Chasing the booty gains

Jessica Lio // Online Editor
Illustration by Janice Callangan

It feels like just yesterday that glossy magazine ads featuring stick-thin models were the dominating standard for women’s beauty. Many young women grew up with unrealistic and unhealthy standards for what our bodies were to look like if we wanted to be taken seriously in the world.

In 2014, Paper Magazine set out to #BreakTheInternet, featuring none other than Kim Kardashian’s famous derrière on the cover of its winter issue, creating what was deemed one of the ‘biggest cultural events of the decade.’

Then, of course, there was the problematic trend of Vanity Fair and Vogue crediting celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, Instagram star Jen Selter and even Miley Cyrus with the phenomenon of making curves and the “big booty” fashionable, which largely ignored the cultural context of women of colour who, as Carimah Townes wrote in Think Progress, have been critiqued for their bodies throughout history, precisely because they had curves.

Fast forward to present day, and the shock of Kim Kardashian’s shapely booty may not capture the same scandalizing attention. Nowadays, big butts are more prominent in mainstream culture than ever. More often than not, fitness and workout videos focused on booty gains are what really boost traffic for popular YouTube and Instagram pages.

The internet and social media have, in some way, democratized these standards — some fashion brands celebrate ‘natural beauty’ by featuring models of different sizes and shapes in their ad campaigns. We’re still a far stretch away from truly diverse and fair representation in media and fashion, but at least the monopoly on who gets to create images deemed beautiful has been disrupted.

At face value, the entire booty gains phenomenon might appear somewhat shallow. Some could even pose the question of whether we’ve moved forward at all in shifting from one beauty standard to another that women feel pressured to conform to. However, a closer look will show that through mediums such as YouTube and Instagram, young women have actually carved out a huge territory in the fitness world, and the aesthetics behind growing the glutes (amicably known as chasing the booty gains) are only one piece of the puzzle.

Capilano University business alumna Alicia Kingsland trains as a competitive powerlifter and she’ll testify that “big butts pull big deadlifts.”

A year after she graduated from CapU in 2016, Kingsland and her husband, Peter Dyer, became proud owners of Genesis Athletic Club, a bustling gym on the North Shore, tucked behind Capilano Mall on West 3rd Street. When they took over the business, they recognized the demand for glute training and took the opportunity to add specialized equipment — including a hip thruster platform, glute-ham raise and reverse hyperextension — to the gym.

One of Kingsland’s main goals at Genesis is to help women feel more comfortable in the gym. “My dream would be that all of the women who go to the gym feel comfortable working out on the main floor. Right now, we have a women’s only section, but I’ve always felt that the women’s only section is like a Band-Aid on a problem, not a solution,” she explained.

At 25, Kingsland has racked up an impressive track record in deadlifting and holds an array of awards from the past four years of competing. From her first powerlifting meet in February 2013 until January 2016, she also held the BC provincial record for women’s 72-kilogram junior deadlift.

Looking at her today, it would be difficult to know that she ever struggled with her fitness. Although, reflecting back to her senior year of high school when her fitness journey began, Kingsland will tell you “I used to hide in the change room during PE because I was overweight in high school… My weight had really bothered me for a really long time, so I decided I wanted to do something about it.”

After tackling her fitness through a diet approach in 2010 and losing 60 pounds that year, Kingsland began to find her footing in weight training. By late 2012, she had pulled off her first big deadlift of 225 pounds. The confidence brought about from that accomplishment in the gym propelled her into competitive powerlifting and she hasn’t looked back since.

“I think that strength training and feeling strong is really empowering for women, so I like to focus on that,” she said. “There’s so much focus on body image that if you give them something more tangible to work towards, that’s really helpful.”

Illustration by Janice Callangan

Tara Berntzen, 26, grew up as a self-described all-around performer, dedicating hours and hours to competitive dancing and musical theatre, as well as recreational freestyle skiing on the weekends. By the time she was in Grade 10, her struggle with body image and self- esteem had taken a turn for the worse. Despite positive encouragement from the friends around her, she couldn’t help but compare herself to other girls, including her sister, who looked leaner than she did.

“When I was younger, I wanted to look like my model sister who was five-foot-10 with super long legs, and just naturally slim… There would be a time where after three hours of dance, I would go run on my parents’ cross-trainer. I just really wanted to get fit, I really wanted to look lean,” she recalled.

It was in university that Berntzen started to get off track with fitness. Without competitive dancing as a focal point, she no longer had a strict training regimen and started to put on weight. It wasn’t until her very last year of university that she decided to do something about her health and take control of how she felt in her own body.

