From sfgate.com: Pop stars relish a newfound freedom to flaunt their curves, but the fashion police fight a rearguard action to defend skinniness Bootylicious is OK -- so long as it's tight Last month, three of R&B's leading ladies strutted their stuff across the stage of the Arena in Oakland. The musical styles ranged from soul- pop to hip-hop, but the stars did have one thing in common besides their talent: When the time came to shake their booty, they actually had something to shake. Whether Beyonce's sleek-but-still-full figure, Missy Elliott's healthy heft or Alicia Keys' plush lines, each woman boasted a body type that is moving from fashion's sidelines to its center stage. Girl-fat: It's back. Just as the early '90s fetishized top-heavy breasts and lanky gams, the early 21st century has shifted its gaze lower, toward what many view as the more realistic assets of a copious bottom supported by well- padded legs. For better or worse, led by the popularity of Jennifer Lopez's famous derriere, the American body politic has entered a new and voluptuous phase. "Musicians in R&B and hip-hop who are full-figured are becoming powerful role models to teens, even more than actresses," says Rachel Zalis, West Coast editor for Glamour, whose May cover features a slimmed-down, but still opulent, Queen Latifah. "They're standing up and saying, 'We have a lot of self-esteem and confidence, and you don't have to be skinny to have those.' " Full-figured women have long been celebrated in black and Latino culture. Now, with music as its conduit, that acceptance has started to cross over into the mainstream white arena, where girls who once idealized Madonna's muscles are now wishing they had J. Lo's bottom and Beyonce's legs. Christina Aguilera has embraced her Latin heritage and transformed from emaciated waif to sultry voluptuary, and although white pop stars such as Britney Spears and Pink might obsess over their weight, they've never presented a skinny profile. "Those women aren't running around trying to get into a size zero dress," notes hip-hop DJ and writer Davey D. "There's an appreciation for just being normal." Susan Bordo, author of "Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body," agrees that perceptions are improving. "I don't feel nearly as ashamed to wear tight pants and a top that shows off my shape as I would have five years ago. And that's thanks to hip-hop culture." For those who worry about unrealistic representations of women in media, the trend toward lushness is promising. But many also worry that the current booty fever is simply objectification taken from another angle. There is, for example, the controversy over misogyny in mainstream rap videos. The sexiness-versus-sexism debate has raged since Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back" in 1992, which both affirmed the appeal of larger women and exploited their anatomy. Since then, rap has become the dominant force in popular music -- and so has the cult of booty, epitomized by videos packed with rote scenes of gyrating women in thongs. "There's a lot of over-sexualizing of women in rap videos," Davey D says. "That's a problem, in terms of giving women respect and embracing them as equals and not objects." Having back, or getting it, has become big business. With the popularity of low-riding jeans and anthems like Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious," cleavage below the waist is now as coveted as cleavage above, and gluteal implants are a thriving commodity in the plastic surgery world. There's the rub. As quickly as physical fashion grows closer to a realistic body type, critics say, new ways are invented to make it as inaccessible as the big-breasted, skinny model archetype. Big is beautiful, but it must also be toned and smooth. R&B stars like Beyonce, Latifah and Missy Elliott get sleeker and slimmer with every new platinum record. The bigger the career, the smaller the body. "There's an investment in being thin in the beauty industry, an economic investment in women's insecurity," says Dereca Blackmon, executive director for the Leadership Excellence youth program and local co-chair for the National Hip Hop Political Convention. "And while there's been a shift, I think the beauty industry is fighting back. There's a fight in the media for control of images of women. The insecurity lobby has a lot of money, and they're not going to go away quietly." Says Bardo, "We might have a more bootylicious bottom and a little more stomach, but there's going to be a lot more people working out to keep it as tight as J. Lo. There's permission to be more zaftig. Yet at the same time, you better make sure it's toned. You're still not allowed to be loose. So while I see bodies nowadays that make me think we're getting a little better with our demands on the body, there's so much that seems to be suggesting otherwise." Including this: Glamour's Queen Latifah issue might be dedicated to body pride -- hence a woman of size gracing its cover -- but most models in its pages are thin, with "plus-size" models, who look no "plusser" than average women, relegated to the size-related articles. Compare this to the latest issue of Essence, in which larger models share equal space with their thinner counterparts. Bardo thinks the double standard comes down to old racial and class codes. "The long, skinny, thin types are the aristocrats," she says. "And it's OK to be a little voluptuous if you're working class. It's OK to be more earthy or sexy. But the aristocratic woman is above all that. There's the hot body and the cool body, and there's still a lot of typecasting going on." "The truth is that we do celebrities and models," Glamour's Zalis admits, "but I do think we're going in the direction of having women who are more representative of our readership." Hip-hop culture has collided with mainstream consumer culture, and it's too soon to say what will result from the ensuing mash-up between booty and breasts, body empowerment and sexual objectification, realism and idealism. In the short term, however, women with booty to spare can enjoy their moment with a dose of cautious optimism. "There was a time when media didn't advertise to African American women the way they do now," Blackmon says. "Maybe it'll learn to appeal to women's self-esteem and not their insecurity. I hope so, anyway. There are always these little moments where you think something different is happening, and then they disappear." E-mail Neva Chonin at [email protected].