When confronted with the tasks of going to the gym regularly, eating right, or setting fitness goals, most of us aren’t exactly enthusiastic.
But imagine if you were guided in your quest by an experienced health coach and trainer who could talk comics, geek fashion, Doctor Who, and the MCU, provide fun opportunities to bond with other geek girls, cultivate an atmosphere of belonging and inclusiveness, and maybe throw in a little pole dancing, all while helping you focus on changing your lifestyle and supporting your mental health.
Believe it or not, this unapologetically nerdy fitness superhero does exist. She’s New York City’s Robyn Warren, founder of wellness community Geek Girl Strong, which offers a variety of individual and group programs tailored for women who love fandoms, with an emphasis on empowerment, self-care, and mental health.
After growing up straddling the line between the stereotypes of “the athlete” and “the nerd” — she was into cheerleading, video gaming, and watching Pokemon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer — Robyn forged a career teaching health and physical education in the New York public school system.
She eventually decided to broaden her mission with Geek Girl Strong, using the program to spread a message of feminism, empowerment, and the importance of representation while promoting healthy lifestyle habits and choices.
Whether cosplaying, leading a #concrunch at New York Comic Con, collaborating with geek fashion company Jordandene, modeling for RockLove Jewelry’s Black Panther collection, or appearing on the cover of The Sartorial Geek magazine, Robyn has become something of a legend in the geek community.
You’re a health educator, certified health coach, trainer, and founder of the wellness community Geek Girl Strong, which caters to women who are into fandoms. This sounds like the best idea ever. What was your inspiration for catering to this demographic?
It was first my former students during my time as a Physical Education teacher. I saw that many of my female students were uncomfortable with the idea of physical activity, for many reasons. We ended up having a lot of conversations about how I was into reading comic books, watching anime, and lifting weights.
Around this time, I began attending Geek Girl Brunch events and had a lot of Brunchettes asking if I also trained adults and telling me that if I was their PE teacher they might have actually enjoyed it!
There’s a stereotype that geeks are just sitting around in their parents’ basement playing video games, watching Netflix, reading comic books, writing fanfic, and eating Flaming Hot Cheetos. Basically, the preconception is that they’re not interested in physical activity at all. From your experience, what’s your take on this?
I’d say that the stereotype comes from someone where I’m not really sure if the chicken or the egg came first.
I believe that learning styles can have a huge influence on what subjects we enjoy during childhood. I am a kinesthetic learner, meaning that I best (not only) learn during hands-on activities. It makes sense to me that PE would end up being my favorite subject.
Then there is encouragement and support. If someone cannot remember having successful experiences with physical activity, they are less likely to enjoy or continue it.
The current state of physical education in the U.S. is rough. There are many conversations on the lack of respect for teachers here. Well, for PE teachers it is even worse. They many times get the least amount of respect in the field of education and receive very little support if any at all.
When I was a PE teacher in the NYC public school system, the student to teacher ratio was (and still is) 50: 1. 50 kids and one adult. How could that adult even truly attempt to give each one of those students a positive experience? Many times less skilled or inclined students will begin to be overlooked.
I could go on, but let’s just say that I have a lot of feelings on the topic and think it is a vicious cycle that I never personally experienced but I was also affected by it as I didn’t fit into either the “jock” or “nerd” box neatly.
What did you learn during your time teaching health and physical education in the New York public school system? Do you incorporate that into what you do now?
In addition to everything aforementioned, I learned to work a room. If you can win over a room of 50 pre-teen and teenagers, you can win over ALMOST anyone.
Tell me your geek origin story. How did you discover this part of your identity?
As a kid, I really loved watching Pokemon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, playing video games, including The Sims, Mario Kart, and Crash Bandicoot … but I didn’t really know that being a geek was actually a thing. I thought it was solely a TV and move trope. As I got older and began expressing all my interests, no matter who I was around or with, the title grew on me.
On your blog, you say that “no one should have to choose between being the athlete and the nerd.” You revealed that as a teen you refused to make this choice but it was “at times far from easy.” Would you talk more about that experience and how it shaped you?
