S2E12: Butts

Why do we have such big butts? Why does society admire women's butts more than men's? And what does race have to do with all this?

Featuring Jeanne Bovet, senior lecturer at Northumbria University in Newcastle.

Citations and further reading:

Subscribe to the newsletter!

Follow Taboo Science on Twitter and Instagram.

Visit tabooscience.show for more.

Taboo Science is written and produced by Ashley Hamer. Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music.


Ashley Hamer: I don’t have to tell you how popular the butt is as a body part. I mean, there are songs about them, leggings specially adorned for them, exercises you can do to make them bigger and rounder and out there.

The easiest evidence to find is on the unfortunate Instagram hashtag “belfie.” That’s short for butt selfie, if you haven’t been acquainted. This is a trend where women — it’s almost entirely women — take a picture of their backside, whether that’s in leggings, in a bikini, or a tight pair of jeans. There are nearly 400,000 of these images on Instagram. It’s a popular style.

 And while you’ll hear people admire men’s butts from time to time, it’s not with the fervor society has for women’s butts. A woman’s butt is the lower half of the classic hourglass figure, after all, and there seems to be something primal about the attraction to that silhouette. 

So today, we’re going to find out why humans love butts, why our butts are so big, and what exactly makes women’s butts the apple of our eyes — or, peach of our eyes, more appropriately. 

 I’m Ashley Hamer and this is Taboo Science, a show that answers the questions you’re not allowed to ask. 

The human butt is unique in the natural world. Forget things like language and tool use — our booty is what sets us apart from the animals. Humans have the biggest butts in the animal kingdom. Our primate cousins don’t even come close.

Scientists think that’s all thanks to the fact that we walk upright. See, in both humans and non-human primates, the butt is made up of three muscles: the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. Kind of a Goldilocks and the three bears situation. In humans, the gluteus maximus is the poppa bear. It’s big and thick and mostly handles thigh extension: stuff like rising from a sitting position, climbing, or running. In primates, that muscle is way smaller. It doesn’t even connect to the same bones: our gluteus maximus runs from the top of the pelvis to the upper thigh bone. The primate gluteus maximus connects to the femur too, but it only starts at the ischium or sit bone, the part of your butt that hurts on a long bike ride. It’s smaller and less powerful. As a result, primates can stand upright — long. This mini gluteus maximus also, obviously, gives primates less of a big round booty than the one humans have. 

The ability to stand upright is a fundamental difference between us and our primate cousins. Scientists aren’t sure what, exactly, led our ancestors to stop walking on all fours. Maybe they started by trying to reach higher in trees when they foraged, maybe they wanted to shield their backs from the sun or see further over tall vegetation or keep their hands free to hold food or babies while they traveled. But whatever it was, we got up on two legs, and our butts changed as a result. We got junk in our proverbial trunks, and the world was never the same again.

Of course, muscle isn’t the only thing that makes our booties so juicy. Fat is a big player, too. Humans are also the fattiest primates, and, again, while we aren’t sure why, some think we need to store a lot of fat to fuel our big brains. And when it comes to butt fat, women are the reigning champions. They store more fat in their butts, hips, and thighs than men do. In fact, that’s another trait that’s unique to humans: the way that fat distribution is different between men and women. No other animal does that.

Women’s butts are also the ones that get the lion’s share of the attention: in advertisements, in music videos, in workout routines, in clothing designs with lettering across the backside and zero pockets to be found. Sure, you’ll hear people talk about men’s butts, but it’s not nearly to the same degree as women’s. Why is that?

Jeanne Bovet: Women's bodies are really linked to their reproductive success in a way that is not the case for men's bodies. 

Ashley Hamer: That’s Jeanne Bovet. She’s a senior lecturer at Northumbria University in Newcastle. 

Jeanne Bovet: So just because we have to carry the baby and there's a pregnancy on this breastfeeding and all of that is really demanding for the body. And so, in a way the body before your pregnancy is going to affect the way the pregnancy is going to go, it's going to affect the baby and the children later with breastfeeding and everything. And of course having a baby and a pregnancy is going to affect your body in return. So you have a really close relationship between bodies and reproduction in women, a bit less in men.

And so that's why scientists think that men are really focusing on a woman's body a bit more than women focus on men's bodies.

Ashley Hamer: In her work, Dr. Bovet has been trying to untangle what, exactly, we’re attracted to when it comes to the objects of our desire. Those kinds of questions are really important to evolutionary biologists, for a pretty huge reason.

Jeanne Bovet: Well, so I was trained as a biologist and mate choice is always something really fascinating in animals and something really important for evolution because that's a way selection is happening: when you choose a specific mate.

