We’ve been in the Era of the Big Booty for a while now, thanks to celebrities like Iggy Azalea, Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, and Kim Kardashian. We’ve gone from trying to jazzercise our bums away to working out to enhance every curve we’ve got. The good thing is that the ongoing cultural obsession with the booty has ushered in a moment where women’s curves are being celebrated rather than shamed. We’re no longer into wasting away toward waifdom or modeling our #BodyGoals after strung-out heroin users. Instead, there’s been more mainstream acceptance of curvier female figures and intense backlash against those who criticize it. (Just check out what happened when detractors recently called Serena Williams’s physique “manly.”)
The only problem is that we’ve possibly traded one obsession for another. Has getting the perfect butt become just another item on a long list of idealized body parts a beautiful woman is supposed to have? It would seem so, given the boom in businesses that promise to help women achieve the perfect booty. There are butt-enhancing jeans, butt lifters, and padded panties, as well as pills, creams, and lasers that claim to boost the size of your rear. In 2014, there was a 98 percent increase in butt implants, plus a 44 percent increase in butt lifts. Similarly, RealSelf.com, an online plastic surgery community, reports search increases of 33 percent and 31 percent for information on butt implants and Brazilian butt lifts, respectively.
“There’s been a tsunami of interest in contouring the buttocks,” explains Constantino Mendieta, MD, a Miami-based plastic surgeon and author of The Art of Gluteal Sculpting, who reports that butt enhancement now makes up 70 percent of his practice. The quest for the perfect booty is now global, with surgeons like Mendieta traveling as far as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to instruct local doctors on the latest techniques.
Also adding to the frenzy: social media feeds dedicated to finding and praising the best butts, with tags like #BootyGoals and #Belfie (that would be a “butt selfie,” if you’re not up on the lingo). Newer to the scene is the tag #UnderButt, which captures and celebrate shots of the space on a woman’s body where the buttocks meet the legs. There is also #SideButt, which can either be profile shots to show how much one’s booty protrudes or seated shots wherein the poser spreads her flesh in order to accentuate just how much of a booty she has. Either way, the message is clear: No shapewear or other accessories needed here.
Venerating and idolizing certain female body parts is nothing new, points out Melanie Klein, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Santa Monica College. Remember how showing off a peek of butt crack was the new cleavage a few years back? But what is new is the amount of exposure we’re all subjected to — both from corporate media giants and our peers on social media — and the fact that all of it, including our own selfies, is digitally altered. “The sheer volume of images we’re exposed to is unprecedented, as is the degree of manipulation.” says Klein. “Together they’re creating a beauty standard that doesn’t even exist in real life.”
For some, endeavoring to achieve the perfect booty — or finally embracing curves instead of trying to exercise them away — is about self-empowerment and acceptance. “Growing up, I wanted to be a ballerina, but people made fun of my ‘thunder thighs,’” recalls Kelly Brabants, a personal trainer at BFX Studio in Boston, where she teaches a class called Booty by Brabants. But the shift in mainstream definitions of beauty has transformed how she feels about her own body — and inspired her to help other women find similar inner confidence. “Because of everything that’s happened over the past few years in pop culture, I’ve been able to accept and grow into my body.” And she channels that feeling into her workout philosophy, which is about improving on — and liking — what you’ve got.
For 34-year-old Jada (*name has been changed), who lives near Miami, getting a more perfect butt was her way of feeling comfortable with her body again after having two children. She spent months trying to work on her physique through diet and exercise after having kids, but she wasn’t satisfied with the results. And feeling bombarded by media images of women flaunting perfect bottoms didn’t make it any easier. “When you’ve got models and celebrities everywhere with a small waist and a big butt, it leaves you wanting the same,” says Jada. So, she spent a year researching her options and picking a surgeon based on reviews and comments she found online. “It wasn’t about finding a bunch of wish pictures, but figuring out an improved body shape that’s right for me.” According to Mendieta (who did not treat Jada), his patients call their enhancement procedures “empowering” and “life-changing.” “Not just because of the attention they receive,” says Mendieta, “but because it gives them the self-confidence to do things they wouldn’t have done before” — including getting out of abusive relationships.
Not all women, however, are thrilled about our culture’s ongoing obsession with women’s butts or feel like accepting women’s curves is radically new. “People of color have been curvy forever, and yet, suddenly, white women are appropriating these looks, styles, and features,” says Michelle Threadgould, 29, a biracial writer living in Oakland, Calif. “Is there a changing shift toward body positivity, a public uproar against fat-shaming, and a general understanding that skinny is no longer the new sexy? That depends on who you ask.”
Ultimately, the pursuit of the perfect booty raises questions about what it means when a body part is a key to fitting into a cultural definition of beauty and achieving self-acceptance. “Whether it’s the current cultural moment the perfect booty is having, or the explosion in vaginal reconstruction that has been popular in the recent past, or the ongoing obsession with women’s breasts — it’s really all the same,” explains Klein. “It has us focusing on and evaluating women’s body parts instead of their whole selves.” And what’s beautiful or empowering about that?