was important in very seasonal environments like those found in the African savanna where during the dry season and food shortages mammals live largely off of their stored fat.
These very large buttocks that allowed African peoples to adapt as a race recur sporadically today among modern women of African descent. (Of course, some African women possess Khoisan genes, so they display real steatopygia.)
However, society’s fascination with ample behinds has created an atmosphere that has helped some Black women to be more accepting of their curvaceous shapes. And while it is still hard–due to challenges such as imagery from rap videos like “Birthday Song,” by Artist 2 Chainz, which exclaims ignorantly, “all I want for my birthday is a big-booty ho”–change is slowly happening.