This past June, women from across China gathered in Shenyang, China to compete for the preliminary portion of the country's "Women's Beautiful Buttocks" contest. Modeled after Brazil's famed "Miss BumBum Contest"—where female contestants have been competing annually for the title of best butt in the country and an £18,000 modeling contract since 2011—China's new competition is also focused on the "roundness, curviness, and firmness" of participants' behinds. The "Miss BumBum Contest" has become known around the world for speaking to the global appreciation of the female butt as a symbol of beauty.
You can quit giving Brazil and China the side-eye—they aren't nearly alone in their celebration of the derriere. Since 2012, Australia's Julia Creek Dirt'n'Dust Festival has held annual competitions to find the "Best Butt in Australia." Even the UK's Cambridge University students stripped down to compete for "Cambridge's Best Bum" last year.
Booty-fever raged here in America in the early 2000s and then kind of plateaued. The media still fawns over Jennifer Lopez, the Kardashians, Beyoncé, and Nicki Minaj, though—who have all earned props for their assets. Not to get all PSA, but regardless of which body part the current fad celebrates, pop culture's obsession with fetishizing body trends can be dangerous. With so many different definitions of beauty, the very idea of an "ideal" butt celebrating only a small percentage of women fails to acknowledge the rampant objectification involved.
The science of superficiality is, however, always fun to study. Research released this month led by Paul I. Heidekrueger—a plastic surgeon at the University Hospital Klinikum in Munich, Germany—dedicated an entire study to female attractiveness, focusing primarily on the one female attribute that has been historically linked to beauty across all cultures: the female butt.
The study explored variables like age, sex, aesthetic perception, geographic location, and occupation, to determine the globally preferred butt size and waist-to-hip ratio. Heidekrueger's study, The Ideal Buttock Size: A Sociodeographic Morphometric Evaluation built upon data from a previous study on waist-to-hip ratios by psychologist Devendra Singh from the University of Texas, which found that women with waist-to-hip ratios between 0.7 and 0.67 were perceived as having the "ideal" figure. In an attempt to expand on Singh's work and provide something of a cultural breakdown regarding who finds what attractive, Heidekrueger examined the influential factors surrounding which waist-to-hip ratio was considered most attractive on a global scale.
The results of Heidekrueger's study revealed that while age and ethnicity heavily influenced individuals' perceptions regarding ideal buttock sizes, factors like gender, income, and region did not. Results also concluded that men, non-caucasian individuals, and those residing in non-European regions, also favored larger buttock sizes. While his study also suggests that Americans are typically less attracted to larger butts than their Latin American counterparts, there is a still a cultural shift occurring, with American's preferences beginning to favor more curvaceous figures.
There are biological and sociocultural explanations for what people find attractive, says David Frederick, assistant professor of health psychology at Chapman University. Most notably, he points to the evolutionary advantage of certain waist-to-hip ratios, and the idea of using beauty to attain prestige.
"People have different opinions on Kim Kardashian. If you are someone who sees her as prestigious and inspirational, her physical traits are now also associated with prestige," Frederick says. Sociologically speaking, he adds, if large buttocks are being paired with prestige, it can make you find large buttocks more attractive.
Note that celebrities like Kim and Khloe Kardashian don't just have impressively large asses. They have backsides that are perfectly round and lifted, with no stretch marks or cellulite in plain sight (close-ups from trolls are the exception, but who's looking that close?). They have hourglass figures, with small waists, large breasts, and perfectly toned limbs. They have the bodies that society tells all women they should want or conform to.
"Somebody is always making money off of women feeling ugly and women being in competition with each other. This whole idea of women obsessed with the size of their butts and the size of their thighs requires so much energy, and just keeps women going on this hamster wheel," says Connie Sobczak, author of Embody: Learning to Love Your Unique Body and CEO of The Body Positive—a nonprofit organization that "encourages people to adopt more forgiving and affirming attitudes towards their bodies."
And now more than ever, the male gaze is in full effect, she says. "With the current administration, and a person in office who judges and criticizes women's bodies, women are really being objectified," Sobczak says. "It's like open season on women's bodies."
In Brazil, 24-year-old former Versace model Jennifer Pamplona recently spent over $450,000 on plastic surgery to look like Kim Kardashian. This meant having four pints of fat injected into her butt. Pamplona said in an interview that her obsession with wanting a bigger butt began when she was just 17.
Celebrity culture and the normalization of photoshopped images in magazines and on social media have been driving more and more women to go under the knife. Not only were 17.1 million cosmetic surgeries performed in the United States last year, but a 2017 surveyfrom the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery revealed that 42 percent of plastic surgeons had patients seek cosmetic procedures because they wanted to "look better in selfies, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook Live, and other social channels."
"The high rate of cosmetic surgery shows that the pressure to be attractive, and the benefits of being attractive, are worth the high cost of surgery and pain associated with surgery for many women," Frederick says. And while many women are choosing to surgically alter their physical features, the subject is still often considered taboo.
In fact, both Brazil and China require contestants in their beautiful butt contests to have a completely natural butt, with no surgical enhancement of any kind. In 2012, Cibelle Ribeiro, a favorite in Brazil's Miss BumBum contest, was almost disqualified after refusing to take an X-ray. She eventually caved, and was allowed to stay after submitting proof that her butt was au naturel. In 2011, even Kim Kardashian got X-rays taken of her behind on an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians to prove her butt was real.
So basically, women are still being shamed if they don't naturally meet societal beauty standards, then they're shamed when they conform. Thank goodness we've got a continuing body of research—aside from Keeping Up with the Kardashians—that confirms that all of this still matters.
ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON VICE.COM'S HEALTH VERTICAL, TONIC