Nov 11, 2022

Butt Stuff

Why do we have a butt? Well, it’s not just for the convenience of a portable seat cushion. This week, we have a conversation with our Contributing Editor Heather Radke, who has spent the last several years going deep on one of our most noticeable surface features. She’s been working on a book called Butts, a Backstory and in this episode, she tells us about a fascinating history she uncovered that takes us from a eugenicist’s attempt in the late 1930s to concretize the most average human, to the rise of the garment industry, and the pain and shame we often feel today when we go looking for a pair of pants that actually fit.

Special thanks to Alexandra Primiani and Jordan Rodman

Episode Credits:
Reported by Heather Radke
Produced by Matt Kielty
Original music and sound design contributed by Matt Kielty and Jeremy Bloom
Mixing by Jeremy Bloom
Fact-checking by Emily Krieger

Citations:
You can Pre-order Heather’s book “Butts: A Backstory” here (https://zpr.io/QVFVLTTW9vpN)


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LATIF NASSER: So do you wanna start? Do you wanna wait? Up to you.

HEATHER RADKE: Hold on. I'm just—Lulu has a whole idea here.

LATIF: Oh, where is ...

LATIF: Hey, I'm Latif Nasser.

LULU MILLER: I'm Lulu Miller …

HEATHER: She's just texting me.

LULU: … who was running late.

LATIF: This is Radiolab.

HEATHER: Well, the question Lulu wanted me to ask you to start actually is …

LATIF: Mmm?

HEATHER: ... what do you think butts are for?

LATIF: What do I think butts are for? I mean, I—I think they're a—it's a portable cushion to sit on, right?

HEATHER: Huh. [laughs]

LATIF: The cheeks, I'm thinking the cheeks are like a portable ...

LATIF: Okay, so today on Radiolab, we're gonna share with you all a conversation that we had with our contributing editor ...

HEATHER: Well, I'm not quite ...

LATIF: ... Heather Radke.

LULU: Yeah. Over the last few years, Heather has been putting her blood, her sweat, her tears, her back into a book all about ...

HEATHER: Butts.

LULU: Specifically, the butt cheeks.

HEATHER: Yeah, the cheeks.

LULU: The junk in the trunk. The booty in the back.

HEATHER: Straight up. It's a book about the cheeks, not the hole.

LATIF: So if you're looking for butthole stuff, it's not here. It's not happening.

HEATHER: No.

LATIF: But Heather's book, it's called Butts: A Backstory. It's—it's pretty hefty.

LULU: [laughs] And cheeky. And juicy. But no seriously, it is a deep think on something that we don't usually think that deeply about.

HEATHER: The gluteus maximus, which is the butt muscle, it's one of, like, three butt muscles.

LATIF: It goes into the why and how of the butt muscle.

HEATHER: Yeah, there's, like, a little bit of a debate. Is the butt for running or is it more for, like, jumping?

LATIF: Not for cushions, apparently. But also ...

HEATHER: There's this other part which is actually the part that's, like, way more complicated and fraught, which is the fat part.

LATIF: Because, Heather explained, it's the fat that makes the butt the thing that society obsesses over.

HEATHER: And that's why, like, the Brazilian butt lift is one of the most popular cosmetic surgery procedures in America today.

LATIF: Brazilian butt lift. I've never heard of such a thing.

HEATHER: Oh my god, Latif. You're gonna learn so much ...

LATIF: And why is it Brazilian?

HEATHER: … when you read my book. [laughs]

LATIF: Okay, great. I'm so excited.

LULU: What's up?

LATIF: Oh!

HEATHER: Hi.

LATIF: Hey Lulu.

LULU: I'm so sorry I'm late. I've been so excited for this for weeks. So can—just keep going and I will orient as you go.

HEATHER: Okay. So I guess the—just the, like, to finish this thought, Latif, it's like, so butts are also highly sexualized.

LATIF: Right.

HEATHER: So there's a question that becomes like, is part of the reason they look the way they do is because of sexual selection, not just natural selection?

LULU: And I guess your book kind of looks at how, even just in a few different eras, which are pretty close to one another, just how much the—the in-vogue butt in a certain society changes.

HEATHER: Right. That becomes the question.

LULU: Yeah.

HEATHER: Because, you know, like elbows for example. We don't put a lot of meaning into how elbows look. But what a butt looks like is like, it's a sign of beauty, it's a sign of disgust. It's been highly racialized. It's, like—was used to put people into hierarchies. And there's a real question of, like, why have butts come to mean so much when they could just mean nothing? And so a lot of the book is sort of an exploration of—of all the things they've come to mean, and why they've come to mean that.

