When I first started regularly going to the gym in college, there were rarely women in the weight room. Sometimes there were a few extremely built women and maybe a rock climber cross-training while she waited for a spot on the wall, but for the most part, the gym was segregated by gender. Swishing ponytails dotted the rows of ellipticals. Alarming grunts and clanging weights escaped the sweaty room full of bulging cis guys.
A decade — and a lot of breaking down of the gender binary — later, the bikes sit empty and there’s rarely a free spot at the Smith machine.
As plenty of writers have noted, people of all genders have begun discovering weights in exponential numbers. There’s been a noted increase in powerlifting and competitive strength training, particularly among women; spurred by the CrossFit craze of the last five years and amplified in a post-Trump era, “iron therapy” has become an important part of self-care and pride.
The increase of women weightlifting is also related to the rise of body positivity and self-acceptance; strength-training pairs well with “intuitive eating” plans and mantras about “healthy” being the new whatever.
But then there’s another new-ish brand of gymgoer, born at the Smith machine and broadcast across Instagram. With their giant headphones and their phone recording each and every rep, they’re there to bulk up — but only in a few key areas.
These are the women in pursuit of a perfect posterior.
Though there is likely some overlap with actual health improvements — weightlifting has long been prescribed to help fight osteoporosis and heart disease — the truth is that the new muscularity is less about fitness and more about aesthetics. The newest iteration of what Tumblr and before that, Xanga and LiveJournal, called “fitspo,” evangelists for the Instagram Butt are peddling diet culture, pure and simple.
“Diet culture is a system of knowledge, values, and meanings that supports interpretations of personal health choices as moral character,” writes Kate Browne, Ph.D., who has been leading the charge against diet culture for years.
Like the rest of diet culture, the Instagram Butt is a moralized attribute, gained only though, according to its purveyors, “hard work,” regimented diet (there’s a lot of overlap between #bootygains and the #IIFYM world), and “dedication,” whatever that means.
These are the trappings of the diet industry, a self-perpetuating mechanism that generates billions of dollars by perpetually overpromising and under delivering.
But that “hard work” isn’t just 20 minutes on a StairMaster. Flipping through the associated hashtags, there are also miracle cures and wondrous technology to get you there. There are #influencers with tips and tricks and appetite-suppressing candies. There are genetic barriers that may keep a person from achieving The Look — and cosmetic surgeries to overcome them.
These are the trappings of the diet industry, a self-perpetuating mechanism that generates billions of dollars by perpetually overpromising and under delivering. When the diet industry hits a bump in the road — like when people stopped being duped by SnackWell’s and started looking for “healthy” foods — the manufacturers of supplements, snacks, and sugary drinks pivot to meet consumer demand.
This new emphasis on building muscle and strength may appear, in many ways, to be a positive trend — and indeed, weightlifting is revolutionary for many people — but the laser focus on a thick tush is not about health or wellness. It’s about buying stuff.
Liking big butts is, of course, not new. Long before MC Hammer and Sir Mix-a-Lot were releasing singles dedicated to their favorite muscle, people were idealizing sizable posteriors. And it’s irresponsible to say anything about the collective growth in gluteal muscles without first acknowledging that, like basically everything else, it’s another one of many examples of rampant appropriation.
It also follows a larger trend. Researchers have noticed that, in general, the ideal (Western, typically white) body type, which has currents that shift and expand and contract over the years, has been waxing in since the early aughts.
“One of the most fascinating shifts I have seen in recent years is that young women have turned away from the ‘thin ideal’ — reflected by ultra-thin models like Kate Moss — and have instead embraced the so-called ‘fit ideal,’ reflected by women who are lean and toned,” writes Jessica Alleva, Ph.D.
As she points out, the “fit ideal” isn’t really any less problematic than the thin one — it’s still rooted in Western beauty standards and thinness.
“Though muscular, these models are still very thin and have an hourglass body shape. They are almost always young, able-bodied, and White. In this respect, the fit ideal is like the thin ideal, which also emphasizes a narrow body type.”
Meanwhile, those for whom the bum has been a cultural focal point for eons still struggle with the beauty ideals forced upon them.
