You can judge a culture, to some degree, not just by whom it objectifies, but what body part. Homer raved about “bright-eyed Athena” and a sea nymph’s “fair ankles.” In idealizing the Virgin Mary’s maternity, Renaissance dudes developed a breast fixation. Victorians had a thing for small waists. And whereas earlier generations of Americans worshipped Pamela Anderson’s bust and Betty Grable’s legs, today’s most coveted assets are the behinds of Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, and untold legions of raunchily rumped Instagram lovelies. Finally, after decades of displacement, our sexual obsession has returned to a frankly sexual body part. Forget elegant shoulders, the nape of the neck. We are living in a butt-lover’s paradise, an age of assless pants and up-the-crack thongs, butt-clapping booty dances, and fitness “twerk-outs.” Even Vogue, which has championed flat-backed femininity for decades, recently declared this “the Era of the Big Booty.” Buoyed by the exuberant profanity of Internet porn, not to mention the cheek-happy cheerleading of our most exalted tastemakers—the butt is back at the naughty epicenter of American sexuality.
Love of the derriere presents something of an erotic paradox. Humans are among the only creatures with enlarged rumps (a trait associated with bipedalism), yet the eroticized rear view is often stigmatized as animalistic. Sexual positions that display the butt are considered inferior, associated with a “doggy” instead of a pious “missionary.” When it comes to the age-old question “Tits or ass?”—the Betty-or-Veronica of male desire—the latter is generally deemed the more lurid fixation. Maybe that’s because butts are farther away from the face. Or because the nonsexual function of breasts is life-giving, while the nonsexual function of butts is...never mind.
Some evolutionary biologists believe breasts function as visual stand-ins for buttocks—something closer to eye level that made the female body identifiable and identifiably sexy, once we stopped roaming around on all fours. (Butt Lite, if you will.) When shown isolated images of ass cracks and heaving breasts, men are often unable to discern one cleavage from the other.
Unabashed sexual frankness is part of the butt’s appeal—and also why men who lust after ass are, in my experience, better lovers than men who favor boobs. The sexual pleasure a woman experiences with her top off pales compared with what happens when the butt—and neighboring zones—are in play. Without the possibility of eye contact or kissing, butt-focused sex acts are pure, honest-to-god banging. There is no Nicholas Sparks version of a rim job. And so the butt offers an appealing authenticity—a welcome respite from a world of weak imitations, slick fakes, and phoniness in general. Due to the butt’s anatomical necessity, synthetic alterations like implants and pads are deeply inconvenient and thus relatively unpopular compared with their mammary counterparts. (Padded bras are available at every mall in America, while butt pads are considerably harder to find.) But the gluteus maximus is a muscle, and the most coveted butts tend to belong to those who perform the most squats. It’s sort of democratic: Even an unknown girl from Long Island like Jen Selter can, with enough grit, transform herself into the undisputed queen of the Instagram butt selfie. Every woman has an ass, and we’re all capable of improving it. But progress requires the kind of discipline that juice-cleansing CrossFit enthusiasts and Quantified Self obsessives have turned into a religion.
And yet, I hate to break it to you guys, but asses are not always what they appear to be in all those “belfies.” Taking a picture of one’s hindquarters is, of course, somewhat humiliating in and of itself. Instagrammers will sooner show you a butt pic than the awkward contortions they went through to get the shot. But once she gets into position, the forced perspective created by holding a camera at arm’s length above a bent-over and popped-out ass makes the poser’s buns look hugely round and her waist look tiny. And since holding that pose requires engaging every single balance-oriented muscle in the body, nothing even jiggles!
So when Kardashian “broke the Internet” with her baby-oil-coated rump last year, the mass public freak-out was not merely the logical conclusion to seven years of stardom launched by a sex tape. It was the peak moment in an ongoing, swelling shift in our sexual culture—an all-out race to the Bottom. The effect is so complete that when Paper published full-frontal photos from Kim’s naked photo shoot barely 24 hours after the butt pic, it felt almost like an afterthought. The ass broke the Internet—the rest was just a bonus.
Photos by Photographed by James Macari