Ashley Hamer: Evolution happens through reproduction — reproduction of babies, sure, but especially reproduction of genes. Like, the best genetic trait in the universe isn’t worth much if you never find a mate and pass that trait onto your offspring. And the mate you choose will put half of their genes into your offspring, which makes mate choice a really big deal in the evolutionary scheme of things. More attractive mates are more likely to be chosen to have offspring, which means the genes that code for traits that make an individual more attractive as a mate are likely to spread throughout the population. So finding out what those traits are is super important for scientists studying evolution — human evolution included.

Jeanne Bovet: So I'm working on mate choice, but mostly on physical attractiveness. And I think it's just also the fact that physical attractiveness is so important in our lives — too important, I would say. It's a source of anxiety when we are teenagers or even before. You can affect a lot of things in our lives. And I was like why?

Why is it so important and why do people care so much? And I think I was never really, like, completely satisfied with the usual answer which is well, you know, it's media and society which wants us to care about physical appearance. But for me it was asking other questions like: so why do the media care about physical appearance in the first place? And why do they represent only certain types of bodies? So that's why I think some studies in psychology and with an evolutionary perspective I'm hoping maybe to answer these questions.

Ashley Hamer: You might not be surprised to learn that there aren’t a whole lot of studies about our attraction to butts, specifically. It’s more about what’s around the butt — how the butt fits in with the overall picture. The way scientists like Dr. Bovet measure it is with the waist-to-hip ratio. A low waist-to-hip ratio is that classic itty-bitty waist and a round thing in your face, to quote Sir Mix-a-Lot. The higher the ratio, the less difference there is between the circumference of the waist and the circumference of the hips and butt. I...constantly get this confused, so my rule of thumb is that a low waist-to-hip ratio means a low waist measurement, and vice versa.

But what is it about a low waist-to-hip ratio that makes a woman attractive?

Jeanne Bovet: In the literature you often find like, really general statements or vague statements. So a low waist-to-hip ratio is a sign of good health or it's a sign of fertility.

And it's not clear enough. Let's put it that way. So the waist-to-hip ratio is linked with really important characteristics, but they are not really mysterious. 

Ashley Hamer: Number one: it’s a sign that she’s a woman.

Jeanne Bovet: Women and men have really different waist-to-hip ratios. So this is important information when you choose a mate.

Ashley Hamer: Number two: it’s a sign that she’s of childbearing age.

Jeanne Bovet: So the waist-to-hip ratio changes with time. It's high when you're a kid and then it's decreasing and then it's going to increase again with age. 

Ashley Hamer: Number three: it’s a sign of pregnancy status.

Jeanne Bovet: So if you're currently pregnant you will have a high waist-to-hip ratio. 

Ashley Hamer: And finally, it’s a sign of how many kids she’s already had.

Jeanne Bovet: So the more pregnancies you had in the past, the higher will be your waist-to-hip ratio. And so these characteristics are going to influence your reproductive potential.

So if you had 10 children in the past, you will have a different fertility than if you had none or one kid. And of course age is going to influence a lot if you're going to be able to get pregnant really quickly and the risks linked to pregnancy and things like that. 

Ashley Hamer: A lot of this is directly tied to the extra fat a woman carries on her butt and hips. Big butts make better babies. 

Jeanne Bovet: And so there is a hypothesis that the more fat you will have around the hips and so the better the baby's going to develop.

There is definitely something specific about the fat in the hip region and it's used during pregnancy and during breastfeeding, more than the fat in other parts of the body. And this is why after several pregnancies, you have a different waist-to-hip ratio. It's one of the reasons you have other reasons. So the effect on the muscles and the effect of the hormones, et cetera , but in part is because the baby is using this fat when it's growing and when you breastfeed the baby. There is preliminary evidence that it's really used for the brain. Theoretically, it sounds great and it makes sense because it’s used in pregnancy, etc. We don't have a lot of data to measure it, but it's a promising hypothesis.

Ashley Hamer: Now, of course, it’s not true that all people attracted to women like the same types of bodies — much less the same types of butts. But that’s why waist-to-hip ratio is such a handy measurement tool: its ideal doesn’t seem to change that much from culture to culture or time period to time period, even if other metrics like body-mass index or bodyfat percentage do. It does vary a little bit: some studies suggest that men in harsher environments prefer women with a higher waist-to-hip ratio, possibly because in those circumstances, a mate that can acquire more resources is more important than one that can have more babies. But when it comes to the question of universal preferences as a whole, the evidence is kind of all over the place.

Jeanne Bovet: So people used to look at the preferences across countries. And the results are mixed. You have some preferences that are relatively universal like for example preference for relatively young or young age body, healthy body. And those preferences are very regular between countries. And waist-to-hip ratio, there are studies showing that men have similar preferences across countries and also studies saying no look like this country prefers lower waist-to-hip ratios than other countries. 

