A Review of Heather Radke’s Butts: A Backstory

I received a copy of Heather Radke’s Butts: A Backstory (Simon & Schuster, 2022, ISBN 978-1-9821-3548-5) as a belated holiday present (with the gift message “sorry it’s a little behind…”) and took the opportunity to read it in bed across the ensuing several nights. I found the series of interrelated essays, grouped into seven sections (Origins, Sarah, Shape, Norma, Fit, Bootylicious, and Motion, plus an introduction, conclusion, and other back matter) to be a reasonably informative and overall enjoyable read. Radke stakes out clear theoretical positions (which, I acknowledge, some will find objectionable) from which to approach her overall topic, using her own experience as a means of entry into broader consideration of the human butt, and the woman’s butt more particularly. Obvious jokes aside (and there are no few such, hardly a problem for me, although I know that some will not appreciate such humor), Radke’s book is an engaging read, one I felt was well worth doing; I might well have bought the book myself had it not been given me as a gift.

The cover, from the publisher’s website.

The overall approach of the text, moving from a personal introduction through the physical and physiological to a focus on others’ experiences and broader cultural contexts, returning irregularly but not seldom to personal reflection, struck me as generally sensible. Humanizing the topic by beginning with embedded personal experience is often a useful rhetorical maneuver, engaging both situated ethos (“I can talk about this thing because I have experience with this thing”) and pathos (“You should care about this thing because it affects people, clearly, and you are, I assume, a people”). That Radke acknowledges the limits of her approach is also a useful rhetorical move. She explicitly disclaims universality of experience and understanding, and she notes that the text emerges, in part, from her desire to address her own concerns about her butt (13). What this does is position her and her text not as a determination against which resistance can be made, but more as a report or a series of them; limiting her claims reduces the angles from which she can be attacked for her writing.

“Reduces” is not the same as “eliminates,” admittedly. As I note above, Radke takes clear ideological positions in her work, and while she does make efforts to acknowledge them explicitly, there are others that come across without being made overt. That they largely align with my own understandings does tend to make the text sit better with me than it might otherwise, but even in my overall agreement with and acceptance of her reports, I know that the unexamined assumption is often problematic. And even the examined assumptions are likely to provoke outcry from some quarters, some of which Radke anticipates–but only some. I can see places where Radke might be called out for her words, although I was not reading to look for such things; I have to think that those who would look for fault will find it. Admittedly, they would anyway, but there are some places where Radke makes it easier for them than might be hoped.

(I do not think Radke is lying, although I know that she, as all, misses some things and does not report on others. None of us can really report on what we do not observe, and the vantage point from which we operate does much to determine what we will and will not observe. Too, there are limits on the ability to convey what is observed, language being a blunt tool for some details, and there are always constraints on any given work. Standard stuff, really, although not always things about which readers think, and rarely things discussed by those who will decry a work for its content or what they are told is that content.)

In all, though, I enjoyed reading the book, and I commend it to others. I think I may well revisit it, when time and circumstances permit. It seems, among others, the kind of reading that would reward the kind of treatment I give other works for money: lesson plans and discussion questions…and I do need more writing samples…

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