A fitness trainer who hosts invite-only workouts for "skinny bitches" has apologized after hosting a retreat in Kenya where his students worked out in and around the native Maasai people, in a way that people online criticized as "clearly exploitative."
Russell Bateman is a trainer from London and founder of the "Skinny Bitch Collective," an invite-only workout class. His website is "down for maintenance" at the moment, but a cached version explains what his workout aims to do.
"Popular with the A-list and a myriad of supermodels, it lies somewhere between forward thinking fashionable fitness and a cave girl sorority," the website said, adding the workout is a mixture of "high-intensity and animalistic movements."
Journalists who have been invited to the workout, currently only available in London and New York, have described it as "cult-like" and "vaguely chaotic," but also full of challenging moves and a good workout.
Bateman's Instagram account frequently posts photos and videos of his workouts and clients, some of whom include celebrities like Ellie Goulding.
On Friday, people started criticizing Bateman and the Skinny Bitch Collective for photos he posted on his Instagram account of a retreat he is holding in Kenya.
It's difficult to know a ton of details about the retreat, as it is invite-only and the collective's website is down. BuzzFeed News has asked Bateman to provide more details about the retreat, but he did not immediately reply.
A Facebook post, which has since been deleted, described the retreat as: "SBC AFRICA. Our most ambitious retreat yet. March 6th to 13th. Kenya."
But screenshots that Bateman had posted to his Instagram stories began circulating of events during the retreat. They have since been deleted.
Blogger Diet Prada re-uploaded some of the videos, criticizing them as an indication of the "colonial mindset."
"They also managed to use the local Maasai people not only as a backdrop, but as literal props in their fitness routines. The videos have already been deleted, but screenshots appear to show the girls writhing around the locals like an obstacle course," the blogger wrote in part.
The videos uploaded by Diet Prada, originally from Bateman's account, show the women doing various fitness exercises surrounded by Maasai people.
Bateman also shared a video of the women dancing around a tree.
In another video, Bateman gathers with the women eating in a field. He asks, "Cassenia, can you pass me the chia berry jam?"
Many people who saw Diet Prada's post were horrified, and began to call out Bateman as well.
One woman, Tracy Muringa Njeri, shared more screenshots on her page, saying the way the collective treated the Maasai brought her to tears. Njeri, who is from Kenya but currently lives in Italy, told BuzzFeed News she decided to speak out because she is "so tired of opening Instagram or magazines and seeing people of color used as props in the background."
She said the videos seemed to play into a "colonial fantasy."
"It was just sickening, hurtful and painful to see those images," she said, "[knowing] how far we have come being a colonized nation, the atrocities people faced while fighting for their freedom, and especially this community, that is a beacon of standing firm in their tradition, not letting Western powers dictate their way of living and having still survived till now."
On Saturday morning, Bateman responded to the critiques of his photos on Instagram. He wrote that the collective was "required to be accompanied by the tribe at all times" because the retreat was taking place on the tribe's ancestral lands.
During the retreat, Bateman claimed, a "friendship was formed" and the Maasai "joined in" their activities and gave permission to be filmed.
"Our intention was to promote a cross-cultural exchange through shared experiences, and to highlight the beauty of Kenya and its indigenous people," he wrote. "However, having taken 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 stereotypes of people of color."
He said the criticism has been a "huge wake-up call" and promised to do better. Bateman didn't immediately return a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.