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Season 2, Episode 5: Taking PEDs (Podcast Enhancing Drugs) To Talk 2008's "Bigger, Stronger, Faster"



Preamble:


If there is one documentary from this era (2003-2013) that targets my logical brain and my lizard brain like a MISSILE, it’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster by Chris Bell. In 2008, I existed as a fraction of who I am now, both intellectually and physically. I had been lifting weights and doing athletic stuff for a few years, but my fascination with strength training increased the more that I read and researched. This was before fitness influencers , so I was straight up reading books and magazines and blogs. I was going to the university gym daily with my friends, and writing lifting programs for the people who I asked (even though I didn’t know how to program). I cultivated an obsession with lifting that replaced my former obsession of self-deprivation and running too much.


Of course, the adoption of lifting culture brought with it other awful standards. What we see now with absurd instagram bodies still existed in 2008, you just had to look a little harder. You had to go through magazines or watch professional wrestling or search youtube for bodybuilding shows. The standards were different, not everybody expected to be a completely shredded and muscular freak, but once you bombarded yourself with images of jacked-tan monsters, you couldn’t shake the feeling that your body wasn’t good enough. The hatred of my body wasn’t new, but it was becoming easier to find objects of comparison to contribute to self-loathing. I was a reasonably smart 20-year old, so I intellectually understood that the standards perpetuated by fitness models and bodybuilders wasn’t attainable for most people, but our logical brains are no match for the ancient part of our brains that demand comparison and spiraling and body dysmorphia. At the same time, I hated American societal conventions. I hated the promises of fulfillment through consumption. I hated that I was expected to be or do things that I had no say in cultivating.


This dual-personality is at the heart of Americanness. As much as we know and hate about the forces that hurt us, we still want to appeal to them because we’ve been conditioned to! That’s how I could exist as an anti-establishment intellectual freak, and still want to possess a physical form that would be admired by a society I didn’t want any part of. I mean, this hasn’t completely changed, fifteen years later. It’s still a struggle, but I know more now than I did then.


One thing that I know now, and many others do as well, is the prevalence of pharmaceutical enhancements in sports and physique competitions. In the late nineties and early 2000’s, we talked a lot about steroids. We mostly fretted as a society about pro baseball players getting juiced so they hit dingers and throw a ball fast. We couldn’t stand the thought of our heroes getting sauced and smacking a ball harder. Strength athletics and physique competitions, on the other hand, were so fringe that they were barely thought about in the mainstream. We had certainly seen bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler, and strongmen like Mariusz Pudianowski and Zydrunas Savickas, but most Americans couldn’t name them and certainly couldn’t bother to care about how frequently they injected compounds. However, as the notoriety of strength and physique competitors increased with our access to content, our recognition of anabolic steroids barely ticked up. The now-made-famous by social media question, Natty or Not (which refers to whether someone is “natural” or they take steroids), barely existed on most people’s radars. Most general population people assumed that no one, with the exception of the freakiest of juiced-up bodybuilders, could be using steroids.


My naivete persisted until I learned, in my second semester of college, that most of the big guys in the university gym and several of the not-so impressive dudes around campus were taking anabolics for aesthetic purposes only. They wanted to look a little bit meaner, or leaner, or hotter.They wanted to get cut up for spring break, or show their high school friends how much they’d grown in college. They wanted to impress someone or scare someone. In short, they wanted to be what they’d always been told to be through TV, comics, video games, and especially sports: the dominant SuperDude who will take your girlfriend AND then beat you up.


I never had the nerve to take steroids, though I have been steroid-adjacent for a while, just like many people who have spent the last two decades in and around gyms. I grew up instinctively hating them but loving their results, just like every goddamn American did. Seriously, I thought they would make me beat my mom up (like in the Ben Affleck after school special on steroids) but I also worshiped The Rock, Arnold, and Mark Mcguire. I don’t see my Natty status as a badge of honor, and I would never begrudge someone for using anabolics–you have to know that in the 2000’s, the general population’s understanding of steroids was nonexistent. You couldn’t name a compound or a brand. You just said “steroids.” Most dads considered whey protein and creatine “steroids.” But we didn’t realize how pervasive anabolics were, especially among our favorite athletes and superstars. We couldn’t imagine that literally every fitness model and bodybuilder was blasting enough shit to murder a horse. We just thought, wow, maybe if I dieted hard enough, did more cardio, and fully committed to this, I too could look like a freak.


In 2023, things appear to have swung in a different direction. People who claim to be “natty” but are clearly enhanced are immediately called into question by a team of internet scientists and youtube personalities. Entire careers have been made by analyzing strangers’ photos and videos to determine if they use steroids. We have swung the other way, and now all of my seventeen year-old students can name a bunch of different compounds. The algorithm has fed them steroid content, and they think they know something about which they know nothing. Which one is worse? To believe that everybody with visible abs and big biceps is natural or that nobody is? I think that a variety of factors have led us to this highly skeptical point, but it’s probable that today’s subject, Bigger, Stronger, Faster, led the charge in normalizing steroid conversation for the general population.


BSF takes an objective view of the chemicals, and instead uses our obsession with winning, muscles, and masculinity as an indictment of America itself. It doesn’t condemn steroid-use, but it does question WHY so many people are drawn to them (sometimes as a necessity) in the first place. This documentary did the thing that any good documentary does: it altered my perception of the social conditioning that I had accepted as fact.


