Chris Bell’s entertaining and edifying documentary about steroids, Bigger, Stronger, Faster, is both personal—exploring the role steroids have played in his life and the lives of his two brothers—and sociological—exploding the media myths about steroids and examining the larger cultural pressures in America that push people to succeed at all costs.
SFR: Why do you think steroids have been mired in so much media bullshit?
CB: Steroids started in sports in the Eastern Bloc countries. Those athletes were beating us and, early on, we decided that these drugs were used to cheat. So they’ve been demonized since day one. We have this attitude in America where we’re fine with plastic surgery and yet the use of anabolic steroids to look better or perform better is something that is really taboo.
So if steroids had come from a huge pharmaceutical company, with marketing muscle, things might be different?
Yeah, look at the dietary supplement industry. Why do we say that creatine is fine to use to enhance your performance but not steroids? Why is one legal and the other illegal? When I asked the experts, they basically said because one works and the other one doesn’t really work that well.
A lot of people will say that this film is ‘pro-steroids.’ Do you think it comes off that way?
People who would say that are missing the point. You’re looking into the lives of three brothers who are conflicted with this. My younger brother got into steroids for his strength, which gives him his sense of who he is and makes him happy. Is that really healthy? Regardless of whether the actual drug is bad, maybe the concept of the drug is bad.
[US Sen.] Joseph Biden [D-Del.] says that steroids are un-American, but you essentially argue that steroids are American. What about the culture makes it so ripe for steroid use?
I grew up looking at these larger-than-life heroes like Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when I ripped off my shirt I’d be pale and pudgy. Of course, we hear about women with anorexia. For men, it’s the opposite and yet the same—they have this Adonis Complex. Every time you turn around there’s a guy on a magazine cover with a six-pack. But also, I think that sometimes we in America are swallowed up by this feeling that if we don’t make it in our chosen profession that we are somehow worthless. You see that in the film with my older brother [who wanted to be a wrestler] who has this constant void that propels his behavior.
I wonder if we’re going to move more toward male anorexia, with the look for men being increasingly thin.
Especially in New York [City]—my God—I was just in New York and everybody there is super small and skinny and tiny…I don’t get it. That whole emo look—I mean I could never fit into women’s jeans.
What about the issue that if you let some people use steroids then everyone will have to—that steroids will become a requirement?
Yeah, when I was on steroids I was like, ‘This is so cheating.’ There are some sports—power lifting and body building—that actually break it into two divisions: the performance-enhanced division and the unenhanced division. They don’t really call it that; they call it the ‘open division’ and the ‘natural
You tried to interview Arnold, but he dodged you. What would you have asked him?
I just want to know, for a kid looking up to Arnold—like me—I really want to know if he thinks it was a mistake. Where would he be without steroids?
Bigger, Stronger, Faster
Directed by Chris Bell and written by Chris Bell, Tamsin Rawady and Alexander Buono
With Chris Bell, Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Floyd Landis, Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis
UA DeVargas, 105 min., PG-13