Vogue magazine has never been of or for the people. Outside of a rarified few, it’s an aspirational escape into conspicuous consumption. So when I stumbled across We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty on Vogue.com, my first instinct was to roll my eyes because Vogue is never speaking to…or about…me, to us.
But then, when I think about the fact that this is a publication that can provide the lineage of just about every design influence, the lack of historical context on display in that article seems obtuse and willfully ignorant.
In October 1810, Saartjie Baartman, a woman with steatopygia – an overdevelopment of fat on the buttocks – was sold to Dutch colonists and put on exhibit as an object of fascination, an oddity. Nicknamed “Hottentot Venus”, Saartjie was caged alongside animals. She had a trainer who would make her sit and stand on command just as he did the animals. Many times she was displayed almost completely naked. In 1815, she was given over to French zoologists and anatomists for study. When she died in 1816, her body was dissected and put on display.
In the article, Patricia Garcia writes:
For years it was exactly the opposite; a large butt was not something one aspired to, rather something one tried to tame in countless exercise classes. Even in fashion, that daring creative space where nothing is ever off limits, the booty has traditionally been shunned. Though nipples have long been a runway staple, the industry was scandalized when Alexander McQueen debuted his bumster pants back in 1996. And who can forget the horrified reaction to Rose McGowan’s barely-there beaded dress at the 1998 Video Music Awards? Today, Rihanna shows up to the CFDA Awards practically naked with her crack fully on display and walks off with a Fashion Icon Award.
Perhaps we have Jennifer Lopez to thank (or blame?) for sparking the booty movement. When she first arrived on the scene in the late nineties, a lot of the buzz surrounding her focused on the back of her voluptuous body. Her derrière quite literally stood out against the other sex symbols of the moment, signaling a shift away from the waif era of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Moss and the outrageously large-breasted Pam Anderson. Lopez’s behind was so unique, and evidently so valuable, there were rumors she had taken out insurance worth millions to protect the asset.
Garcia deems J.Lo the “original trailblazing butt girl.” So what was once considered transgressive and vulgar is now considered fashionable. What changed? When physical features or style notes, are stripped of their racialization, taken out of a context where they’re assumed to be evidence of cultural pathologies or proclivities, and sanitized and put on mainstream bodies, you have a trend. This is how you end up with waifs walking down the DKNY runway with gelled “baby hair” and it’s heralded as a new street style, and this is how you have someone declaring “The Era of the Big Booty” 200 years after Saartjie Baartman. In ignorance of the fact that these features have been celebrated for many years in Black and Latino cultures across the world. Though I shouldn’t be surprised of this coming from a magazine that didn’t have a black model on its cover until 1974. Erasure and minimization is par for the course. It’s as if something doesn’t become real, become beautiful or desirable, until it’s been deemed worthy and validated by mainstream media. And then it’s just tried on and played at, to be put away when the next “new” thing comes along. But our personhood, our bodies, remain. We are not trends.
And the idea of using Miley Cyrus as an example is laughable, given her habit of using black women as sexualized props in her performances and videos. But Miley doesn’t speak to me either.