So we decided to look at the universality of men's preferences according to time. So across time and not across countries. But of course you cannot ask dead men from 300 years ago to tell us about their preferences.

Ashley Hamer: So instead, they did something pretty ingenious: they looked at art pieces through time. 

Jeanne Bovet: So paintings and sculptures of women who are supposed to be beautiful. 

Ashley Hamer: To make sure they knew the subject was supposed to be beautiful, they stuck to classic symbols of beauty: characters from mythology whose whole thing is being beautiful.

Jeanne Bovet: So basically like Venus the goddess of beauty. We'd guess that the artist wanted to represent a beautiful woman when they were depicting Venus. 

Ashley Hamer: They used 160 paintings and 56 sculptures representing women from 500 BC to present-day. That’s nearly 2500 years. Well...1500 years.

Jeanne Bovet: Then you have basically 1000 years without any woman depicted naked in paintings or sculptures because it was forbidden by the church. 

Ashley Hamer: But still, through all that time, the waist-to-hip ratio of the most beautiful women depicted in art? It didn’t really change. 

Jeanne Bovet: And what we found is that during antiquity, the waist-to-hip ratio depicted was relatively stable. It was not changing that much. And when we start again we can see that the waist-to-hip ratio depicted is decreasing a bit, so, toward the more feminine waist-to-hip ratio until today. 

So you have some variation according to time. Also, it's always a relatively feminine waist-to-hip ratio. It's never really really high.

Ashley Hamer: The waist-to-hip ratio of the subjects in these pieces never went above the current medical recommendation — so even when the ratio was on the high end, it was still what modern medicine considers healthy. 

But like I said, waist-to-hip ratio is a lot different than something like body mass index, which has its own effects on the derriere. That does seem to change among time and place, and Dr. Bovet hopes to study that too.

Jeanne Bovet: But what we know when we look at different countries is that the preferences for body mass index, for example, is quite variable. So I won't be surprised to see that actually women depicted across time are, like, a wider range of body size than, compared to the waist-to-hip ratio. I'm expecting to see more variation and variation according to time like that, yes.

Ashley Hamer: But there’s a dark side to our love of the booty. I quoted Sir Mix-a-Lot a second ago because he’s got one of the most famous songs about butts there is: Baby Got Back. And when you get right down to it, that song is all about how 1980s fashion held up white women with flat butts as icons, leaving women of color — who tend to be curvier than their white counterparts — out in the cold. This was not new. 

There’s a long history of Europeans both fearing and fetishizing the figures of women of color. As white European colonizers traveled to new places in the world, they encountered new places and people — and quickly came up with their own classifications for them. Usually, they classified the people they encountered by their visual characteristics, including the butt. They considered the large butts of African people as signs of an underlying animal or sexual nature, which became one of many things they used as justification for enslaving them. Europeans even came up with a medical diagnosis for curvy African women: steatopygia , defined as an excessive accumulation of fat around the buttocks. It was considered a terrible, debilitating condition, despite the fact that big butts were fashionable for European women at the time.

The posterchild for Europe’s kinda creepy fascination with the bodies of African women was Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus. She was kidnapped from her home in Southwestern Africa by Dutch colonists and paraded as a sort of sideshow freak or circus animal, and attracted crowds curious to see her large backside. When she died in 1815 at the age of 26, her body was dissected and written up in a book about mammals of the world — she was the book’s only human subject. The way she was treated, both in life and death, was truly shocking. It shows that even if certain human preferences are universal, dignity and respect are only afforded to some.

Alright, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about women’s butts. But all that doesn’t mean that men’s butts don’t matter. I mean, you can find plenty of man butts in movies and TV shows. Magic Mike is basically an entire movie about men’s butts and the women who love them. But I would argue that people appreciate a man’s butt in context. That is, if he’s fit and muscular everywhere else, his butt will be too. There’s a difference between a flexing bicep and a rippling glute, but I’d argue that difference more comes down to social dynamics. When you look at someone’s butt, they usually don’t know you’re looking. That makes it different.

I asked Dr. Bovet about my theory: that is, maybe the male butt is a signal of his physical fitness?

Jeanne Bovet: Again, I'm really not a specialist but I see it is all I'm really speculating right now. But I guess if it's different muscles it's going to be linked to different abilities. And so maybe in some cases it's more useful to have muscles in the lower body parts or in the upper body part depending on what you need to do on a daily basis. So you would have to look at what kind of tasks you need in the environment.