Well, in addition to what I just said, I guess it was just loving being a cheerleader but also running home to watch cartoons, staying inside to play The Sims … and not really talking about it to my really close friends. Some of the other kids at school knew but I was picking and choosing who I shared which experiences and interests with. Not exactly out of fear or ridicule, but I was definitely living a double and maybe even triple life at times, haha.
One of the Geek Girl Strong slogans is, “Ready to save yourself princess?,” which I love. Your program isn’t just about physical health, it’s about mental health, self-care, and empowerment. Why is this focus important to you?
I’ve struggled with my mental health for most of my life and have experienced firsthand that nothing else matters as much as taking care of yourself mentally. I believe it is the foundation for everything else. For me, it just so happens that physical activity is a “treatment” of sorts for my mental illness. It’s not unusual by any means but I am really happy I figured it out sooner than later!
Do you find that geeky women have specific challenges or obstacles they face when it comes to health and fitness?
Many times, it is the fact that they feel like a misfit, which, until recently with “geek” not being such a dirty word, was usually true.
Also, I find more and more that a lot of folks who enjoy fictional worlds, enjoye them for a reason. Whether that was due to escaping those around them or maybe even just losing themselves in it. A lot geeky women I know also never felt completely at home even in the geek sphere.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed a lot, along with shows like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things … but sometimes when I leave my bubble I realize how little has actually changed. Especially in the health and fitness field. It can be very elitist and scare folks away. Especially those with the kinds of experiences I mentioned before.
Do you find that geeky women are motivated by different things than non-geeks, or is it pretty much the same?
I would say it is pretty much the same. We are ALL geeky about something. Even sports fans are nerds about their favorite team.
Tell me about some of the different programs and services you offer and how they are tailored specifically to geek girls.
Sometimes when I list these out I feel like, WHOA, there’s a lot here, Robyn, but I think it makes sense for who I am and who belongs to our community.
There’s health coaching, which confuses people as it is not a well-known profession yet (like personal training or pole dancing, which I also do/teach). I help people with not only physical activity but also changing their lifestyle.
I believe that health has too many facets to limit it to just “you have to exercise.” So with health coaching, we also have 30-minute talk sessions where we speak about a person’s goals and how they can get there in terms of physical activity, eating habits, and taking care of their mental health.
We also have the Power Program, which is a semi-private health coaching group of up to 5 women, femmes, and nonbinary folks.
Then there’s Fangirl Health Club, which meets just about every month and always has a geeky theme, such as “Infinity War,” where the workout included a game of “Thanos in the Middle” where attendants have to keep different colored balls away from the person in the middle (think Monkey in the Middle).
Anything and everything can be made geeky but I also think the difference is in having a trainer/coach that can relate to different interests and get references. Like instead of trying to simply teach hammer curls with dumbbells, relating it to Thor and his arms!
Programs like Fangirl Health Club are about bonding time with other geek girls, as well as meeting physical, mental, and nutritional health goals. Do you think geeky women are hungry for this kind of personal connection?
Most definitely. It is pretty wild now that I can see that many of the people in this community come to events as a way to see friends. The workout, etc., is just a plus! For all the reasons I’ve mentioned before, connecting with other folks who seem to just get “it,” can be more important than anything else we do together.
Your programs are very inclusive and you’ve intentionally created a health coaching community that targets “people who do not fit into any one box.” Why is that important to you?
Well, I think humans try too hard to fit everything into boxes and life just doesn’t actually work that way. Humans are just a complex as life is. I think it only makes sense to take that into consideration when working with people on areas of their life that can be really sensitive and go into every interaction open to taking people for exactly who they are.
The geek community hasn’t always done well when it comes to encouraging body positivity. Do you think that’s changing and, in your opinion, what else needs to change in this area?
UGH. No, it’s not changing, yet. I feel those pressures, too. Not only because the fitness field can be brutal to trainers but also because cosplaying can too. I do a #concrunch before New York Comic Con every year. I usually have more defined muscles around that time of year, but a big reason is because it is what makes me feel good.
