by Alex Valente

Content Warning: body issues, body shaming

In recent weeks, people with access to the internet on a regular basis have probably not been able to avoid reading news about a new application for smart phones, featuring a trendy geek icon that never really went away: Pokémon GO. As revealed in a totally legit super serious study by artist Justin Hall on Dorkly, the Niantic game is, in fact, part of a ploy to create superstrong, superbuff supernerds. True story.

To actually stray on the side of serious, though, the application has indeed helped some players (we will be discussing this in terms of people with disabilities, looking at positives and negatives — such as the gaping flaws for physical disabilities, or Playing While Black — in an article soon) to engage with others, and spend time outdoors (plus, this). Both results, in the most generalised way possible, are healthy habits and attitudes, and being hailed as the best thing to happen to nerds since Dungeons & Dragons.

( © Justin Hall; Dorkly)

The geek/nerd community (note: I do not differentiate between the two, but feel free to disagree. Dorks.) has long been the butt of jokes about bad health, on the receiving end of body shaming and other super pleasant behaviour, both from outside of and within the community. The best example in Western media? Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Rotund, mostly unpleasant, unhappy. See also: It’s a sad nerd’s life, apparently. If you look healthy or conforming to standards of health/fitness/beauty, you’re clearly not a true fan. No matter how many plastic toy robots you own, or how much time you spend calculating budgets to afford the comics you want to read.

If you look healthy or conforming to standards of health/fitness/beauty, you’re clearly not a true fan.

In recent years, however, I’ve started noticing new trends headed towards geekdom too. Riding the wave of ‘nerd is cool now’, the so-called fitness industry has started catering to this slice of untapped (that’s a Magic The Gathering joke, right there) market, by trying out cheap humour clothing — a win in my books — thinly veiled workout programmes with catchy names, and falling into the usual bodyshaming traps that the industry is drowning in. As an able-bodied cis-man, a lot of it was aimed at me, too. Because clearly non-men = non-nerd = non-marketable.

Brief serious-er moment: I have struggled, and still do, with body issues. I found the experience of Tyler Kingkade, among many such pieces on the internet, and that of several others who replied to him, extremely close to home. Entrenched in societal perceptions and expectations of masculinity, with a good added dollop of Italian cultural norms to boot. I did what most men my age do — I started exercising; I hated it. It was not nice, it was not fun, it made me feel bad about not feeling ‘healthy’ because I ‘failed’. I got stuck in a bad cycle of dislikes: of myself, of what I felt I had to do to myself, of doing it, of failing at it. Repeat, three sets, no rest.

(My toys are more into it than I am. Photo: Alex Valente)

The nerd coating of the fitness industry did not cut it, at all. It was still shaming and toxic, in many ways, and retreading the same horrible paths as ‘regular’ fitspo, gym motivation, beast modes and dem gainz, bro. I was looking for something supportive, something that would help me with accepting myself, my body, and help me feel healthier — not look it, not appear it, not ‘destroy me to rebuild me’; I wanted to feel better.

Enter the likes of Nerdstrong and Darebee. Both are born within geekdom, and both set out to actually work as a supportive community. How do I know? I spoke to Andrew Deutsch, founder of Nerdstrong Gym, about the origins of the gym and the idea in general, who told me this:

“It’s who we are. We game. We love comics. We love table-top RPGs. We love all the things that are considered nerdy or geeky. It’s how we grew up and it’s how we view ourselves now. But, we also enjoy athletic endeavors. […] It’s the fitness world that has pushed out nerds as incapable or uninterested. […] The community at the gym is highly supportive and are some of the best people on the planet, in my opinion.”

I have friends who take part, regularly, in the sessions at Nerdstrong, and I am both extremely happy to hear their stories, and a little bit jealous of the pure nerdery that takes place over across the pond. They seem happy, they feel great, and they’re not obsessing about macros or shakes or leg day. They’re having fun, and getting healthy.

If like me you can’t make it to Los Angeles, Neila Rey’s Darebee is an online counterpart, and the instigator of the same amazing, supportive, passionate community of really nerdy people (The Hive) who love gaming and cake in equal measure. Their About page says it all, really:

“We are into training but we are also geeks — this project is where our passions meet. […] We want to make a difference, do something that matters and stand for what we believe in. That’s why we built this place. Whoever you are, whatever your reasons — you are welcome here.”

Try Age of Pandora, try Hero’s Journey, take a look at them, and tell me that even just a little part of you doesn’t want to try them out, even just on paper. You get badges when you complete things. You level up. You get to choose your class and join team events. Also, the whole site is entirely free, the project survives on donations, in the interest of being accessible to all (plus, this).

( © Darebee )

Do I feel better? Yes, a lot of the time. I am still extremely self-conscious, and dislike not wearing a top, even in private. But do I feel better? Yes. I can go for long walks, for runs, spend time playing with my brother or my dogs, start judo training again, without tiring myself out. I can eat without feeling bad about it. I count all those as gains, actual ones.

There are undoubtedly other similar projects out there, I have encountered a couple more just researching this article (like the Zombies, Run! app), but what Deutsch and Rey and their teams — and even Pokémon GO — bring to someone like me is, ultimately, fun. It’s fun to take part in these things, even just remotely. It’s fun to chat with people who love cake and pizza and chocolate as much as I do. It’s especially fun to find a community of nerds who challenge the assumptions and prejudices aimed our way, while still remaining as dorky as possible. And this isn’t even our final form. *dabs*

Featured image © Nerdstrong Gym; Kenny Mittleider

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