Keeping It Real
Riley Hemson’s Instagram page ‘Healthychick101’ has more than 90,000 followers and this tagline: ‘Just a huge girl tryna get some abs’. It’s no longer true. For one thing, she’s not huge, having lost more than 30 kilograms in two years, from her starting point of 115 kilograms. For another, it’s not about losing weight or getting abs any more. It’s about wellbeing. ‘I’ve learned along the way that it’s about how I feel more than how I look,’ the 22-year-old says. ‘It’s about being in the healthiest body I can be in.’
In 2015, as a paramedic student, she set up the Instagram page to keep herself accountable for sticking to healthy eating and regular exercise. ‘And it did keep me accountable.’ She started posting ‘Transformation Tuesday’ photos of her body to show her progress. Not shy about wearing G-string bikini bottoms, crop-tops or short shorts, Hemson posts images of herself working out at the gym or in the Wellington outdoors, of her healthy meals, and of the occasional positive affirmation, calling 2017 ‘the year of self-love’. At the request of followers, she’s also begun posting YouTube videos on topics such as her back and biceps workout, and what she eats in a day.
In less than two years, ‘Healthychick101’ has built quite a profile in fitspo (fitness inspiration). It’s a buzzword for visual content – usually photos but also short videos and slogans – posted on social media to motivate others to eat healthily and exercise. And you don’t have to be thin to have influence. Recent Australian research found that fitspo images which show women of different shapes and sizes exercising have a more positive impact on women than ‘aspirational’ fitspo images depicting usually very thin bodies.
Last year, teen-targeted website MissFQ.co.nz asked readers to nominate and vote for the Kiwi bloggers, vloggers and ’grammers they can’t get enough of. Attending the Miss FQ Influencer Awards in Auckland, Hemson was shocked not just to win the fitspo category but also the supreme prize, beating the likes of The Bachelor NZ winner, brand ambassador and author Matilda Rice. ‘I was nervous just being alongside these women I’d looked up to,’ Hemson says, ‘so I couldn’t believe I’d won’. Many fans who voted for her mentioned that she keeps it real. ‘Riley taught me to look past the idea of ‘fitspo’ as an unrealistic diet and insane fitness,’ one wrote. ‘True ‘fitspo’ is a lifestyle and takes time, learning to love yourself at every point of your journey.’
Yes, Hemson’s surprised at her popularity. ‘Every single day I think “What the hell? Why are people even following me?” Especially when I’m just posting a photo of my dinner. But it feels good to share the things I’ve learned to help other people.’ She replies to most of the many direct messages she gets from followers. ‘One girl got in touch the other day to say a doctor told her it would kill her if she didn’t lose weight, and now she’s lost it. It’s crazy but so cool to think I’m helping these people, when I was once on the other side [of social media], looking at people who inspired me.’
Hemson was always active, going to the gym and playing netball. ‘But I used to eat a whole pizza, hot chips, or pasta for dinner, and my body didn’t need it. I’d go on diets and never stick to them. Every day I’d plan to only eat the healthiest food – then I’d have one biscuit and blow out and eat as much as I could.’ Posting as ‘Healthychick101’ helped her ditch the unhelpful allor-nothing mindset. ‘From that day I stuck to moderation, and to fuelling my body with what it needs rather than cutting things out altogether.’
A vegetarian, she mainly steers clear of refined white carbs like pasta, as well as junk food. ‘But I also enjoy going out with my friends for a drink, and I’ve found that balance of healthy mind and body. I’ve realised I can have treats sometimes and yet still make progress if I have a healthy dinner and go to the gym.’ She works out about five times a week, mixing weightlifting, high-intensity interval training, and circuit training. ‘After a workout, I feel so much better. I remind myself of that to make myself go.’
Some of her photos show products from Luxe Fitness, which sells women’s fitness apparel and protein supplements. ‘Here’s how it works: some brands send you free products and if you try it and love it, you can post about it if you want. With some, you develop an ongoing relationship.’ Yes, she has an ongoing promotional relationship with Luxe. ‘My view is that if it’s something you like and will use, and it’s giving you an income to keep doing what your followers want to see, then why not? But you can’t just go around talking about things you don’t love for money because my followers are like my friends.’
Hemson finished her four-year paramedic degree last year, and now hopes to find a graduate paramedic internship in Wellington. ‘I love paramedicine so much, but the social-media thing is so cool. So this year I’ll just see what happens.’ In February, she moved out of her parents’ home in Lower Hutt and into a Lyall Bay flat with boyfriend Vita Tomoana. ‘We met mid last year and we both share the same interests, eat healthy, go to the gym. When I’m having a down day, he’s so supportive.’
In January, the couple took a holiday in Thailand, posting pics of themselves dancing, seeing the sights, and sipping cocktails. ‘I’ve been honest with my followers that I did put on some weight in Thailand,’ Hemson says. ‘Who doesn’t gain weight on a holiday?’ That’s why her followers love her; she’s keeping it real.