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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 37 – February 1999
I’ve found a new word that delights me: callipygian. It is an adjective combining the Greek kallos, beauty (as in calligraphy: beautiful writing), with pyge, buttocks. Hence, a callipygian person is someone who is endowed with shapely buttocks. What a useful word! The problem is that I am not sure how to pronounce it, and I end up pronouncing the pygian bit as in pigeon. Imagine how embarrassing that could be!
If you have a big enough dictionary you will find another word formed with pygian: cacopygian, from the Greek kakos – bad, harsh, ugly (as in cacophony). I agree this one may not be as delightful as the former, but you could easily have many more opportunities to use it.
Let’s face it, callipygian people are largely outnumbered by cacopygian ones. Joking apart, the discovery of these words gave me the idea of writing about the lowest region of our trunk, i.e., the buttocks, rear end, backside, rump, behind, bum, bun, butt, glutes, derriere (excuse my French for the last word of this listing).
This part of the body has the gift of attracting vulgar, ridiculous and farcical comments. Yet, the buttocks are honourable and respectable muscles, one of the hallmarks of humankind. Apes and monkeys have flat, shapeless ones – nothing to brag about. Only Man possesses buttocks as we know them: two fleshy, rounded, protruding pads, forming two typical folds. Being uniquely human they are surely worth a bit of investigation.
The gluteus (from the Greek gloutos – buttock) is made of three paired muscles: gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. I am going to concentrate on gluteus maximus as it is the one that gives us our shape. In our bodies, it is the gluteus maximus that have the strongest and largest muscle fibres. John Napier, in The Roots of Mankind, describes it as “a large fleshy affair which, in its size and performance, is unique to man”.
The gluteus maximus is a powerful extensor of the hip-joint, i.e., it moves the thigh backwards. It is also able to extend the trunk relative to the legs, that is, when you want to rise from a bent position as in squatting and sitting, it is the buttocks that straighten you up. It has then a great role to play in the maintenance of the upright posture – to be upright you have to be well endowed. Not very active during normal walking where it is mainly acting as a brake, it assumes an important role in walking up steep slopes, climbing stairs, running and jumping.
The problem is that most of us are BOS (bum on seat) creatures. In our modern and mechanical world, the chief use of our buttocks is as a cushion to sit on. As a result they get little exercise and tend to atrophy. Add to this sitting lifestyle bad use and poor posture, and you are left with a bottomless look. A typical example of bad standing is when the hips and pelvis are pushed forward. In this position, the normal lumbar concavity is flattened – and the buttocks too. Misuse and disuse quickly reduce them to a shapeless, flat and sagging affair. Such neglect amounts to undoing the patient and crafty work of evolution; evolution slips back and you end up having the rear end of an ape. This brings me into the aesthetic role of the gluteus maximus.
According to many surveys, what women find most attractive in men is their backview, and men, too, find sex appeal in women’s posterior. This piece of information is taken very seriously by some underwear-mongers. I have here a cutting from an American fitness magazine advertising male underwear in the form of “Super Shaper Briefs”, “Eye-catching buttocks instantly”…”Goodbye to shapeless, bony, flat, sagging buns” – the weird claims go on and on. In another cutting, from The Observer, I read that a company is marketing special “Butt-Enhancing Boxers” with “an invisible padded lining that discreetly builds up your butt”. Even M&S are getting in on the act in their women’s section. But this is nothing to steatopygia (another word from the pyge family). This is an extreme protuberance of the buttocks, caused by an abnormal accumulation of fat, most prominent in women among the Hottentots and other African tribes where it is highly prized as a mark of beauty.
Perhaps now you are convinced that buttocks are worthy of serious consideration and that they weren’t designed to keep a low profile. Next month I will talk about why buttocks get out of shape, and their relationship with other parts of the body, especially the feet.
We will see how the botty beautiful is part and parcel of the body beautiful. For the time being, if you’d prefer to be called callipygian rather than caco- or even steatopygian, get off your bum right now and go for a long walk.