LULU: Well, yeah. I mean, so what is the one ...

LATIF: So we talked about butts from every possible angle, but the part of the conversation we want to play for you today pretty much straight through actually, was about more than just the butt.

LULU: Yeah. Because at a certain point in Heather's reporting, she uncovered this moment in time where the ideal that so many of us measure our bodies up against—not just our butts, our whole bodies—became concrete in a way that even today still haunts us.

HEATHER: Yeah.

LATIF: All right, go for it.

HEATHER: So I want to tell you about two statues that were made in the late 1930s, the early 1940s.

LATIF: Okay.

HEATHER: They were created by these two artists. Or actually, one guy was a gynecologist and one guy was an artist, Dickinson and Belskie.

LULU: A classic gyno-art duo.

LATIF: [laughs]

HEATHER: So Belskie's the artist. Dickinson's the gynecologist. And these guys were trying to make these statues, one was of a man and one was a woman. And they were called "Norma" and "Normman." And Normman is spelled N-O-R-M-M-A-N. So it's like "norm-man."

LATIF: Norm man. Okay.

LULU: Norm Man!

HEATHER: So ... [laughs]

LULU: He's normal!

HEATHER: Well, you kind of get what they were probably up to. They—they weren't trying to be coy, [laughs] I think. Yeah, so they were part of a kind of eugenicist push in the 1930s to show people what, like, a good body is.

LATIF: Wh—?

HEATHER: Yeah, go ahead.

LATIF: Oh yeah. No, no, no. Just one thing that just popped to mind when you first said it before you went into the eugenics route, was this—were these statues supposed to be like, "Oh, this is the average person?" or was it like, "This is the exemplary person?" This is the ...

HEATHER: Well, I mean Latif, you hit on it right there. It's the—so one of the things that's so interesting about these statues is—and this time, is that the normal is the exemplary.

LATIF: Hmm.

HEATHER: So, okay. First of all, the purpose of them was they were gonna go into the American Museum of Natural History in New York. They were gonna be put on display there to show the everyday New York person what, like, a normal American body should look like.

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: Ugh!

HEATHER: Right? And the '30s in America, and the '30s across the world, were a time when people were trying to optimize humans. It was a time obsessed with data and, like, new data was available. And what they were actually doing was they were like, "We're gonna make statues of the perfectly average, the perfectly normal American." So it turns out, if you want—if it's 1939 or eight or whatever, and you want to make the average American man, it's very easy because of the military.

LATIF: Wait, why?

HEATHER: So, you know, when you go into the military, they measure you. So they had all that from World War I. But they actually had no data for women. They looked and looked and looked. The data wasn't as easy to come by. And then they found a data set, and it's a pretty exciting data set for many reasons.

LATIF: This is where Heather's story about eugenics and the birth of Norma, the perfectly average woman, crosses paths with another notable arc in our history starting back in the 1800s, which is the way we make the clothes we wear.

HEATHER: We're talking about the 19th century. We're talking about the rise of the garment industry.

LATIF: Hmm.

HEATHER: Now you should be thinking, like, sweatshops, New York City. Like, the cotton is coming up from the South, they're turning it into clothes for an increasingly large white collar male workforce.

LULU: Hmm.

HEATHER: So a huge amount of money is going into garment manufacturing. And in order to make money, you're always trying to lower costs of production, right? So if you can have a machine that cuts everything, you know, it's like—let's say you have—like, ideally you have three sizes: small, medium, large. You have one machine that's cutting small, one machine that's cutting medium, one machine that's cutting large, right? So if you have a hundred sizes, all of a sudden it costs you a lot more, right?

LATIF: Right.

LULU: Hmm. So the more nuance, the less profitable.

HEATHER: Exactly. And there had been a sizing system for men, but half the population is still having to make all of their own clothes or hiring someone to make all of their own clothes.

LATIF: Because of economics or because they can't afford it, or why?

HEATHER: No, the half is women.

LATIF: Oh, the half is women. Okay.

LULU: So there aren't sizes really at all?

HEATHER: For women?

LULU: Or they're just—yeah.

HEATHER: Not really. And I mean they're trying, because they realize ...

LULU: Yeah.

HEATHER: ... because the men's side ...

LATIF: There's a huge market here, yeah.

HEATHER: ... is, like, going like gangbusters. It's, like, really helpful.

