Instagram fitness icon Massy Arias Is built like a superhero, but her true strength springs from her plain old, regular girl, vulnerable, generous heart.
The scene at New Jersey’s Meadowlands Exposition Center is straight out of the celebrity handbook. A long line of hyped-up admirers waits for their chance to meet their idol, anxiously hanging on every word uttered by her from the podium. The last time you saw so many Latinas crying was probably at Aventura’s reunion concert. Yet the scene here has nothing to do with Romeo Santos crooning his way into your heart, old-school style. The person stirring the pot at Latina’s Beauty, Hair & Wellness Expo is a next-gen celebrity: Massy Arias, who has amassed almost two million followers on Instagram with her daily posts about fitness, wellness, and mental health. That’s two million. Ya feel me?
If Arias moves the crowd, it’s equally true that they move her. “At the Expo,” she says, “I met this girl who told me how she was supporting her family because her sister, and parents were going through health issues, and she just came out of a horrible relationship. She started crying to the point where I told her, ‘Listen, you need to write me an email, and I’ll see how I can help.’” Arias herself is weeping as she recounts the exchange—because she understands in her gut what this fan was up against, and knows she can help fortify people in their life struggles. “Every day I get emails from people who I helped through hard times, or who tell me how my story has inspired them to beat depression or use exercise as a way to feel better about themselves.”
In this sense, the 27-year-old Arias has a more visceral connection to her followers than your average red-carpet celebrity. How often have you heard of Jennifer Aniston or Nicki Minaj uplifting fans in distress simply by sending an email or sharing a story? What’s more, she’s perfectly suited for our millennial, selfie-snapping generation—emotionally transparent on her pages and sharing her example of salvation through fitness and healthy eating—that last a tall order for a Latino community that swears allegiance to fried food almost every day of the week.
Before Arias became a social media star en- joying sponsorship deals with Shea Moisture and Jamba Juice, she was a tomboy growing up in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Her parents divorced before she was born.
Arias’s stepdad was a career military man who ran his household accordingly. Arias says she enjoyed a great childhood with her five brothers, and the love of all three of her parents, including her biological father. In 2004, she immigrated to the U.S. and lived with her father in Queens, N.Y. Like many immigrants, Arias experienced discrimination—but from an unlikely source.
“I remember reading Macbeth in a high school English class,” says Arias, “My teacher told me to read it again because he didn’t understand anything I said. Then, pretty much every Latino in my class was laughing in my face. It was pretty tough having that sort of treatment from my own people.”
Eventually, she surrounded herself with a group of culturally diverse friends who helped her master the English language, colloquialisms and all. Soon after, Arias’s brother was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma. She quickly left behind a scholarship to the State University of New York at Cortland and enrolled at Queens College to be closer to her ailing brother. She split the next few months between school and the hospital until he made a full recovery. But the emotional strain sent her life into a tailspin—she was smoking cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol, and suffering psychological beat-downs at the hands of an emotionally abusive boyfriend.
“On top of that, this guy was cheating on me with curvy Latinas,” she says. “As a woman, you start second-guessing yourself like, ‘Is it me? What’s wrong with me?’” Her body type has always been slender, she says. “I felt like a failure.” Eventually, Arias fell into a deep depression. She went down o 114 pounds on her 5’8” frame; she started losing her hair and locked herself in her bedroom to isolate herself from the world. At the suggestion of a psychotherapist she wisely consulted, Arias began exercising and experimenting with herbal medicine. Slowly, a new Massy began to emerge: stronger and more confident on many levels. And then, in 2012, she discovered Instagram, posting under the moniker MankoFit and gathering like-minded women to share in her self-taught weight-training regimen and other exercise routines. Her body came to look like a Marvel superhero—abs more ripped than Captain America, arms more defined than Madonna, Sequoia tree trunks for legs, seven tattoos adorning her caramel physique, a booty that looked like it could crack walnuts in a single contraction.
However, Arias found that learning fitness through books, with no trainer or coach to impart do’s and don’ts, had its downside. For one, she felt she was losing her feminine shape.
“As I developed muscle, I got manly pecs,” she says. “So in order to feel more womanly I got breast implants. Genetically, I never had big breasts. I look a lot more feminine than I looked maybe a year and a half ago.”
Arias’s honesty about such challenges is a key reason she’s attracted her following. Her social media posts include 15-second clips of her acrobatic exercises, healthy recipes, and a glimpse into her personal life with fiancé/manager, Stefan Williams, and her pup, Pepper. More important, almost every post is accompanied by inspirational and motivational quotes. "It's such a great blessing to be able to help my own people and those who have gone through bad experiences," she says, smiling. "Most of my followers are young Latinas and black girls. It's amazing to be able to use my platform in a genuine way and inspire people."
One of those people is Crista Sierra, 25, who lost 198 pounds by following Arias's fitness plan. "Massy is different in the sense that she actually cares and is transparent about her struggles," says Sierra. "She inspired me to never give up—she literally commented on my photo, 'Never give up,' and then she started following me. Never did I think she'd be my trainer/mentor and now friend. Because of Massy, I am now a certified personal trainer."
Obesity is a major concern in our community. According to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, as many as two in five Latino children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese. Yet all the talk about weight loss and health can be puzzling to the average person. Do you have to achieve a Massy Arias body to be considered healthy? This year’s Sports Illustrated’s swim- suit issue featured plus-size bombshell Ashley Graham, shattering some of the norms. Arias applauds this less tyrannical view of feminine beauty.
“Whether you’re more-to-love, on the skinnier side, or on the more athletic side, at the end of the day we all have different body types, so we all should respect those differences, but you have to take care of yourself,” Arias says. “I see Ashley working out. She has a beautiful body. Yes, she’s plus-size, but she’s healthy. That should be the main priority.”
Arias’s focus now is continuing her 30-Day programs, which include workout regimens and meal plans, through her site, massyarias.com; it will soon be available in Spanish, French, and Italian. And in addition to training celebrities like La La Anthony and B.o.B., she’s formulating a full line of natural products for the brand TRU supplements.
“Fitness and my faith really saved me, and I just love what I do,” she says. “Call me a hero or not, but I feel like I was put on this world to do something.”