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Baby Got Back
How the size of my butt, or rather other people's opinion of it, shaped me
I have always had a healthy ass. No matter how much or little I weigh, a sizable portion of that weight — fat and muscle — resides in my derriere. As a child, I did not know this. I was blissfully unselfconscious of my body; I ran around naked until I was six. But(t) as I went through teenagerdom and young adulthood…
There were incidents that brought my butt to the forefront:
The drumline guy who sang “Baby Got Back” to me every time I walked by him at high school marching practice. He did this appreciatively, saying I didn’t have “a little white-girl butt.” (Yes, this is sexual harassment in the schoolplace, and also, at the time, I enjoyed it. He was two years younger and several inches shorter than me; I didn’t feel threatened. Not that one can’t feel intimidated by someone younger and smaller…okay, moving on.)
The dude who shouted at me from a moving car as I walked down 6th Street in Austin with friends: “You sure have a big butt for a blonde!” My oh-so-creative retort: “Fuck you!” I told my aerobics class (where we did lunges to Baby Got Back) later that week, and they were properly outraged, helping me come up with killer response burns. My friends and I hadn’t discussed it when it happened; no one on-scene acknowledged it.
The guys in the dorm I overheard appraising my body, as I walked away in my low-slung denim shorts and tiny black crop top: “She’s hot.” “Yeah, but she’s got a really big ass.” “Yeah…” I didn’t hear the last part, so I had to guess whether guy #1 agreed with guy #2 or saw the virtues of my well-endowed rear end. I felt…both like meat and embarrassed (in front of myself) that I cared what they thought.
I was stretched out with my arms over my head, pinning things to the preschool bulletin board where I worked, when my co-worker Gloria told me to put my arms down. She said with a smile I had “a sistah butt,” which had been hanging out of my hitched-up dress. I felt grateful for her candor and camaraderie.
What I take away from these vividly remembered anecdotes:
As a child, it was freeing not to think about how my body looked to other people. I didn’t know it was freeing because I hadn’t experienced it any other way. I just played in the sandbox naked, so I wouldn’t get my favorite clothes dirty and ran around in the buff because it felt good to be unencumbered by clothing. And it was Texas; I was hot.
Some of the ways I became aware of how people (6th Street assholes) thought about my body induced nervous self-consciousness and a splash of shame that sparked anger.
Fortunately, that was counteracted by people (Gloria) who expressed their thoughts on my body in a helpful and practical way that promoted a sense of community and solidarity.
Even though some of it felt affirming, (drumline guy), retrospectively, it encouraged me to place a disproportionate amount of my value as a human being on how I looked.
Some of it was a confusing mishmash of emotions: a need to be liked and accepted, shame that I needed so badly to be liked and accepted, feelings that I had to keep my body a certain way to get attention from boys (which I very much wanted.) In the case of the dorm guys, who were not at all whispering as I walked away, it did nothing to counteract my already unhealthy relationship with diet and exercise.
Those events listed above are in chronological order.
I’ve no doubt there were other micro-events I don’t remember that nudged me toward the internalized idea that my physical appearance was like the cover of a book. It wasn’t everything, but if I wanted people to open it, if I wanted my intelligence and wit to be seen, I’d have to package it correctly.
Correctly as in, in accordance with what magazines and the boys in my world told me was attractive, even if it was an ever-shifting target.
I got good at it.
The luck of genetics gave me a face and body that fit within the bounds of conventional attractiveness. All I had to do was monitor my weight obsessively, throw on some makeup and edit my personality a little bit.
I had swagger. From the outside, I’m sure my confidence looked rock-solid. But the rock was balanced precariously. Five pounds here, crying in front of people there, a loud fart that slipped out in mixed company, and that confidence threatened to roll off its perch and go slamming through the valley below.
This is life — no issue in a vacuum.
There are aspects of misogyny (obviously), classism (having the resources to conform) and even systemic racism. I did not until later in life fully consider the implications of Gloria and I being coworkers. She was a Black woman with at least a decade of experience; I was a white woman with a shiny new college degree.
But the point I’d like to make is this: Consider the effect of commenting on someone’s appearance, especially a young person’s. I’m not saying you should never ever do it, but ask yourself what it might mean to your daughter if you’re constantly telling her she’s pretty. The world will tell her that over and over again; what happens when she’s not? How will she feel about her worth as a human being when she gains 30 pounds or nears middle age, and the conventionally attractive features start to morph into something else?
I know you don’t mean it.
You don’t intend for her to take away from your compliments that her worth is tied to her looks. But here, the intent doesn’t matter. Tell her she looks nice every now and then, sure, but those comments should be vastly overshadowed by her experience of herself as a person with brains, desires and agency, regardless of someone else’s opinion on the size of her ass.