LULU: Mm-hmm.

HEATHER: And catalog shopping had become this really big thing. You know, it's like Sears catalog is like—everyone's buying out of the Sears catalog. But people—women were sending back all these clothes because they didn't fit. But then in the '30s, this woman named Ruth O'Brien comes along. And she's at the Bureau of Home Economics.

LULU: Which was a bureau?

HEATHER: Of the government, yeah.

LULU: Okay.

LATIF: A bureau of, like, the US government?

HEATHER: Yeah. Ruth decided that she's gonna try to tackle the problem of coming up with the standard set of clothing sizes for women. And oddly enough, she actually ends up confronting the same problem that Dickinson and Belskie had when they were trying to create Norma, which is that they don't have enough data.

LULU: Like what does a woman's body actually look like?

HEATHER: Right. And so, like, if you're gonna—I mean, it makes sense, right? If you and I—if the three of us were like ...

LATIF: Yeah.

HEATHER: ... "Let's figure out a sizing system," it feels like the first thing we'd want to do is be like, "All right, so what are the different sizes of bodies?"

LATIF: Yeah.

HEATHER: And it's the—it's the '30s, so the WPA hires women across the country to go out into—to little towns and whatever. They're called "measuring squads." And they [laughs]—I know!

LULU: Like, measure their neighbors?

HEATHER: Well, it's like they have these little measuring parties, kind of, and they—like, women gather. They put on these kind of government-issued bras that are like, you know, those like bandeau bras, like, that are just like boob covers, and little cotton undies. I think there's like 26 different measurements. So it's like, elbow to their wrist. Their ...

LATIF: Hmm.

HEATHER: ... thigh girth, their heel length. These kinds of things. So they're measured a gajillion different ways. And the idea was to try to find, like, as many different kinds of American women but, like, let's put a specially large asterisk there.

LULU: [laughs] So how did they ...

HEATHER: Okay, so there were some ...

LULU: ... go ... [laughs]

HEATHER: ... some problems with this, as you might guess. One is that older women didn't want to do this. So a lot of the ...

LATIF: Hmm.

HEATHER: ... data skewed younger, and they had to adjust for that. The other thing was that Ruth O'Brien erased all the data from non-white women.

LATIF: Whoa! What was that about?

LULU: But they didn't get—but if they had to erase it, you had to get some, right?

HEATHER: Well, okay. So imagine it this way. It's like—I'm, like, Susie Q Measurer, and I'm like, "Okay. I'm gonna put an ad in the newspaper in Cleveland or Cincinnati or whatever" and say, "Come to this place." Maybe you—everyone gets a cracker, or they get some money or something. And some of the people who come are not white. And especially, let's just remember, this is a time when "white" is also—like, Italians probably weren't considered white. Eastern Europeans, Jewish women. These people were probably ...

LATIF: Not white.

HEATHER: Not considered white. So, you know, maybe a Jewish woman, maybe a Black woman shows up. So Ruth O'Brien actually says in her materials that we should still measure these women so as to not create bad feelings amongst the group, but then we will throw out the data.

LATIF: Pssh!

LULU: Whoa!

LATIF: What? That's just so ...

LULU: I'm not—so we're getting this data, but I don't care?

HEATHER: I know. It's so weird.

LATIF: And you would also think—oh, sorry. Go.

HEATHER: Well, yes. You would also think women who are not white buy clothes, and so ...

LATIF: Correct. That's what I was about to say ...

HEATHER: ... it would be useful to know.

LATIF: ... that it's in their financial best interest—it's in the garment industry's financial best interest to have this be as representative of as many people as possible.

HEATHER: I mean, I think—I guess a thought I've had about it, and this just is, like, further racist, it's just more specifically racist is, you know, at this point in history, race wasn't just being codified based on skin color, but on—but also based on morphological difference, invented or not. And so probably she was thinking something like, "Well, if we have Black women and Italian women and Jewish women, the clothes won't fit white women."

LATIF: And did it seem to—even though it was only for white women, did it seem to—like, did women clump to the sizes? Like—like, was there a ...

LULU: Oh, Latif!

LATIF: ... like, a—like, an obvious small, medium, large? Or was it just like ...?

HEATHER: So we're gonna talk about that, and it's a whole complicated answer. But let me—I'm just gonna—first let's talk about Dickenson and Belskie and what happened with the statues, Norma and Normman.

LATIF: Okay, great.