“Growing up as a black woman, I never wanted to be skinny,” writes model Philomena Kwao. “In my world, we rarely saw the thin white woman. We saw the video vixen in music videos.”
“The pressure on black women to have the shape of a ‘black woman’ is crippling,” she adds. “We’re meant to be the ‘right’ kind of thick; be curvy in all the ‘right’ places. And I would argue that in an era where we fear our erasure and appropriation — and rightly so, just look at Kim Kardashian — we have been forced to defend a very dangerous body ideal.”
What Is That Ideal?
✔️ Small waist
✔️ Fit upper body
✔️ Ample backside
And it’s everywhere.
Thanks to the democratizing nature of Instagram and other content creation platforms, that dangerous body ideal has begun to blur across racial lines. Scroll through tags like #girlswholift and #bootygains to find influencers of all races with their resistance bands and grueling leg day plans. Look around your gym — once a boy’s club for biceps curls — and you’ll see these women doing squat after squat in impossibly snug leggings and unusually well-kept hair.
Because getting an Instagram Butt isn’t just about something more dense to sit on. It is, like any other part of diet culture and the weight and “health” industries, a way to get consumers to throw money at their problems, or their perceived problems.
There are very specific prescriptions to be part of this aesthetic. Here are a few:
The target demographic for booty-building merchandise is pretty clear: young women who have time, an able body, a phone, and, ideally, disposable income. Though they are certainly not always white, they are typically conventionally attractive and relatively thin — they are never fat, though if they are, they are fat in the “right” ways and “right” places.
In workout videos, the women are typically made up, at least to some degree. They’re likely wearing highlighter — 2016’s biggest addition to the cosmetic bag — and a bold brow. Their hair is artfully undone.
They are never working out in Kirkland brand sweatpants. Instead, they are in designer leggings, sports bras, and often, baseball caps.
The Instagram Butt must be clad in material so tight that there can be no mistake about its majesty. The Instagram Butt must not be hidden.
To get The Look you have to dress the part. Luckily for you, the fitness apparel industry is huge on Instagram, so it’s easy to find which leggings match your overall self.
Favorite Instagram Butt leggings may be sourced from Gymshark ($30–$60 per pair), Wear It to Heart ($90-ish per pair), and Vimmia (up to $130 per pair).
One telltale sign that someone at your gym is working toward an Instagram Butt is her routine. Every Instagram Butt is built using generally the same moves.
You’ll see a lot of hip thrusts.
Cable machine usage.
And bird-dog/donkey kicks.
Variations — goblet squats, lunges, and unusual takes on the hip adductor — are also common. But the essential element is that most of these exercises are not focused on function. Instead, these endless squats are executed in pursuit of a very specific shape.
If you’re concerned that a regular hip thrust may not get you the Instagram Butt — and you should be, according to the influencers — you can augment the workout with some tools of the trade.
One of the most essential is the resistance band. The first time I ever saw a resistance band was when my dad broke his elbow on the job and had to do physical therapy. The physical therapist just gave him one for no money at all because they were so inexpensive and easy to send home with patients. Later in life, when I was recovering from a foot injury, I bought a set of resistance bands from Fred Meyer for something like $6 because I needed to work my toes in a low-impact way.
But those resistance bands apparently are not as good or functional as the ones that you can purchase for the sole purpose of getting a nice butt.
Peach Bands, which are listed on Amazon for $18 for a set of four, are specifically created for an Instagram Butt. They are more attractive than my old PT band — they’re pink! for girls! — and come in a fetching little bag so that everyone will know you are serious about your #bootygoals.
According to the Peach Bands website, the company believes that “fitness is for everybody and should reflect your individual uniqueness.” However, when looking at the company’s hashtag — #TeamPeach, of course — “individual uniqueness” does not come to mind.
If pink isn’t your color, consider FitPro Booty Bands, which are the exact same product except they’re purple and slightly more expensive at $29.95 for a set of three (marked down from $37 and you can pay them in installments of about $8 if you’re low on cash).
FitPro Booty Bands dispense with the charade of body acceptance and being “for everybody” and instead get right to the point, stating that with this product, you can: “Target your booty with fat burning exercises and build your perfect peach!”