Ashley Hamer: Another theory out there is that the shape of a man’s body is directly linked to his testosterone levels. When a cis woman goes through puberty or a trans woman takes estrogen, those so-called female hormones send extra fat to her butt, hips, and thighs. But testosterone has a different effect on men: they actually lose fat on their butts and redistribute it to their stomach and shoulders. So for men, a small, lean butt is a signal that he’s got high testosterone levels — and studies show that heterosexual women are more attracted to men with a higher waist-to-hip ratio, of roughly 1 to 1. But still, testosterone levels only tell you so much.

Jeanne Bovet: But again it’s going to be — it would probably be more efficient for other people to just look at the outcome of what the men are able to do than to look at the body. Which you cannot really do with the female body because it's an outcome that never really happened. It's going to be the future outcome of the pregnancy. So yeah, there are more direct ways to look at what matters for male mates, I would say, than the body.

Ashley Hamer: In other words, it’s not about what his body looks like, it’s about what he can do with it. Makes sense.

So it turns out that not all butts are created equal. Women’s butts send an evolutionary signal about their ability to have babies. Men’s butts...not so much. 

Thank you so much for listening! 

Taboo Science is written and produced by me, Ashley Hamer

The theme was by Danny Lopatka of DLC music.

Big thanks to Jeanne Bovet. You can find links to her other research, along with a transcript of this episode, in the show notes. 

This is the final episode in Season 2! We did it! As a result, I’m going to take a nice long break. So this is the perfect time to let me know what you think in a review on Apple Podcasts, or to drop me a line at ashley at tabooscience dot show. And make sure to follow the show on your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss season 3. 

Catch you next time!

S2E11: Disability

It affects 1 billion people worldwide, so why is disability considered a niche issue? How can we make life easier for people with disabilities? And what does any of this have to do with As Seen on TV products?

Featuring Emily Ladau, disability rights activist and author of the new book, “Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally.” Pick it up here.

Citations and further reading:

Subscribe to the newsletter!

Follow Taboo Science on Twitter and Instagram.

Visit tabooscience.show for more.

Taboo Science is written and produced by Ashley Hamer. Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music.


Ashley Hamer: I used to think that I didn't know anybody with a disability. Like, okay, sure. I have a relative with autism, but that's not a disability. That's just autism. It's its own thing. Right? 

And yeah. As I mentioned in the hormone episode, my brother has diabetes. But it's not like he can't get through life that way.

And I remember a kid in my class who wore a back brace that had to be tightened every day after lunch. I think it was because he had scoliosis. But I wore an arm brace once after a wrist injury and that's not a disability. So did he have a disability?

And then there are the many people I've known with mental health disorders. Depression and schizophrenia are two big ones in my circle. But you wouldn't be able to tell they had these conditions by looking at them. So did they have disabilities? 

I hope you realize by now that the answer to all of these questions is yes. So why didn't I think of them as disabilities? The answer, most likely, is that disability is an uncomfortable word. It's taboo. It's considered to be a negative, kind of tragic thing, which is why so many people either don't identify it at all or use euphemisms like "physically challenged" or "special needs" or "differently abled." To be fair, those terms, aren't always wrong. I mean, some disabled people do identify that way. But they pose a problem when they're used as a way to avoid discomfort. 

Disability is way more common than you probably think. And it's worth normalizing, both the word itself and, you know, the concept as a whole. And that's not just for the sake of people with disabilities. It's for the sake of the people who will have disabilities, potentially people like you and me. 

Yeah. Some disabled people say that non-disabled people are just temporarily able-bodied and that the disability community is the only community that anybody can join at any time. And it's true. 

Today, we're diving into the history, politics, and everyday reality of disability. And we're going to find out why you should care about disability rights, even if you're not disabled yourself. 

I'm Ashley Hamer. And this is Taboo Science, the podcast that answers the questions you're not allowed to ask.

The idea that a non-disabled person could become disabled at any time might seem alarming or even threatening, but it doesn't have to be.

Emily Ladau: it's not meant to be scary. It's just a reality of the fact that your body and your mind are not static and neither is the world around you. Things can change. 

I'm Emily Ladau. I am a disability rights activist, a writer, a storyteller, and a communications consultant. I like to joke that I'm a professional disabled person. So I pretty much just do disability 24/7 and I am disabled 24/7.

Ashley Hamer: Emily has a new, fantastic book out entitled "Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally." 

Emily Ladau: I have definitely had to practice saying that title a few times to get it out all in one go. But it's basically a primer about disability issues and that's what I'm passionate about. I'm passionate about educating people about disability.

Ashley Hamer: And just to get to know you, what is your disability? 

Emily Ladau: I have a physical disability called Larsen's syndrome. It's a genetic joint and muscle disorder and my mother has it and her younger brother and my uncle also has it and I am a wheelchair user. 