HEATHER: So they found Ruth's data and they were, like, super psyched because, as we have discussed, it was a time of data. And they—I mean, for sure, they thought that thing about her throwing out all the non-white people was a feature not a bug, you know? And they—they do statues, and then they were first displayed at the American Museum of Natural History as part of, like, one of those eugenics congresses. And people could come and see them, you know, just like they go see the T-Rex now.

LULU: Can we take a second to all look at Norma and Normman together?

LATIF: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. For sure.

LULU: Okay. I just found one. Or you probably have one. Wanna just shoot it in the Slack?

HEATHER: Well, I'll send—there's this—there was a cat—here. I'll put it in the ...

LATIF: Yeah, put it in the Slack.

HEATHER: Okay. Let's see.

LATIF: Or the chat, whatever. Oh, that's Norm?

LATIF: Oh, Norm!

HEATHER: Oh, yeah. Wait, this—this is a good one too. This is ...

LATIF: Oh.

LULU: It is weird looking at these statues, these white, alabaster visions of the eugenicist brain and the eugenicist vision. Like, it—it feels almost like looking at something evil to look at them.

LATIF: I mean, it does—it does—it does do that. It also—there's also something about it, though, that is—feels ridiculous a little bit.

HEATHER: Like, when I look at Norma, first of all, she has no body hair, which is—I find weird.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

HEATHER: Although Normman does.

LULU: Oh, my God, you're right. He has!

LATIF: Oh, Normman does and Norma doesn't.

LULU: They're naked! Like, how messed up ...

HEATHER: I also think her breasts are so strange, like, it's like somebody who had never seen breasts ...

LULU: Sculpted breasts.

HEATHER: ... just affixed them to her. [laughs]

LULU: They put two grapefruits on a torso.

LULU: Yeah, so he's got—so they're naked. You're right. So Norm—Normman has, like, pubic hair and she does not.

HEATHER: Yes. She does not.

LATIF: Hmm.

HEATHER: And I think—I mean, I have a picture—it took me a long time to actually get a picture of her from behind, which I obviously ...

LATIF: Oh, yeah!

LULU: Right!

LATIF: So—so tell us about her ...

LULU: Show us that!

LATIF: … her butt. Tell us.

LULU: Yeah. What ...

LATIF: Tell us about her butt.

LULU: Tell us about her butt.

HEATHER: I mean, it's very—it's very normal. [laughs] I don't know how to say this. It's, like, exactly the butt you imagine on the other side.

LATIF: Huh.

HEATHER: It's—it's, like, not that big. It's not that flat. It's sort of a little bit strong. It's kind of pert. It doesn't seem like it would, like, fill out a pair of pants completely, if that makes any sense? [laughs]

LULU: But they're—but seeing them in this—there's this one picture here with them side by side, and they look like robots. They're standing stick straight, and they're just these, like, specimens of ...

LATIF: Like Stepford wives or something?

LULU: Yeah, there you go. It's like a Stepford wife and husband ...

HEATHER: Well, I think ...

LULU: … that are just like ...

HEATHER: … one of the things about them is, like, they're not artistic. Like, there's like—like, they're so—like you're saying, they're, like, ramrod straight. It's like it's not meant to evoke something emotional. It's meant to invoke something intellectual, maybe?

LULU: Yeah. It's just like, "Here's normal. Come behold."

HEATHER: Yeah, come behold normal. And, you know, okay, so normal is a very exciting idea at this moment in history for reasons that I think we can be critical of and also sympathetic towards.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

HEATHER: Like, this is—you know, World War II is happening in this era. Like, the other headlines in the newspaper are like, "Hiroshima Bombed."

LULU: Yeah, right.

HEATHER: And it's like a big moment where, like, people are like, "I'd really like for my person who's fighting in the war to come home and maybe, like, we just get married and have, like, a pretty simple, straightforward life." Like, you can sort of see why in this moment, normal and Normman and Norma is an appealing idea.

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

HEATHER: Like, even in—even though we can be kind of critical of it, I also think it's like—like I'm saying it's kind of a reasonable thing.

LULU: Yeah. Okay. Okay.

HEATHER: And so then after they were displayed at the American Museum Natural History, they were bought by this hygiene museum in Cleveland. And hygiene museums are a very eugenicist project. They're—like, the guy who ran this museum, he was—he had—his thing is like, "I want people to want to be normal." So—and when I say normal, I want them to be, like, properly white, et cetera, et cetera, all the stuff that we've been talking about. So he decides that he's gonna have a contest to find the most normal girl in Cleveland.

