When renowned fitness coach Russell Bateman posted videos on Instagram of his invite-only fitness group Skinny Bitch Collective (SBC) on a retreat in Kenya, it set off a ripple of outrage across the platform.
The videos from the retreat that were posted over the weekend show a group of Western-looking women using Kenya’s tribal Maasai people as props in their workout routine.
The backlash was so swift Mr Bateman had issued an apology and deleted his Instagram account within days.
It’s left people asking questions like who is Russell Bateman? What is Skinny Bitch Collective? And why are we still seeing people of colour used as props for white people in 2019?
Here’s what happened
Mr Bateman posted a series of videos on his Instagram story, with one showing the group of women crab-walking around the locals.
Another showed the women dodging and weaving in and around a line of locals. Yet another showed the women holding hands and dancing around a tree.
Despite Mr Bateman deleting his posts, Instagram account @diet_prada reposted the videos to its 1.2-million-strong followers with the caption “Ummm … happy International Women’s Day?”.
The fashion watchdog account identified Mr Bateman to its audience as “the white male mastermind” behind SBC.
“Among the sisterhood-fostering activities like hot air balloon rides, chef-prepared organic meals [that chia berry jam!], and dancing ’round a tree of life, they also managed to use the local Maasai people not only as a backdrop, but as literal props in their fitness routines,” the caption read.
“Some videos have already been deleted, but screenshots appear to show the girls writhing around the locals like an obstacle course.
“It’s 2019 and apparently people still haven’t learned that POC/ethnic groups don’t exist to embellish already privileged lives.”
The videos and screenshots prompted comments of disgust and incredulity from @diet_prada’s sizeable following, which immediately began sharing the post and tagging their friends.
Then SBC addressed the controversy
Mr Bateman posted an apology to the SBC Instagram account (which has since been deleted) admitting the content “lacked appropriate cultural sensitivity”.
“The location of the retreat was within the ancestral lands of the indigenous Maasai tribe. Since the retreat was taking place within their territory, we were required to be accompanied by members of the tribe at all times,” the statement said.
“As a result, a friendship was formed and they joined in with the activities and with their permission, featured heavily in several our (sic) Instagram posts and stories.
The response went on to say that the company was “distraught” that the trip had been considered disrespectful.
“Our personal interaction with the Maasai people has been one of mutual fondness and respect.
“Our intention was to promote a cross-cultural exchange through shared experiences and to highlight the beauty of Kenya and it’s (sic) indigenous peoples.
“However, having taking a step back, we accept and understand that our content fell well short of this aim and lacked appropriate cultural sensitivity by reinforcing colonial era depictions of people of colour.”
Let’s take a closer look at SBC
What is a fitness program that calls itself Skinny Bitch Collective, anyway?
Well on its website (which is currently down for maintenance), SBC describes itself as “the most talked about wellness and lifestyle project for women right now”.
But not just any women … the About section of its website bills it as an “inclusive class”, but then in the same paragraph says it’s specifically aimed at promoting “lean” women.
This is evidenced by the women who participate in SBC workouts. In all of the promotional videos of the workouts, all of the women are thin.
It goes to Mr Bateman’s ethos for SBC, telling W Magazine in 2016:
“There’s nothing interesting for me about making someone who’s overweight a little bit less overweight. The challenge is getting someone who already looks great into epic shape. I’m not about normal.”
It says SBC preaches “squatting, sleep and sex and fusing strength and metabolic conditioning with signature SBC movements”.
Those signature movements have been flagged as particularly strange and involve women, always women, crawling around on the floor and wrestling with one another.
One promotional video showed two women wrestling with the aim to tap the other on the bum, and later showed the same women pulling each other’s ponytails.
This promotional video that was meant to promote “an online health and wellness service” to other women really only shows young, thin women in underwear and sports bras doing everything from seductively eating watermelon to giving each other piggybacks.
It’s pulled in some high-profile clients
Despite its alternative approach to fitness, SBC has been plugged by major magazines such as Vogue and Elle.
The New York Times once wrote that “the only thing more motivating than the gruelling regimen is the array of impossibly toned, A-list bodies in the room”.
Perhaps that’s why it’s been attended by the likes of singers Ellie Goulding and Nicole Scherzinger, and model Suki Waterhouse.
Mr Bateman even had the Duchess of Cambridge wanting to do his workouts (before she was the Duchess of Cambridge, of course).
In 2017, then actress Meghan Markle told Women’s Health Magazine:
“I’m eager to come to the UK to do a workout with Russell [Bateman], the founder of SBC. My friend Millie Macintosh raves about his workouts, so I’ll call her up to do a class together next time I’m back in London.”
But not just anyone can attend the classes.
Mr Bateman told Insider in 2017 each participant is “handpicked” and the wait list is “very secretive”.