A History of Big Butts

JPierre's picture

A History of Big Butts

I recently learned the story of Sarah Baartman, the South African women ripped away from her homeland in 1810 and showcased as the “Hottentot Venus” in Great Britain for years. After her death at age 26, her genitalia and buttocks were removed and placed in a French museum until 2003. Needless to say, the story stuck with me, yet it was not only because it represented one of the most extreme cases of European racism towards those of African descent. As a black woman, I have often succumbed to the stereotypes sometimes associated with black women’s “curvaceous” bodies. (1) Considering the many images prevalent in American society depicting black women with large butts and breasts as well as wide hips, it is easy to think that these characteristics are in the biology of black women. As I come from a family of women abundant in the breast and butt area, I too have often wondered if these were standard phenotypes of today’s black woman.

When I stumbled upon the story of Sarah Baartman, I wondered if her body was an early example of this supposed black phenotype. After some researching, I found out that Baartman’s enlarged buttocks and genitalia were not examples of black female characteristics, but an example of steatopygia. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines steatopygia as “an excessive development of fat on the buttocks that occurs chiefly among women of some African peoples and especially the Khoisan.” (2)Dictionary.com defines the term as “an excessive accumulation of fat on and about the buttocks, especially of women.”(3) Another source explains that the fat “is not confined to the buttocks regions, but extends to the outside and front of the thighs, forming a thick layer reaching sometimes to the knee”. (4) The trait, which is usually attributed to females, is also a characteristic of the Pygmies ethnic group of Central Africa and Southeast Asia. Although Baartman was paraded around Europe as a freak show, South Africans lauded her steatopygia as a sign of beauty and femininity.

Steatopygia is also one of the traits of the evolving human adapting to his surrounding as it was a means of survival in seasonal environments. “It maximizes their bodies’ surface-area/volume but keeps enough fat to produce hormones for menstruation. With fat deposited heavily in only certain areas of the trunk of the body, limbs are left slim enough to expel heat more efficiently.” (4) This explains why steatopygia is very useful in dry warm climates such as those in Africa, and other places where those of African descent inhabit.

Thus, I wonder if steatopygia plays a role in the body of today’s black woman. Of course, I cannot generalize and state that all women of color who are of African descent share larger backsides, but I think it may be fair to say that this is a trait more commonly associated with these women. I wonder if, as the black woman has evolved and adapted to her surroundings, mixed with other races and ethnicities, a mild form of steatopygia exists within our genetics? I say a “mild” form because it is clear that most, if not almost all do not possess the enlarged buttocks shown beside the definition of steatopygia. Yet as women of African descent have been known to possess more backside than their other racial counterparts, perhaps this is an example of an evolved form of steatopygia. Conversely, perhaps this trait associated with black women all boils down to inheriting the genes of one’s parents. My mother and her aunts all have large buttocks, so I was not surprised when my sister and I inherited the same characteristics, but in a milder form. I presume I will pass this down to my daughters and so on and so on. In this case, maybe this is not steatopygia at play, but merely genes from my mother and her family. Another “story” to help explain black women’s body types might be linked with their eating habits. I cannot speak for all black women, but in my case, when I splurge on junk food, I tend to gain weight in the lower half of my body in my thighs and buttocks as opposed to the usual stomach area. This fact is also true for my sister.

The story of the black woman’s body type certainly cannot be explained in a three-page webpaper, however, I gained a new perspective by taking an inquiry into the subject and researching steatopygia. The research only served to enhance my summary of stories concerning this topic and helped to formulate my own thoughts. I believe that all of the aforementioned factors shape the black woman’s body type with some playing a larger role than others for some black women. In my family’s case, I believe that a mild form of steatopygia existed as my ancestors come from the dry and warm environment of Haiti. Perhaps in earlier times, this trait was used to expel the sometimes unbearable heat of the Caribbean. However, as my ancestors evolved and co-mingled with those of different races and ethnicities, the steatopygia may have become milder. As more time passed, I believe genetics played a role in maintaining this body type. Currently, I believe that it is our eating habits, especially our tendency to eat not-so-healthy-foods that influence the body types of the women in my family. Although my presumptions are not finalized, I will stick to this summary now until I am able to observe new evidence and research to enhance or dispel my theory.

(1) In this essay, I use the term black to denote those who are descendants of the African Diaspora and solely African-Americans.