LATIF: [laughs]

LULU: [laughs] And like was it truly a contest? It was like ...

HEATHER: Yes! So this is, like, big news in Cleveland.

LULU: [laughs]

HEATHER: Like, it's in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. So what they're encouraging women to do is measure themselves and send in their measurements.

LULU: I hate that. I hate this so much.

LATIF: It just gets better and better. Yeah.

HEATHER: So all these women are sending in their measurements. Like, your ankle width and your, like, knee-to-hip ratio. It's not just like, you know, like, when you measure for clothes, you measure like three or four things. This is 10 or 12 things, and you're sending this in. All told, 3,864 women enter this contest.

LATIF: Whoa!

LULU: Wow.

HEATHER: Yeah. How—how—how many surv—like, how many winners are there in this contest, do you think?

LULU: None. I don't think any are, like, exactly Norma. That's my guess.

LATIF: I think there's one winner.

HEATHER: Well, you're sort of both right. None of them are Norma's measurements, but they had to choose a winner because they did all this stuff. [laughs]

LATIF: Right.

HEATHER: So they choose this woman named Martha Skidmore, who's the most normal girl in Cleveland. And she apparently is the closest. And she also, like, just so perfectly fits the story of the time. She's a ticket taker at the local movie theater. She has recently quit her job as, like, a gauge grinder at a factory so that like the boys coming home can have ...

LATIF: Their jobs.

HEATHER: ... have the job back. And this is the quote from the newspaper. "She likes to swim, dance and bowl, and thought she was an average individual in her taste, and nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened to her until the Norma search came along."

LULU: Oh, my God! Until the ...

LATIF: Oh, the act of being chosen herself as the norm—most normal made her not normal anymore.

LULU: Wow!

HEATHER: And then I tried to track her down. I, like, really tried. She dead. But I tried to find some people who knew her or something. I found her obituary and, you know, we can't know how the rest of her life panned out, but she—you know, the obituary suggests she did have a pretty, like, quote-unquote, "normal" life for the rest of her life. She had a couple of kids, she never left Ohio.

LATIF: Hmm.

HEATHER: And that's all we know about Martha Skidmore.

LATIF: Okay, we're gonna take a quick break. When we come back, we're gonna hear how Normman and Norma are still haunting us and all of our bodies today. And we will actually hear about a living, breathing, modern day, flesh and blood Norma.

***

LULU: Lulu.

LATIF: Latif.

LULU: Radiolab. We are back with our contributing editor Heather Radke, talking about her new book, Butts: A Backstory. And when we left off, she was—she told us this story about how this one data set of women—almost entirely white women—planted the seed for this statue Norma, who was supposed to be the perfectly average woman back in the 1930s.

LATIF: And now we're gonna take it from the museum where the statues are to the dressing room, how that same data set was part of a giant manufacturing puzzle. It is part of what for many is kind of just a personal hell of trying to find a piece of clothing that actually fits your body.

HEATHER: Okay. So we talked about Ruth O'Brien's study. And I kind of—I kind of love this and also hate it because it's like, in a very practical way, this would be a good problem to have solved at some point. Out of her data, she creates, like 26 or 27 different sizes.

LATIF: Huh.

HEATHER: That's too many. [laughs]

LATIF: Clearly too many, right.

HEATHER: But we still kind of use a version of this. So the garment industry sort of takes her 26 sizes and then turns it into, like, a version of this sizing system we have now for women, which is, like, two, four, six, eight, 10, 12. There's not 26 sizes. Even if you had the 26 sizes, it probably still wouldn't work because human bodies are diverse enough that they're consistently resisting the standardization of sizing.

LATIF: Wait, there's no odd number sizes?

HEATHER: [laughs]

LULU: No!

LATIF: Really?

LULU: Does it work—do men have the same sizes?

HEATHER: No.

LULU: Oh, they don't?

HEATHER: No! [laughs]

LULU: They don't have—wait. You live your whole life without two, four, six ...

HEATHER: They have ...

LULU: ... eight, 10, 12?

HEATHER: Lulu, you know how men's sizes work?

LATIF: I know what I am. I don't know what anybody else is.

LULU: What are you?

LATIF: Okay, so for my pants, let's say, right?

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF: I'm, like, sometimes a 28, sometimes a 29.

LULU: Oh, because that's the actual inches.

HEATHER: Yeah, that's the thing.

LATIF: Oh, that's ...

LULU: Different.

LATIF: ... different.