Part Two: What the hell is this documentary?


-Made in 2008 by director Chris Bell. Bell is a former writer for the WWE, and his brothers, Mark and Mike, were both athletes (Mike a pro wrestler and Mark an elite powerlifter) and open about their steroid use. Wikipedia quotes:


Bigger, Stronger, Faster* is a 2008 documentary film directed by Chris Bell about the use of anabolic steroids as performance-enhancing drugs in the United States and how this practice relates to the American Dream. The film had its world premiere[2] on January 19, 2008 at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.[3] The film was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2008,[4] and opened in limited release in the United States on May 30, 2008.[5]


-The documentary received uniformly positive reviews from critics. It has a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 80% on metacritic. Most people praise it for its mixture of deep subjectivity combined with objectivity about anabolic steroids.

Stephen Holden of The New York Times released a positive review shortly before the film's release, noting that it takes a look at steroid use from numerous perspectives and that "[a]lthough the movie doesn't defend steroid use, neither does it go on the attack." Holden said that the film "left [him] convinced that the steroid scandals will abate as the drugs are reluctantly accepted as inevitable products of a continuing revolution in biotechnology. Replaceable body parts, plastic surgery, anti-depressants, Viagra and steroids are just a few of the technological advancements in a never-ending drive to make the species superhuman."[9]

Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5/4 stars, saying “This movie is remarkable in that it seems to be interested only in facts. I was convinced that Bell was interviewing people who knew a lot about steroids, and the weight of scientific, medical and psychological opinion seems to be: Steroids are not particularly dangerous. Is the movie "pro-steroid"? Yes, but it is even more against the win-win mentality. We demand that our athletes bring home victories, and yet to compete on a level playing field, they feel they have to use the juice.”




Synopsis:

Chris Bell, the filmmaker, grew up in the 80s in Poughkeepsie, NY, the middle child in a family of three boys. His brothers, Mike and Mark, were big tough guys. They idolized Hulk Hogan and loved pro wrestling. They lived the normal American childhood of the era–watching TV and dreaming of being the baddest motherfucker.


Fast forward, and Chris became a great powerlifter at an early age, Mike became a college football player and professional wrestler, though not a superstar, and Mark (Smelly) became an even better powerlifter. The thing is, Chris never used PEDs, but Mike and Mark did and do (at the time of the documentary). This is where the documentary begins to examine the how/what/why or anabolic steroids.


First of all, Chris defines the difference between PEDs, steroids, and anabolic steroids.


-He speaks with professionals who study PEDs, and nearly all explain the hype around the deleterious effects of anabolic steroids are exaggerated or completely false. One dude named John Romano, a bodybuilding coach/steroid expert, is quite blunt about the inflated risk of steroid usage. He uses some choice 2000’s language to deride the hysteria, but he makes some intriguing “whataboutist” claims that you ultimately have to enjoy. Chris Bell seems to examine steroids as a way to expose hypocrisy in our values and justice system, and he is right to do so.


He goes on an exploration through the world of bodybuilding, pro wrestling, and the fitness industry. He speaks with a man with HIV who would have died were it not for the experimental PED plan he was put on.


He makes his own supplement according to the parameters allowed by the FDA (which is anything, pretty much). He speaks with a fitness model who stumbles around the fact that selling supplements with his body while he uses anabolic steroids is a bit messed up.


The most impactful scenes are those with his family. His mother, a sweet woman who just wants to make people happy, is overwhelmed by her sons’ use of PEDs. She feels like she’s a failure for not teaching them to love themselves enough.


Chris reassures us that it wasn’t the fault of his mother at all. It wasn’t the fault of any individual. It’s the fault of a culture “on steroids” (to use a term the film pokes fun at). Americans are obsessed with winning at all costs. We let our fighter pilots take speed and we turn a blind eye to our juiced-up sports and action movie heroes. We don’t want to KNOW they use shit, but we want them to use shit.


Bell indicts us, the American viewers of 2008, who are fine with cheating as long as our team does it and doesn’t get caught. We are okay with having an economy on steroids, a military on steroids, a cheeseburger on steroids, just don’t show us the fucking needle.


Mike Bell, Chris’ older brother, died of an overdose shortly after the release of the film. When you watch it from this perspective, you’re keenly aware of how sad Mad Dog is, how much he longs for a life bigger than his own. It’s tragic, and it’s symptomatic of an American sickness.


Part Three: What’s the thesis of the film?


To sum it up, I’d say the film argues that steroids aren’t actually that bad if used intelligently, but the American drive to win at all costs is quite bad.


"How can you say that steroids are a national health crisis when you have people dropping dead at a rate you can measure by the minute as a result of alcohol?"

-John Romano



I think Ebert says it best: “The question vibrating below the surface of both docs is, has America become maddened by the need for victory? When our team is in the World Series, do we seriously give a damn what the home run kings have injected? We are devout in Congress but heathens in the grandstands. That is one of Bell's messages, and the other is that steroids have become demonized far beyond their actual danger to society. Which side do you vote on? Chris Bell marks his ballot twice: Steroids are not very harmful, but by using them, we reveal a disturbing value system.”


Part Four: Why you should watch it, and how it’s indicative of the time






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