Ashley Hamer: There are a lot of different types of disability. Someone could be born with a disability, like Emily was, or acquire it later in life, like through a disease or an accident. The disability could be physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental. It could be a hearing or vision disability, a communication disability, or even a chronic illness. It could be visible or invisible. 

The general definition of a disability is some condition that impairs or limits a person's ability to engage in certain tasks or typical daily activities. But that definition is hyper-focused on what a person can't do. Emily has a wider definition. 

Emily Ladau: The way that I define disability is as a natural part of the human experience. And I recognize that that's not a textbook definition. It's not a medical definition. It's not a diagnosis, but to me, it's an identity. It's a part of who people are. Yes, it involves medical-related issues. Yes, it can involve impairment, but it's also simply a part of how we exist. And so I really wanted to give people that understanding that 1 billion people around the world have some type of disability. This is really not a niche issue at all. And we tend to think of it as one, but when it comes down to it, one in four adults in the US have some type of disability. And when we think about that statistic, it's absolutely possible that either you or someone you know is disabled. I mean, just statistically speaking.

Ashley Hamer: And of course there's nothing new about disability. Humans have had disabilities since humans have been around. 

Like, the first written record of a prosthesis is from 3,500 BC in India. The wife of a king lost her leg in battle, and the gods replaced it with a metal leg. 

The first recorded reference to an intellectual disability was in the Therapeutic Papyrus of Thebes, also known as the Ebers Papyrus, around 1550 BC. The fact that the ancient Egyptians included this disability in a document dealing with physical illnesses and injuries shows that they considered mental disabilities to be a medical problem, rather than a curse or possession like other cultures did.

Then we get to ancient Greece. Greek philosophers made a lot of advancements in math and science, so you might think that their views of disability would be more enlightened than most. You would be wrong. 

Emily Ladau: In ancient Sparta, if you were born with some kind of disability or defect, as they would call it, you would essentially be left to die because you were worthless because you couldn't fight.

You know, you were just a drain on their society.

Ashley Hamer: It wasn't just Sparta either. Aristotle himself was in full favor of laws against raising quote-unquote deformed children. Yikes. 

When Christianity came on the scene, disabilities went from a general mark of inferiority to a sign of God's punishment. And considering that disease and malnutrition, which are leading causes of disability even today, were super common back then, there was plenty of punishment to go around.

And some of the most religious were the most vicious toward people with disabilities. Martin Luther said people with intellectual disabilities were quote, "filled with Satan" and John Calvin believed that disabilities were a sign that a person wasn't chosen by God to go to heaven. Even when the Roman Catholic church provided refuge to people with disabilities, the conditions in the institutions were usually pretty horrendous. 

Fast forward to the 1800s and things aren't a whole lot better. 

Emily Ladau: If we think about things like the circus, where did that come from? Freak shows. It came from freak shows, where we put people who looked different, quote-unquote, on display, and then people would get wealthy off of making money by allowing the public to gawk at people.

Ashley Hamer: For some participants in these freak shows, the circus was the only way to make an income, which might explain why the introduction of welfare programs coincided with the freak show's downfall. 

And then there was the Holocaust. People with disabilities were the first victims of the Holocaust. By the end of world war II, 200,000 people with disabilities had been murdered and 400,000 had been sterilized. 

But there's also a powerfully uplifting thread in the history of disability. Some of history's greatest figures were disabled, from Harriet Tubman, to Frida Kahlo, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to Stephen Hawking. And the progress we've made in accessibility and disability rights has some incredible activists to thank for it. 

Like, it wasn't until reading Emily's book that I learned about the Capitol Crawl. That was the day in March of 1990. When more than 1000 people demonstrated at the US Capitol Building to demand that Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act or the ADA.

Around 60 people got out of wheelchairs and cast aside other mobility aids to crawl up the Capitol steps. The ADA was finally signed into law several months later.

Emily Ladau: The Capitol Crawl, which is this pivotal moment for the disability community and for disability rights as a whole.

That's not in textbooks. None. None of this is in textbooks. We don't know that there are prominent historical figures who were disabled. We don't know about the ways that disability advocates played a role in other civil rights movements. We don't know about the fact that civil rights leaders and other movements played a role in the disability rights movement.

We just don't think about disability history as a strand of history that we should be learning about. But the goal of my overview of history is to talk, really about US history in the 20th century as it relates to disability and just sort of trace how each decade there was something going on, something evolving all the way from, unfortunately, the mindset of Eugenics, which was essentially saying that disabled people did not deserve to live and they should not procreate, all the way to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, all the way to what's going on present-day with COVID. Disability history is always in the making. We just don't talk about it.