LULU: That's not a size, that's just like ...

LATIF: That's a different, different thing.

HEATHER: No, no, no.

LULU: It's like a ...

HEATHER: That's why it's smart.

LULU: Wait. Men don't have ...

HEATHER: No.

LULU: ... sized pants? They just have ...

HEATHER: Well ...

LULU: Oh my God. We're in different shopping realities!

HEATHER: No, Lulu. They do have sized pants ...

LATIF: Completely.

HEATHER: They're just—they make sense. It's like, the 29 is—it's like 29 ...

LULU: It is 29 inches.

HEATHER: ... waist or whatever.

LATIF: Right.

HEATHER: A size eight has no meaning of any kind. [laughs]

LATIF: So weird!

LULU: Okay. I just need a moment from that—my mind being blown that, like, men don't go to their Forever 21 section and have ...

HEATHER: No.

LULU: ... like, sizes as well. Okay. But in the story ...

HEATHER: Yeah.

LULU: ... after Ruth gets a decent data set and then messes it up by throwing away anyone who's a person of color, apparently ...

HEATHER: Mm-hmm.

LULU: ... does that literally then turn into sizes?

HEATHER: It does.

LULU: It's not just like, "Here's a recommendation." It's like "That is ...

HEATHER: No, no, no.

LULU: ... our sizes."

HEATHER: It's a recommendation. And then it becomes standard. I mean ...

LATIF: But she recommends 26 sizes.

HEATHER: Yeah. And then they're like, "That's—we're not doing that."

LULU: "That's undoable. But we'll do 10."

HEATHER: And then they come up with a different set.

LATIF: Right.

HEATHER: And that ...

LULU: Based on her data?

HEATHER: Based on her data. Then that sizing system, they keep it for a while as, like, the rule, if that makes any sense. Like, that's like—like, this is how it's supposed to be. Then it becomes optional. By the '70s, it's ...

LATIF: It becomes optional?

HEATHER: By the '70s, it's optional. By the '80s, it's like ...

LATIF: Meaning like a company ...

HEATHER: ... completely arbitrary.

LATIF: .... if they had their own schema that they wanted to use, they could use it?

HEATHER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And also basically it means that, like, a size eight is no longer standardized. And now ...

LATIF: Right. Which seems stupid.

HEATHER: So what happens is, like, okay, I work at H&M or whatever, Levi's or some—one of these companies, and I'm like, "Okay, I'm gonna make a pair of jeans." First I design the pair of jeans on a mannequin.

LULU: Yeah.

HEATHER: So a mannequin is, like, pretty far from human. It's hard and immobile. And these things actually kind of start to matter in a way. Like, I hadn't actually thought that much about, like ...

LULU: Doesn't have digestion. It's not like, "Gonna need the expandable waistband if you ate the plate of nachos."

HEATHER: Right. All right, so they design it on the mannequin. The next step after that is they get their fit model to come in and try it on.

LATIF: A fit model?

HEATHER: Yeah, because there is one person who every garment fits.

LATIF: What?

HEATHER: It's a fit model.

LATIF: So like a—like—like the king? The king's foot.

HEATHER: Yeah. Basically. Except it's like ...

LATIF: She's the king.

HEATHER: A woman named Natasha whose ...

LATIF: [gasps]

HEATHER: ... whose butt is the butt that jeans companies use to make the jeans fit.

LATIF: Even different companies? I would've imagined that there was one king for each company, but there's one king for even multiple companies?

HEATHER: She's the king. She's the king for, like, seven or eight companies, and it's like—she's, like, got the ...

LATIF: Wow!

HEATHER: ... "butt du jour." She got like the sort of "body du jour" for the ...

LATIF: Who chose her? How was she chosen? How was she anointed?

HEATHER: She went, she was like ...

LATIF: How was she crowned?

HEATHER: She was like a—in college, and went with her friend to pick up a check at her modeling company. And the modeling agent was like, "Hey, you kind of got, like, a good—a good butt," basically. "Like, maybe you wanna do some fit modeling?" And then these companies like her because her—basically, her butt's not too small and it's not too big.

LATIF: Is her life just, like, incredible? And she just walks around and she has ...

LULU: Like everything fits?

LATIF: ... like, no problems at all?

LULU: 'Cause everything's ...

LATIF: Everything fits?

LULU: ... modeled off her body?

HEATHER: I mean, I think clothes fit her really well and ...

LATIF: Wow!

HEATHER: … and she's kind of—it's kind of—the thing I think about is like she's the only person they fit. I mean ...

