Suburban Hottentot

By Laura Fraser

When I was eight, my parents thought there was something seriously wrong with my spine. My lower back had a dramatic curve, a ski jump at the tail, and mom and dad worried it would affect the way I would grow or walk. They envisioned braces, surgery, months in a body cast, physical rehabilitation.

My father is a doctor, so I made the rounds of doctors. The pediatrician examined my back, shook his head, and concurred that he’d never seen anything like it. It wasn’t scoliosis, or thoracic hyper-kyphosis; it wasn’t Scheuermann’s disease or hyper-lordosis. It was a mystery. My condition was so unusual that when my dad hosted a medical meeting at our house, he hoped to get the collective opinion there of his daughter’s strange malady.

To my horror, this meant parading around stark naked in front of a bunch of middle-aged men in the living room. I had to walk around touching my toes, so the doctors could better examine my spine, and I was glad to hide my face, not to mention my private parts. They puffed on their pipes and murmured among themselves about how odd the bend in my back was and what it might mean. I felt like a freak on display. I made one slow circle of the living room and dashed back into the kitchen.

The next day, there were many opinions but no verdict on the strange curvature of my back--except that it was indeed strange. My parents made an appointment with a specialist downtown. This doc put me through several exercises, took X-rays, and pushed and prodded the vertebrae in my lower back. After the exam, he consulted with my parents, whose faces were stitched with worry. Finally, he had reached a conclusion. “Your daughter,” he told them, gravely, “has an unusually large and protruding posterior for a child her age.”

I had a big ass. And it was only going to get bigger.

Had I grown up in Brazil or Africa, no one would have noticed; I might even have been considered blessed. Maybe for a kid in Brazil or Africa, having a big ass is like having long white-blonde hair in suburban Denver. But this being Denver, my ass was considered a deformity, a congenital defect.

There was little to be done. The doctor had prescribed sit-ups, since I’d need a lot of abdominal strength to help carry the mass. He shied away from gluteal exercises, since he thought over-development might make the problem worse. Had reduction glutealplasty surgery been developed, he probably would’ve suggested that procedure (little did I know that decades later, physicians would actually be injecting flat behinds with Hydrogel to achieve what I came by naturally). And, of course, everyone agreed I should lose weight, just in case that would help. At that early age, I started counting calories, eating small portions at dinner--and sneaking food between meals, since my ass apparently had a mind, and appetite, of its own.

I had no idea how dire my condition was, but I was determined to find out the prognosis. I waited until my father was gone one evening and took down some of his thick medical books, paging through the tissue-thin illustrations of bedsores, leprosy, cleft lips, frostbite, and the man with elephantitis who had to carry his balls around in a wheelbarrow. At that point, having only sisters, I had never seen a normal pair of testicles, so that particular photo freaked me out about men in general for quite a long time. It also made me wonder: Would I one day have to haul my butt around in a wheelbarrow?

I was somewhat relieved when, further on, in the “S” section, I found what seemed to be my particular defect--not elephantitis after all, but steatopygia, “excessive adipose tissue accumulation around the buttocks.” Bingo. The photo, of a woman with what looked like a VW Bug attached to her backside, scared me to near-anorexic behavior for a week or so. Further research at the local library revealed that steatopygia was first encountered in 1810, when a British ship doctor, William Dunlop, brought Saarti Baartman, a young South African tribeswoman, to Europe. Saarti was a Khoisan woman, from a tribe that considered steatopygia a sign of rare beauty. But in England, horrifyingly, poor Ms. Baartman was a curiosity, exhibited naked in a cage in Picadilly, known far and wide as the Venus of Hottentot. After Dunlop had exploited her all he could, he sold her to a French entrepreneur. She died in 1816 after a sad end of alcoholism and prostitution.

I closed the book, hands shaking. I feared I was going to be a Venus of Suburbia. My butt would grow beyond big to bodacious to something mind-boggling. I would forever be stared at, ridiculed, and humiliated because of my huge backside.

My parents were not the only ones to notice my big ass. It’s not the kind of deformity that elementary schoolchildren overlook. Kids on the street would yell “Bertha Big Butt” before running away. One day after gym class in junior high, Pam Thomas, she of the white-blonde hair, approached me in the locker room. Pam was Popular, and I was a geeky straight-A student with big-A ass, so I doubted she was coming to say something friendly. She checked all around before spewing her words at me: “You have a big ass!” Though this wasn’t a news flash—Pam was never the quickest to grasp things—it did hurt my feelings, and I knew that for as long as Pam reigned, from junior high to senior prom, I would never be cool.

And so my ass grew. Early in college, I flirted with anorexia, starving myself until I lost 40 pounds. The fat melted like wax off my face, neck, collarbones, and already smallish breasts--leaving them nearly flat--but my butt stayed as big and round as ever. I looked as if all the weight had slid down off the top half of my body and settled on my buttocks.

One thing losing weight did for me, though, was attract male attention. Up until college, I had never had a boyfriend, and never so much as seen a penis, except on my father’s medical books. Finally, at age 18, I had an opportunity to discover that while testicles are undeniably ugly, they are not elephantitis-man grotesque. As for penises, they turned out to have fairly cheery, if willful, little personalities.

The problem was the men attached to the penises. While I was looking for my first true love and soulmate in college, all the guys were looking at my ass. No one fell in love with my sparkling personality and then noticed my ass later on. It was all about my ass, pro or con. Early on, I realized that the pro-ass guys were mainly Jewish or African-American, and the con-ass guys were usually WASPS. Being a WASP myself, my ass had made me an outsider to my own tribe. None of the Waspy men had any interest in my ass whatsoever, except for one guy, who had an interest in anal sex; at the time, I just thought that in all that flesh he somehow missed the right hole. But the other guys, the ones who were exotic to me, thought my big butt was just fine. They loved to grab it with both hands; they whispered to me under the sheets that they had dreamed about it. It surprised and thrilled me that some men were actually attracted to what I had always felt most embarrassed about. Still, in the end, I always felt that men weren’t making love to me, but to my waist-to-hip ratio. I still felt like a freak.

After college, I traveled by myself around the Mediterranean, where I was relieved to find that my long blond hair attracted more attention than my prominent derriere. My butt was nothing unusual in Greece, Israel, Italy or Spain. Art museums there were full of statues of steatopygic women. Outside the United States, my ass wasn’t a defect at all; it was downright admirable. My big ass made me a proud citizen of the world.

A half-Brazilian friend who grew up in Africa tells me I have a “bubble butt,” the best kind, one that she grew up longing for the way I wanted to be as thin and blond as Pam Thomas. Kids teased my friend for not having enough of an ass (though to be fair, she has a lovely figure). When I recently went to Africa for the first time, and danced with some Africans (I long ago realized that I was better off with African and Brazilian dance than ballet and tango), I realized that once again, everyone was staring at my ass, but this time in a friendly, amused way. “You,” said one of the gentlemen there, “are very unusual for a white woman.” And then he asked me for another dance.