In case you missed it, Vogue—the American magazine that has had a hold on the first and last word in the fashion world for the last thirty years—broke news. Last week, the Condé Nast glossy stumbled upon a major cultural tipping point, and charted the ascension of an important new development in the way our society consumes images of the female body. This groundbreaking discovery? That we’re officially entering the “era of the big booty.”
Except that we aren’t. And the story, posted on the afternoon of Sept. 9, reveals nothing more than the tendency of traditional media to think that it’s discovering new social, political, and even stylistic trends just by recognizing them.
In “We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty,” the writer, Vogue.com’s Associate Culture Editor Patricia Garcia, charts what she describes as the “ubiquitousness” of the big booty. Her proof comes from a careful exegesis of such storied cultural texts as the 2007 debut of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Rihanna’s sequined, sheer gown worn to last June’s 2014 Council of Fashion Designers of America awards—an annual event described by industry professionals as the “Oscars of fashion.” Garcia name drops the Beyoncé-penned Destiny’s Child hit “Bootylicious” and suggests readers should “thank (or blame)” Jennifer Lopez for being the original purveyor of this big booty movement. There are also a few sentences acknowledging Miley Cyrus as a veritable front-runner in this trend, for “[proving] you didn’t need to have a large butt to become a part of the conversation.”
In reality, it wasn’t necessary to have a butt of a certain size to become a part of the conversation, nor was one required to understand that a conversation was happening at all. That’s where Garcia, and by extension Vogue as a publication, misses the point while making a more important one: This isn’t the beginning of a big booty “movement” so much as it is the middle of a big booty “moment”—one in which our recognition that an array of female forms and figures exist has become a marketable, acceptable conception.
And traditional media is trying to cash in. The utter innocuousness of Garcia’s “conclusion” reveals an aspect of racial politics, that the acknowledgment by the largely white, male-dominated hegemony comes with an understood status of goodness or acceptability.
This “big booty movement”—reaching a cultural apex with the music videos of popular songs like Beyonce’s “Partition,” Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” and Iggy Azeala’s “Work”—isn’t news to me, just as it was seen as the continuous state of affairs for legions of all communities, not just those of color, and not just those represented in pop music. Country music star Trace Adkins crooned an upbeat Nashville-produced appreciation of what he referred to as a “honky tonk badonkadonk” in a 2005 song of the same name.
But Vogue—and other traditional media—is late to the game when it comes to progressive body politics. Nicki Minaj didn’t need the magazine’s seal of approval to appreciate her body; she recorded “Anaconda” and created a space, or at least a song, in which women need not feel ashamed of buxom physical figures, and may instead play with the pre-existing cultural narrative of waifish beauty.
No one needed to alert me to the fact that women had large butts because I saw them: With my mother and my aunts, all of whom are black women, my childhood was spent overhearing conversations about the difficulty in finding properly-fitting pants and skirts, and trade secrets about specific jeans made with denim stretchable enough “for us” or “our figures.” Stars like Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, and even Miley Cyrus didn’t discover the appeal of the “booty,” they just elevated it to the status of an asset with enough cultural capital to be positively discussed in the pages of a magazine with as much influence as Vogue.