LULU: [laughs]

HEATHER: ... unless you ...

LATIF: Right!

HEATHER: ... have her exact body, you know, and her exact measurements. I mean, she try—and, you know, it's like this whole process. She tries them on several times. She, like, helps them. I mean, she's lovely. You know, it's like not her fault that she's like ...

LATIF: No, sure.

HEATHER: She makes sure that the—like, the belt loops are in the right place and yeah.

LATIF: And she's a white lady, I'm guessing?

HEATHER: White lady. Yep. In LA.

LULU: Is it the Ruth O’Brien constructed butt though? Were they like, "Wow, you're exciting to us because you're so norm—quote-unquote 'normal'?" Is it like "You are ...

HEATHER: It is a little like she's Norma. She's the new Norma.

LATIF: She's the new Norma.

HEATHER: I mean, it's a little—there's like some ways it's different than Norma. But it's—I—I think the idea is that normal is actually this kind of ideal. It's a fantasy, just like "perfect" or "best" or, you know, "most beautiful" is, because there's kind of no such thing. There was no such thing with Norma. I guess if we are gonna call Natasha the most normal lady in the world, there is one person who fits that ideal but, like, no one else does. And also, like, Natasha, you know, she's a relatively thin white woman. You know, I'm not sure we would quite call her "average" either in the sense that, like, the average American woman weighs surely more than her and has very different proportions than her.

LATIF: Hmm.

HEATHER: So ...

LATIF: But at least that's a—that's like a real person who exists, who we know. Those—those proportions ...

HEATHER: Oh, it's much better than if ...

LATIF: ... make sense. Yeah.

HEATHER: Yeah. I mean, because this is what happens: they take the thing they made for the mannequin, and then they give it to Natasha. And she puts it on and she's like, "Actually, like, there's a huge gape in the front." Or like, "When I pull up these pants, the belt loops are gonna fall off."

LATIF: Hmm.

LULU: Hmm.

HEATHER: I kind of love this part because it's like about having an actual body, no matter how perfect your body is.

LATIF: Right.

LULU: Yeah.

HEATHER: Like, the fact that it's, like, fleshy and has a digestive system and needs to, like, sit down sometimes. [laughs]

LULU: And, like, sweats. I mean, yeah, so what is the fit? Is it just like in a nice clean air-conditioned room? Or are they like, "Go take 'em for a spin for two days, and make sure you run some stressful errands so that you sweat"?

HEATHER: No, it's not like that. But it is like, they do several rounds of this where she'll sort of try on, like, a first draft and they'll go, like, through several drafts.

LATIF: Wow. Interesting.

HEATHER: And basically, like, they try—they make them fit her perfectly.

LULU: Yeah.

HEATHER: You know, that—so like, let's say she's a size six, they're making hers to be the size six. Now of course, I'm not a size six, most people aren't. So they have to make size two, four, eight, 12. And that is a matter of proportions. And it's all mathematical measurements. So there's no—it's not like there's a size ...

LULU: There's no other ...

HEATHER: No.

LULU: There's like a "two" Natasha.

HEATHER: There's not a 'two," a four," an "eight," a "12" Natasha.

LULU: Huh.

HEATHER: But you can sort of start to see how this might be flawed.

LULU: I know!

HEATHER: ... right?

LATIF: So it is possible that no human being actually fits any of the other sizes.

HEATHER: That's right. [laughs]

LATIF: That is insane!

HEATHER: Yeah.

LATIF: Because I keep—I keep imagining—trying to imagine like analogs to—in other industries.

HEATHER: Well, I think one way I think about it is like this: it's like manufacturing was meant for—like, if you make a car, "Okay, we're gonna get iron ore, turn it into something that's uniform. And then we're gonna turn that thing into the hood of your car. And we're gonna make them all exactly the same." In this case, bodies cannot be forced into that kind of interchangeability. But we have to treat them as though they're interchangeable in order to be—I mean, in order to make clothes for them at, like—for cheap, basically.

LATIF: Right.

HEATHER: Like, we have to treat our bodies like they're all the same, even though they are not in any way the same at all.

LULU: Maybe is it because, as the expectations of fashion have gotten more brutal, it's like, have it be—it's not—it's like sure, a small, medium, large t-shirt could probably fit everyone. But as we want, like, a well-tailored pant that's tight here but loose here and has room to breathe and like—maybe it's just that our—that fashion is ...

LATIF: Right.

LULU: ... getting like the tunic and the belt worked!