Ashley Hamer: For example, activists are currently fighting to remove an exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act. That's the one that ensures a federal minimum wage. This exemption, which dates back to the New Deal, allows employers to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage. Like, way less.

Emily Ladau: Sometimes pennies per hour for doing the same work that someone without a disability would be paid, we would hope, at least minimum wage for. And not only that, but they're often doing this work in places that are called sheltered workshops, which means that they are segregated and isolated from non-disabled people.

And they're working in places where they're only other disabled people working and they're all being paid pennies per hour in the isolated workshops. And so when you realize that this is still legal, suddenly, you know, for so many people, it clicks that it's not just our attitudes towards individual disabled people that can be problematic, but it's the fact that discrimination is literally still written into our systems. It is literally still a part of the systems that we exist in.

It's so important to remember that disabled people are still seen as, in so many cases, being unable or incapable, or simply unwelcome in certain parts of society. And we're the ones who are keeping that mindset afloat. We have the ability to change this. We have the ability to change these laws, to change these attitudes and these mindsets.

But right now, we are still, as a society, comfortable with letting segregation and letting inequality be the status quo. 

And so the problem when we're shutting disabled people out of the workplace, it's not that disabled people can't perform. It's that we're not providing the support that they need to do their jobs effectively. So that's the first problem. And then the second problem is that by not having disabled people in your workplaces, you're denying yourself, your company, your business, your organization, the insights, the wisdom, the adaptability of the disability community. You're denying yourself an entire population of people who are consumers and who are workers simply because of your attitudes towards them. So you're missing an entire group of people who could patronize your business, you're missing an entire group of people who could inform how you develop your product. You know, you're ignoring 1 billion people. 

Ashley Hamer: Now I know what you might be thinking. There are disabilities that do make you less able to do certain jobs. But a lot of the time employers make unfounded assumptions about a disabled person's ability to do a job. A 2019 paper in the Journal of Business and Psychology laid out 11 different concerns expressed by employers and reviewed the evidence for or against them.

You can find the paper linked in the show notes. It's definitely worth reading the whole thing. But the big one they address is that yeah, managers sometimes believe that people with disabilities can't do the basic functions of the job they've applied for, especially physical functions.

But this is often, again, an unfounded assumption. Like, a 2012 study of employees with spinal cord injuries found that many of these employees were performing jobs that went above and beyond what would have typically been expected of someone with that disability?

And some of this is just plain stereotyping. Many employers see disabled people as being less competent and skilled than non-disabled people, but studies comparing unemployed people with and without disabilities find no difference between them when it comes to markers of hireability. That is, things like their likelihood of having had a job for more than a year, whether they've had a managerial level position, or whether they're unemployed due to being fired.

Studies have also found almost no difference in productivity between disabled and non-disabled people. And when they did find a difference, it was disabled people who had a small edge.

Some other fun facts, the paper uncovered: in response to managers saying they can't find qualified disabled candidates, the authors point out that a ton of online job boards are not very accessible and that job postings are not that welcoming to disabled people. Fewer than half of Fortune 500 companies include disability in their diversity statements, for example. Okay, so what about the cost of providing accommodations to a person with disabilities?

Well, the authors cite a 2018 study that found that a majority of the employers they surveyed had to pay $0 for accommodations. I mean, flexible hours and remote working costs nothing, people. Those who did pay reported a one-time cost of less than $500, but also reported a $40 savings for every $1 they spent.

But there's also the fact that many accommodations help every employee, not just the disabled ones. And that phenomenon actually has a name. The curb cut effect.

Emily Ladau: I love talking about the curb cut effect because it's such a simple example of how something that we technically are modifying for disabled people actually works for everybody.

So if you have a curb, sure you may be able to step up it, but what about people who have strollers? What about people who have rolling luggage? People on roller skates, skateboards, bicycle, you name it. Suddenly. If you have a curb cut, everybody can get up on the curb. It hasn't made anything harder for anybody, but it's made the curb accessible to everybody.

And so why not apply that to everything? Why not make everything accessible because then it will work for so many more people. And it's not going to shut people out. I love the concept of the curb cut effect. I tried to apply it to every area of my life and lately, because of what's been going on with the pandemic, I've been talking about the need to create more virtual curb cuts, which is essentially allowing people to continue to participate virtually whether it's telemedicine, whether it's taking classes from home, working from home. Going to cultural events from home.

You're creating virtual curb cuts because now everybody can participate in a way that's safe for them without actually being excluded from the event.

So more curb cuts for everybody. 

Ashley Hamer: And this isn't limited to office spaces and public events. 