A lot of people don’t know that I was a very small kid and I want to take up as much space as possible with my muscles to go against what many girls are taught while growing up.
It can be tough to see a lot of cosplay make the rounds, being it is a classically attractive person wearing. Meanwhile, someone who is plus-sized and has cosplay that is just as good does not receive the same amount of attention. It makes me really angry and makes no sense to me personally.
I think it changes if we all keep cosplaying and supporting one another. Then kids will grow up seeing all sorts of body types in all kinds of cosplay and know that they can do it too. I’m a really big believer in the idea that representation matters.
You mentioned that you also teach pole dancing. How did you learn it and come to teach it and also is it as scary as it sounds?
Haha, pole dancing can be scary. It’s a part of what I love about it. I started doing it just out of curiosity and someone telling me that there was a studio near me. That was about 5 years ago now. I kept doing it because of how difficult it is. I practice less than I used to but it still means a lot to me in terms of working out, self-expression, and self-esteem.
You were featured on the back cover of the comic Bitch Planet. Tell me all about that!
That was all such a whirlwind! My friend Chavon and I tried to get a group together but were the only ones to cosplay it, then we had our friend Pamela take our picture. The picture somehow got in front of Kelly Sue (DeConnick) on Twitter and we were contacted for permission to use the image!
That’s crazy, especially since you’re an avid comic book reader. When and how were you introduced to comics?
I tried to get into comic as a kid but it didn’t really stick. Just a few pickups here and there. Then when I was in a college, my boyfriend at the time introduced me to more Marvel titles and I was hooked ever since. Deep diving into all sorts of titles and graphic novels like Watchmen, Sin City, V for Vendetta, and comics like The Walking Dead, 100 Bullets … good times.
As a first generation American whose mother is from Jamaica, it seems to me that you’re doing a lot in your life to advance representation for people of color. What are your thoughts about this?
I just want to make sure that kids never have to grow up searching for representation where it isn’t, like my friends and I had to. A character doesn’t always have to look like you for you to see yourself in them but the fact that characters that look like me and my family were and still are hard to find means that kids who look like us don’t get to see what is possible. If you never see it, you don’t know you can be it.
You’re a pretty hardcore video gamer. (Your gamer tag is Stormy Riot.) How were you introduced to gaming?
I grew up around them. My dad had gaming systems from when I was an infant! There’s a picture somewhere of my first X-mas where my mom is holding me, and my dad is holding my mom while also holding an Atari gun to my head. So I guess I had no choice.
Your personal fandoms include Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Marvel. So … what’s your Hogwarts house?
I’m a Gryffindor.
Who’s your Doctor?
Any thoughts on the upcoming new season of Doctor Who, starring Jodie Whittaker?
I’m really excited! David was the best ever, Matt was cute, Peter really grew on me and I’ll miss him. I’ve got a good feeling about Jodie. I think she is going to catch the most flack out of any Doctor ever but I think I’m going to love it.
Who are your absolute favorite Marvel characters?
Storm, Misty Knight, Wolverine.
You have a tattoo of Storm from X-Men, in her “Punk Storm” incarnation, somewhere on your body. That sounds amazing. Tell me more about this, please.
She lives on the inside of my arm. I got her instead of another tattoo I was thinking of and I’m really glad that I did. Storm is a native New Yorker (like me), a black woman who has faced a lot of adversity, which I believe was best shown when she lost her powers. That tattoo is my nod to woman empowerment.
What are some of your future goals and dreams for Geek Girl Strong?
I would love to be able to do more workshops. I am looking into working with schools and workplaces to bring Geek Girl Strong to everyone.
If readers want to join the Geek Girl Strong community, how would they go about it?
There are a few ways.
One is to work with me in person with you live in the NYC area.
Another is to work with me online privately, or join our online challenges, like the Annual 1up Challenge that happens at the beginning of each year and/or the #GGSSelfCareChallenge, which will be happening again in August 2019.