LATIF: Right.

LULU: But as we want ...

LATIF: We got—we got too picky.

LULU: ... we want, you know, like a—like, I just—that—maybe it's just that as fashion's closing in and we want every millimeter to look good.

HEATHER: And it's not—yeah, I think that's right, because it's not just that we want to look good, it's that we have impo—we have imparted this idea of what it means to have something fit you.

LULU: Right.

HEATHER: Like, I mean, it's the—it's the moment in the dressing room where you're like, "Why—why doesn't anything fit my body? Something's wrong with my body." It means something to us when clothes fit or don't fit. And it doesn't mean something about the clothes, it means something about us.

LATIF: Mmm.

HEATHER: Like, we—we ascribe the problem to our bodies rather than to the object.

LULU: And you're saying, like, that—that humiliating feeling, a feeling not measuring up, like—I think something many people have been told is like, "Oh, it's a false standard of beauty. Like, normalcy isn't real." But to see it so nakedly laid out. Like, you finding that creation story of a Norm and a Norma, like ...

HEATHER: Mm-hmm.

LULU: ... there's something that is relief. That you can just be like, "This is a specific concept of norm that, like, I can just reject, 'cause I don't like their science. I don't like their mission." Like ...

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: It doesn't matter if it doesn't fit 'cause that's Norma, and that is a monster I don't wanna be haunted by. There's something empowering about you finding its Genesis story.

HEATHER: Oh, yeah. For sure. I think I said this last time, too. It's like I sort of love now that, like, the idea that bodies can't be fit into these mechanized creations, like, that—it's like the 20th century and the 19th century too to some extent, it's like all these people are trying so hard to make bodies into interchangeable parts, but they can't be. And it's because, like, we're all sort of specific and particular and exciting in our own ways. And I don't know. It's sort of corny maybe?

LULU: Or is it like you'll just never dream of something fitting 'cause you're like, "It never will! Bodies are cooler than the fashion industry."

LATIF: Right.

LULU: Or, "Bodies are more expansive."

HEATHER: Yeah. I mean, I think that would be the ideal. But then at the same time—I mean, actually this is in the conclusion of the book, like—at the same time, I—you know, I go and I try on clothes and I still feel like ...

LULU: Yeah.

HEATHER: ... you can't unbrainwash. Like, information ...

LATIF: Like, even knowing that ...

HEATHER: ... doesn't quite work that way.

LATIF: You can't stop projecting the—like ...

LULU: Yeah. Does knowledge bust shame? Does knowledge, like, bust your shame?

LATIF: Yeah. Does it? Or do you—yeah, do you ...

HEATHER: No! Of course it doesn't. But it does—you know what it does is, like, you can sort of go in that dressing room, and you can try on your jeans and you can be like, "Oh, dang, I wish these jeans fit me." And then you can sort of be like, "But they don't, they fit Natasha."

LATIF: Yeah.

HEATHER: [laughs]

LULU: And Norma. And Martha.

HEATHER: And it's not—I can sort of tell myself a different story.

LATIF: Yeah.

HEATHER: It's—the story isn't, "There's something wrong with my body. My butt's too big. My thighs are the wrong proportions," whatever the story is that you're telling yourself about your body. I have, like, a different story, which is like, the sizing can never work. Even if they wanted it to, they can't make it work. And this isn't supposed to fit. You know?

LATIF: That was our contributing editor, Heather Radke. Her book, "Butts: A Backstory," will be out very soon. You can find a link to pre-order it on our website, Radiolab.org.

LULU: Just biggest thanks to Heather for sharing this story with us, for all the years of research it took to find it and make it. It really is a special book. It's kind of a Trojan horse of a book that looks silly on the outside, but is deep on the inside. I at least came away thinking very differently about my own body and the times that it feels like it doesn't fit. So thanks.

LATIF: This episode was produced by Matt Kielty, with sound and music from Matt Kielty and Jeremy Bloom. And mix from Jeremy Bloom. Special thanks to Alexandra Primiani and Jordan Rodman. That's it for us. We're gonna go to a watch party for our favorite sitcom, "The Most Normal Girl in Cleveland." We'll see you next time!

LULU: Pass the unbuttered popcorn!

LATIF: Pass the unbuttered popcorn! [laughs]

 

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad, and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, Akedi Foster-Keys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

 

[LISTENER: Hi, my name is Teresa. I'm calling from Colchester in Essex, UK. Leadership support for Radiolab's science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]

 

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