(2)"Steatopygia." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009.Merriam-Webster Online. 9 November 2009 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/steatopygia.

(3) "Steatopygia." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 09 Nov. 2009. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/steatopygia>.

(4) Anitei, Stefan (April 2007). "What is Steatopygia? An ancestral trait". http://news.softpedia.com/news/What-is-Steatopygia-51231.shtml. Retrieved 11.9.2009.



Serendip Visitor's picture

huge butts

why do most men prefer women huge butts.

awsim chick's picture

i was lookjng in the mirror

i was lookjng in the mirror and i wondered y i dont have a big butt but bigger chest and i loocked on the internet through my history it started out european and white then the slave owners started sleeping with the slaves so thats why i also played out in the sun and ive become very dark, still till this day trying to get my skin tine back

Serendip Visitor's picture

This article was so very well

This article was so very well written that I had to reread it. Your research and format is wonderful. I enjoyed reading the information you had provided and clarifies a lot of misconceptions of this topic. I plan on reading the story of Sarah Baartman and hoping it will be as informative as your writings. Thank you

Serendip Visitor's picture

And I'm sure you will use

And I'm sure you will use this to say that all white people are still racist.

Serendip Visitor's picture


My mother,my aunt and me have a big buttocks.Well I used to have a big buttocks but then I lost it due to the excessive lost of weight.It is also true that I gain weight in my lower half of my body mostly and not my stomach area.So it was interesting for me to read this.

Rhythm DC's picture


I, too did some research a couple of years ago and came up with the same information. I'm married to one who has a beautiful shape, large breast and perfectly round buttocks. I sent her the information because I know she would be intrigued by it. Thank you so much!

Serendip Visitor's picture

Check this out

There is a documentary from national geographic called "the human family tree" if you want more explanation as to where genes like this came from check it out. www.nationalgeographic.com/genographic

Greanious A. 's picture

steatopygia and genetics

I am a chemical pathology scholar. The topic you are relating here has been facinating to me for some ti me now. You do explain that the "big butt" trait runs in your family and that when you eat more your weight gain is usually limitted to the lower parts of the body. How often have you made this observation? Can you also say the same about your sister, mother and aunts? Your answer will make a lot of difference to the questions i have and the theories that are emerging.
With the ability to dispipate heat, have you personlly experienced this cooling effect in your legs as compared to the rest of the body? Possible try and find out and let me know.

Dora's picture

re: steatopygia and genetics

I am an American of Germanic ancestry. I believe I fit the definition of steatopygia minus the complete description of the genitalia. I am barely 5' 0" tall, have the thick thighs with hanging skin extending to my knees, and, of course, the large butt. My hips measure 73".....yeah. As a teen and young adult, I appeared "normal", but it was during my first pregnancy that I first began to blossom. It drove me nuts to diet and exercise only to have my butt grow bigger. I would lose weight in my belly and upper body easily. I went on many fad diets to try to lose weight. My friends would lose weight 4 to 5 times faster than I could, which made me very frustrated. At age 55, I am still thickening. The middle of my thighs are 35" around. Something new that has occurred within the past 5 yrs is a pocket of fat bulging just below my knees. My ankles and feet appear normal. My arms, though short and pudgy, see normal for my age. My head seems to be too small for my body, too. Again, I am not black, have no African ancestors, and yet, I believe I fit the description of steatopygia. I do believe it is genetic because my mother had the same figure. Unfortunately, she died at age 40, so I do not know if she would have continued to grow as I have. Her mother, my grandmother, was tall, maybe 5' 7", but she too, had a large butt, as did my great grandmother. Both of them lived well into their 80s. I have one aunt, my mom's sister, who also has a similar body shape. Mom had 6 siblings, only 2 seemed to have it. Of special note, my friends often comment how little I eat. Some feel my body is gaining weight because I do not eat enough. I do not believe that at all. I only threw that info in to emphasize that I do not eat any more food than a normal person.

Paul Grobstein's picture

body type, genes, cultures, eating behaviors

Interesting indeed that steatopygia may be adaptive both in some non-human environments and in some human cultures.  Given that, and genetics, why do you "believe that it is our eating habits ... that influence the body types of women in my family"? 

JPierre's picture


I don't think that my family's eating habits played a role in our body types, but I think may be one of the many factors combined with perhaps the evolution of steatopygia.

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