FitPro also sells other gear that you definitely need, like a shaker bottle ($24) and a sports bra ($47).
Unfortunately, not all body types are conducive to an Instagram Butt, no matter how many resistance bands a person tries. For these poor souls, there’s diet culture’s other standby: surgery.
Fillers have been popular in marginalized communities for years, where rotund rears have long been prized. This has often led individuals to undergo dangerous and even deadly black-market procedures.
In an interview with GQ, Cardi B admitted that several years back, when she was working as a stripper, she acquired some back-alley butt work.
“Cardi claimed her ass from the universe in a basement apartment in Queens, where, for $800, a woman injected her buttocks with filler. ‘They don’t numb your ass with anything,’ she says. ‘It was the craziest pain ever. I felt like I was gonna pass out. I felt a little dizzy. And it leaks for, like, five days.’”
Cardi was lucky; as she noted in the interview, “somebody died on her table.”
Many of Instagram’s biggest butt influencers, though, have the cash for the real deal — and they’re not afraid to share it with their fans.
With more than 220,000 subscribers on YouTube and more than a million on Instagram, makeup blogger Thuy Le has enviable reach. In addition to trying on clothes, testing out cosmetic dupes, and reviewing skin care products, Le has also been candid about her plastic surgeries. Of which there have been many.
Perhaps most notably, she got what’s called the “Brazilian Butt Lift” (BBL), a series of procedures designed to whittle away the waist and dramatically expand the backside.
All of this booty demand has helped keep surgical offices humming; the industry group for American plastic surgeons deemed butts the new boobs way back in 2015.
“New ASPS stats showed that 2015 was another year of the rear, as procedures focusing on the derriere dominated surgical growth,” according to a release. “Buttock implants were the fastest growing type of cosmetic surgery in 2015, and, overall, there was a buttock procedure every 30 minutes of every day, on average.”
In 2017, the group reported that since 2000, butt lift surgeries had increased by 254 percent.
None of this will matter, of course, if the Instagram Butt is not given its due respect online. You can’t just take any old photo and put it up and hope everyone notices what a good little gymgoer you’ve been.
To ensure that your Instagram Butt is particularly enviable (and that everyone comments with that coveted peach emoji!), you also need to hit your angles. This is, perhaps, one of the most critical aspects of the Instagram Butt — and the way that it reflects diet culture.
Diet culture is centered on ideas about health, appearance, and worth. Regardless of what other trimmings various influencers and brands may put on it — worshiping “thickness” like white people just invented it, encouraging unrealistic body types and ideals, promoting “body positivity” that still leaves out large portions of the population — the pursuit and celebration of the Instagram Butt is not actually anything new.
It may feel new, especially to women and girls who were raised to believe that thinness was the be-all, end-all. That the ultimate #goals for a body was to be as small as possible. Though I was brought up around wide-hipped Mexican women and strong German ones, not a thin one in the bunch, I still received the message, loud and clear, that thin was the only correct body type.
An Instagram Butt is just #thinspo with a little extra tissue sprinkled on the back.
Here is the allure of the Instagram Butt — unlike powerlifting, which focuses on gained strength, this fitness goal is actually an appearance goal and one that feels, perhaps, more attainable.
Suddenly, everyone around you is prizing something that seems more plausible, more within your control. Maybe instead of trying to shrink entirely, you can move toward a slightly meatier ideal and still be considered attractive.
Maybe the parts you came in with are not complete monsters, but wild beasts you can tame and make use of.
This is not actually better. Because again, eating disorders don’t just lead to thinness — an eating disorder can be anything that conflates food and body image. Orthorexia is an eating disorder. Binge eating is an eating disorder. And #goals bodies, whatever those are, are not realistic, not inclusive, and not particularly healthy.
An Instagram Butt still requires a small waist, flat abs, and a toned upper body (though it seems always to be leg day). An Instagram Butt is just #thinspo with a little extra tissue sprinkled on the back.
This is a feature, not a fluke, of diet culture. It’s built to ensure that no matter what the ideal is, you’re never really going to reach it, no matter how many squats you do.