Emily Ladau: For me, it's about recognizing that when you are planning an outing, when you are working on a work project, when you are doing anything that involves a group of people, how can you make it most accessible to everyone who's part of that activity? And so, the challenge is sometimes that people might have conflicting accessibility needs. That's always an interesting one. Somebody might need the room, for example, to be incredibly bright in order to be able to see and navigate. And somebody with a sensory disability might need the room to be incredibly dark so that they can better, you know, exist in that environment without feeling overstimulated.

And so virtual curb cuts to me sometimes look like solving a little bit of a puzzle or riddle and finding a way to make sure that we're making an environment that's as inclusive and as all-encompassing to everyone as we possibly can. And so if I'm getting together with a group of friends, my first question is usually, what can I do to make this most accessible to you? How can we work together so that we can all have a really good time where we're going? Is it that you need accessible seating? Do we need to account for accessible transportation? So the virtual curb cut metaphor is really just a way of saying, let's make things accessible to people.

Ashley Hamer: I think it strikes me that maybe to some non-disabled people, asking questions like that might be othering or like uncomfortable. You know what I mean? Is there a right way to ask those questions? 

Emily Ladau: Yeah. So I talk about this a little bit in the etiquette chapter in my book, because there are certainly questions that you don't want to just blurt out and ask people like, please don't just come up to me and ask me if I can walk or if I can have sex or what happened to me.

Like that's weird, but it's totally okay, in many contexts, to say, Hey, how can I make something more accessible to you? Hey, do you need any accommodations to make this work for you? Or how can I help you? Those are really simple and straightforward questions. And sometimes, we forget that just asking the question is the most important step.

So we either assume that we know what's best, or we assume that someone doesn't need anything and both of those assumptions can be kind of harmful. So it's definitely a delicate dance. And I understand why it feels taboo to ask questions, especially if you don't really know someone, but sometimes asking a question is the appropriate thing if it's going to make something more accessible to people. 

If you think about it, every issue is a disability issue because disability is the only identity that cuts across any and all other identities. The disability community is all-encompassing. And so if you're talking about employment, yes. That's one issue area, but what about access to education? What about access to healthcare? What about access to transportation? What about voting rights? You know, suddenly, you start listing all these issues and you realize these are disability issues. Because people may have trouble navigating a transportation system, or they may not have access to transportation that works for them because they can't get on the train because of their mobility device.

That's not the person's fault. That's the fault of the system, right? Access to healthcare. Lack of insurance. Being kept in poverty, not being able to access the equipment and the care that you need to take care of yourself as a disabled person. That's an issue. When we're talking about voting rights, something as simple as everything going on right now with mail-in ballots and access to alternative methods of voting, you're shutting out disabled people, you know. 

So, the deeper you dive into pretty much every issue area you'll realize it's also going to be a disability issue. 

Ashley Hamer: It, I don't know. This seems silly, but it reminds me of the, as seen on TV, um, objects, you know what I mean? Like the helpful objects, when people will make fun of them all over the place. And it's like, actually this thing that's making a non-disabled person's life easier and maybe seems like it's not useful, is actually like, it was originally created for people with disabilities. 

Emily Ladau: Gosh, that's not silly at all. There have been a couple of articles where, and I believe there was one by the disabled writer, s. e. smith in Vox, if I'm not mistaken talking about how there are a lot of items, just like the ones that we call the As Seen on TV items that people like to make fun of, and like to say that we are lazy for using them, but actually they're just making things easier for people. Non-disabled and disabled. Fruit slicers and fruit peelers and kitchen gadgets.

There's a channel that I like on YouTube. A guy named Barry Lewis and he does a lot of kitchen gadget testing. And at the beginning of all of those videos, he says that he wants his audience to remember that a lot of these gadgets, silly though they may seem, can actually help people with disabilities.

I'm that's a great reminder because we're so stuck in our attitudes of, you're lazy if you need help and you're lazy, if this doesn't work for you, but no, we're just adapting in a world that was not made for us. 

Ashley Hamer: Right. Yeah. I mean, w why do things have to be hard anyway? Like why is that a moral strength? 

Emily Ladau: I think it has so much to do with the value judgments that we place on people in a capitalist society. Like if you're not constantly being productive, if you're not putting in that elbow grease and, you know, sweat equity. Pick your buzzword. I mean, you're suddenly a worthless human being. And so disabled people definitely have that working against them.

Ashley Hamer: Yeah. And I feel like the elephant in the room for this is COVID. So many people after this pandemic is over, hopefully it ends, so many people are going to be left with disabilities after this. And it just, I don't know, it brings it so much more into focus. 

