I’m built like a mullet. Business in the front, party in the back.
What is it about an awkward ten-or-eleven-year-old that screams, “please call attention to my body?” That was the time when my body started developing; my family fretted that I might be swaybacked and admonished me to stand up straight. At dances, the deejays urged me (over the microphone) to move out into the center of the dance floor to show off my body. I tried on the clothes my peers wore — tight leggings and Day-Glo biker shorts (shut up, it was the late 80s) but the image reflected back at me was distorted. The other girls didn’t get cat-called walking up Market Street.
The strangest thing about what was, in retrospect, an entirely reasonable discomfort with moving directly from little-girlhood to sexual objectification is that I came of age during the glory days of what can only be called The Butt Song.
Sure, songs about a particular body part were nothing new; sure, that Queen song exists; sure, the blues could certainly get plenty, well, blue after the kids went to bed. But the beauty of the blues is raunchy innuendo. There is nothing subtle about the frank statement that opens Baby Got Back:
I like big butts and I can not lie.
— Sir Mix-a-Lot
The posterior-themed hits of EU (1988), LL Cool J (1989), Wreckx-N-Effect (1992) and Mix-a-Lot (also 1992!) overlapped my sixth- through tenth-grade years. (By comparison, Fat Bottomed Girls was released the year I was born.) They targeted my body type, and they were performed by Black men about Black women. I didn’t need a deejay to point out these songs were about me.
But the songs didn’t make me feel any better. A lot of ink and webspace is expended complaining about how women of color don’t get held up as standards of beauty. Over and over, when confronted about their controversial songs and videos, the aforementioned rappers insisted, and still insist, that their songs do celebrate Black female beauty. Let’s be real: we all know these songs are not about shoring up the self-esteem of Black teenaged girls, but about dividing the world into two camps: women worth having sex with, and the rest. I found — and find — my membership in the first camp a dubious honor.
Times changed, rap became hip hop and moved on to discussing even less appropriate body parts, and the rest of my body caught up with my rear end; still, I remained uncomfortable with the space it took up. I thought of it like that guy rummaging through my recycling bin on trash day: What is it doing back there? Should I say something? Will it go away if I ignore it? Cleavage is one thing; it can be trashy, but it can also be classy, as any opera diva will tell you. Not so for bottoms. Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez both have celebrated rear ends, and, in both cases, have found their bodies used as well-worn punchlines.
Then I started running, and I learned the word glute.
Your backside is just a bunch of fat covering giant muscles. If you have big glutes — the muscles crossing the entire back end all the way around to the hips — then you have a secret hill weapon. Like me. Regardless of how in- or out-of-shape I’m in, every time I return to running, I attack hills like an elevation monster. A few weeks ago, a physical therapist showed me that if my glutes got even stronger, they’d protect my knees from further injury, and I could run pain-free.
Yesterday morning, midway through 5.5 miles, I experimented with my stride, and, suddenly, there they were. Glutes! I stopped shuffling, and my knees were pumping, and I ran the fastest consistent miles I’ve run outside a race, with less effort.
It turns out my body doesn’t exist merely to be looked at or covered up, and that I have a body built, in its own way, for running in San Francisco. And it only took me a third of a century to figure it out, just in time to have a pre-teen of my own. Hopefully, she’ll weather the transition better than I did; hopefully, all the years of girls-only sports and feminist girls’ magazines will bear fruit at exactly the right moment, inoculating her with an emergency dose of self-esteem. Alternately, maybe she’ll have to come to terms with her own body in her own time, just as I did with mine.