Berntzen started going to the gym with a friend, and by 2014 she entered her first bikini competition. Though Berntzen enjoyed competing in both bikini competitions and powerlifting, she ultimately opted to lift.

“From my experience, bikini competitions are won from primarily the glutes… the feedback [from judges] was always, ‘we like that hourglass shape, so train your glutes more, work on building more muscle there.’ So I would have to say that’s kind of where I first got that glute obsession,” she explained. “From a physiological point of view, there’s a lot of benefits to training your glutes. It helps improve your squat, it helps improve your deadlift and it’s very beneficial in a lot of things, even hiking.”

Nigel Cordes, a personal trainer at Genesis, weighed in to support that the motivations behind clients’ desires to grow their booty aren’t entirely cosmetic. “The majority of female clients and male clients, respond extremely well to having a focal point on their glutes being trained… It’s a very important stabilizing muscle and power muscle to finish a movement or even to control a movement,” Cordes explained.

Even though conversations in mainstream media for the past couple decades have been focused on the number of women who were seeking cosmetic surgery —opting for implants or fat injections to attain their desired bottom-heavy figures — there’s a different story now playing out in gyms across the world.

Online communities around fitness and training are more inclusive than ever, with plenty of women leading the way. Athletes like Whitney Simmons, Nikki Blackketter, Paige VanZant, Qimmah Russo, Kayla Itsines and BreAnna Dore, are not only dominating Instagram and YouTube in terms of followers and sponsorships, but we’re seeing women really hone into their power as leaders. Through these mediums, the athletes are encouraging young girls to be confident in themselves and defy gender norms.

Gone are the days where trainers and fitness leaders encouraged women to work out with the goal of looking more attractive to others — we now have athletes pushing for young women to do this for themselves, and that’s where we’ve seen the most empowering change.

Kingsland and Berntzen are just two of the millions of young women who have found community and self-confidence through fitness and powerlifting. There are more than 18 million public posts on Instagram with the hashtag #girlswholift, many of which encourage other women to get started on their own fitness journey.

The future of women in fitness

It’s given Kingsland a lot of satisfaction to see so many women join the powerlifting community, and to help them along the way. “When I started, I was the only girl in my weight class, and now there’s so many,” she said. “There was a powerlifting meet in July that we had seven people on our team go to, and five of them were women. That was really cool for us.”

With the rise of popularity among social media fitness influencers, there is still a concern that women will feel pressured to chase an unrealistic body type through unhealthy measures, but Kingsland and Cordes also see many positive aspects to how accessible the fitness world has become due to social media.

Cordes advises finding role models who can inspire you to achieve your goals and learn from them, but not to aim to be them. “I definitely think it’s more attainable [now] for women to set realistic goals. They can see how hard someone works through Instagram, the work that goes in… and the barriers are coming down,” said Cordes.

For new clients and people who are just getting started with fitness, Cordes likes to emphasize the importance of building a routine and setting realistic goals, whether it’s strength, weight-loss or just overall fitness that someone is working towards.

“The biggest thing I can tell anyone that’s starting out is build a routine. Whether it’s one, two, three days a week, you don’t need to make yourself burn out, but consistency is the key,” Cordes said. “There’s the big picture you’re working towards, but you have the little goals in between that get you there.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about putting in the work and holding yourself accountable to your goals. There’s no magical overnight diet program that will give you the physique that you want. There isn’t even a two-week program, despite what some social media marketers might try to convince beginners. What’s important at the beginning is learning good form, being honest with your body’s limits and feeding yourself good food, rather than getting caught up in what type of supplement or pre-workout looks flashy at the moment.

The staff at Genesis work hard every day to make a space that’s welcoming towards everyone, and their goal at the end of the day is to just help people along their fitness journeys.

“Being a personal trainer, you get to hear people’s goals, their struggles, hear what’s holding them back, what’s pushing them forward, and you’re there the whole way with them. It’s so rewarding just to see them tick off so many small [goals] and see the pride,” Cordes said. “There is a huge community feel here. People actually take notice of what everyone is doing around them, and everyone is usually around or available for help.”

“Start small and remember to celebrate all your successes along the way,” Kingsland advised. “I like the saying ‘a rising tide floats all ships.’ The better we all do individually, the more it supports the community and everybody benefits from it.”

And that’s really what’s at the core of this entire phenomenon — young women seeing something that resonates with them and feeling empowered to go after it. If chasing the booty gains is one way for women to feel strong in their own bodies, then more power to it.

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