Emily Ladau: I'm glad you brought that up, not because I want that to be the reality, but because it is the reality. COVID has led to so many more people having disabilities. And my hope is that we have awakened at least somewhat to understanding that we can in fact, make the world more accessible. I mean, for so many disabled people, we were fighting for virtual options or hybrid options for a lot of things well before the pandemic. And then suddenly when the pandemic hit, everybody was forced to change over to a virtual world and disabled people were throwing their hands up and we were like, hello! You know you can do it now, so what's your excuse? And I think, as we move on to this next phase of COVID and hopefully someday to a post-pandemic world, the challenge is going to be not forgetting what we've learned during the pandemic.

Don't just make things accessible when it's convenient for everyone, make things accessible because at some point everyone will need it. And I think even though that sounds a little bit similar there's a crucial difference in mentality there. In one you're doing it because you have to, in the other you're doing it because it's just a way to make a better world for everybody. 

Ashley Hamer: And that brings us back to the idea that non-disabled people are only temporarily able-bodied. Anyone could become disabled at any time. With COVID out there, this is as much a reality as ever. 

Emily Ladau: And so when we say temporarily able-bodied what we're talking about is the fact that your existence may change. That can be from one day to the next, but it can also be because of something like a car accident, because of an injury that you sustained, because of something that happens internally in your body because of a medical condition.

And we look at these as being very tragic occurrences, but if we start to consider the fact that any of us can become disabled at any time, then maybe we'll start to think about, Hey, why don't we make the world a more accessible and inclusive place now, so that if my body changes tomorrow, the world is a better place for me too.

Ashley Hamer: Thanks for listening. Taboo Science is written and produced by me, Ashley Hamer. The theme was by Danny Lopaka of DLC Music. 

A million thank you's to Emily Ladau. You can find a link to pick up her book in the show notes. Again, it's called "Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally." And as I told her, I devoured the thing. It's a surprisingly lighthearted approach to a subject that can be kind of heavy. And it feels really welcoming, like she's speaking directly to you. I highly recommend it. Emily also has her own podcast. It's called "The Accessible Stall," and it's all about issues within the disability community. There's a link to that in the show notes too. 

Also speaking of accessible, this episode has a transcript. Very exciting. I hope to make transcripts of all past episodes soon. It's definitely on my list, but for now you can find every word that was said on this episode, on the citations page. Again, that's in the show notes. 

Last thing before I let you go: Emily had a lot more to say about things like ableism and gene editing and those high-tech stair climbing wheelchairs you see headlines for every few years. We didn't have time for it all, so I'll be including that in the newsletter. You can subscribe to that at tabooscience dot show slash newsletter. 

That's all. Thanks for making it this far. The next episode will be in two weeks, so I'll catch you then.

S2E9: Body Hair

Why do we remove our body hair? Why do humans have less hair than our primate cousins? And why was Darwin obsessed with beards?

Featuring Rebecca Herzig, author of "Plucked: A History of Hair Removal." Pick it up here: https://amzn.to/3Csj819

Citations and further reading:

Subscribe to the BRAND NEW newsletter!

Follow Taboo Science on Twitter and Instagram.

Visit tabooscience.show for more.

Taboo Science is written and produced by Ashley Hamer. Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music.

S2E8: Hormones

They're complex, mysterious, and easy to blame for everything from unexplained symptoms to seemingly superhuman abilities. Find out how we discovered hormones, what they do inside of us, and who's really controlling who.

Featuring Randi Hutter Epstein author of "Aroused, the History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything."

Citations and further reading:

Follow Taboo Science on Twitter and Instagram.

Visit tabooscience.show for more.

Taboo Science is written and produced by Ashley Hamer. Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music.

S2E5: Head Transplants

Why don't we have head transplants? Why would someone need one? And how much of you is in your head — and how much is everywhere else?

Featuring Dr. Brandy Schillace, author of the book “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey's Head, the Pope's Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul.” Pick it up here: https://amzn.to/2TniY91

Citations and further reading:

Follow Taboo Science:

Visit tabooscience.show for more.

Taboo Science is written and produced by Ashley Hamer. Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music.


S1E3: Penises

Penises (with Emily Willingham)

How does the human penis measure up to the rest of the animal kingdom? What can the shape of the penis tell us about human mating? And what is up with society's obsession with the penis? Today's guest is Emily Willingham, science journalist and author of the book "Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis."

How does the human penis measure up to the rest of the animal kingdom? What can the shape of the penis tell us about human mating? And what is up with society's obsession with the penis?

Today's guest is Emily Willingham, science journalist and author of the book "Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis."

Citations and further reading:

Follow Taboo Science on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.

Suggest a taboo topic via ashley@tabooscience.show.

Visit tabooscience.show for more.

Taboo Science is written and produced by Ashley Hamer. Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music.