By Hanieka Balint
The Skinny Bitch Collective (a name that is a statement in and of itself) is a workout program run by celebrity coach Russell Bateman that is as exclusive as it is intense. The all-female program costs between $50–$60 per class and is strictly invitation only, leading to a clientele that is entirely made up of wealthy white women, many of whom are celebrities and supermodels.
It may be unsurprising, then, that Bateman’s fitness retreat in Kenya led to controversy. Last week, Bateman posted a video online of one of the workouts from the retreat, showing the participants meeting on the Maasai tribe’s ancestral lands and using men from the tribe as props. In some parts of the video the white women exercized to the beat of the Maasai, who were evidently instructed to dance and pound a drum. In other parts of the video the white women weaved around the men, using them as markers in an apparent obstacle course.
The video brought an onslaught of criticism, and for good reason. It showed an alarming distinction between the white women and the Kenyan men that had strong colonialist undertones. The white women got to play their part—they were the travelers, the self-improvers and the ones seeking a unique experience and willing to pay top dollar for it. Apparently that unique experience must come from the Maasai, whose only role in the video was to add to the exotic scenery.
We see people of color being used in this way all the time. There are the countless photos posted on social media of white tourists taking selfies with African children in order to document their “life-changing volunteer work.” There are the token minorities who are used to add to the showcased diversity of institutions without being given any of the organizational power. There are the politicians who use people of color to prove their apparent open-mindedness, as demonstrated last month when Representative Mark Meadows argued during a testimony that the President of the United States could not possibly be racist simply because he has a black woman working for him. And now there is a fitness program that uses Kenyans as physical props during workouts.
Russell Bateman already received his 15 minutes of infamy after posting the video. The Skinny Bitch Collective’s website is “down for maintenance,” and its Instagram account has been deleted, the offending video along with it. Bateman publicly apologized, acknowledging that SBC’s actions “lacked appropriate cultural sensitivity by reinforcing colonial era stereotypes of people of color" and stating that the experience was a "huge wake-up call."
But where should the SBC go from here? Where can the SBC go from here?
Surely Bateman knows well enough to avoid hosting another retreat in Kenya. But that doesn’t mean that the toxic culture of the Skinny Bitch Collective will change. The SBC is composed entirely of rich white women, a demographic that has a tendency to perpetuate elitist tribalism in the name of sisterhood. The program is exclusive by design - it is no accident that only white women are allowed to be part of an invite-only collective, or that only the rich can take part in pricey fitness programs, or that all of the participants are conventionally attractive enough to be used in promotional photoshoots for Bateman’s business. There are plenty of women-only workout groups that exemplify sisterhood in a wholesome, motivating, and unproblematic way. As a female athlete growing up, I was part of many teams that were just that: a true sisterhood. But no matter how apologetic Russell Bateman is, no matter how hard he tries to rebrand, it may be impossible for the Skinny Bitch Collective to become that kind of a program.