But over the years that I’ve been maxing out, shredded male bodies have taken on some problematic cultural associations. The #MeToo moment, in particular, has drawn attention to the aggression, misogyny, and entitlement all too frequently exerted by powerful men. It’s a problem that pervades not just boardrooms and movie sets, but also the strength and fitness world itself. Shawn Rhoden, the defending Mr. Olympia champion, bodybuilding’s top honor, was barred from this year’s competition after being charged with rape. The powerlifting phenom Larry Wheels was recently accused of abuse by his ex-girlfriend. (Rhoden has pleaded not guilty, and Wheels has denied the accusation.)
This societal shift away from unchecked power and aggression has put the pursuit of strength—and me—in an uncomfortable place. Even the gentlest, kindest male bodybuilders and powerlifters have bodies that now might make many people uneasy. While strength certainly continues to be idolized in some circles, growing public scrutiny nags at a question that’s hard for any culturally sensitive swole dude to simply ignore: Why get jacked in the first place?
My strength, ironically, has always come with a sense of weakness. I hail from a family of people who were all big and strong for as long as any of us can remember—an “O’Doyle Rules” clan from the hollers of West Virginia, as it were. Amid this gaggle of beefcakes and bruisers, I was the runt. I’ve written extensively about how I was on the receiving end of considerable abuse: garden-variety beatdowns, choking and joint manipulation, even sexual violence.
The feelings of inferiority those early experiences instilled in me extended to my foray into the world of powerlifting, where the highly visible top performers bench-press 700 pounds and dead-lift more than 1,000—hundreds of pounds more than I can muster. While I’m big, I’m kind of a big nothing in the context of the strength world. Around veteran lifters, I merely get polite nods and occasional corrections. The professional powerlifter Stan Efferding recently assessed my achievements as “intermediate.”
Social media haven’t helped: There, supremely strong fitness athletes perform amazing feats before an audience of millions. Powerful body after powerful body, often Photoshopped and filtered into an approximation of perfection, conveys strength of the sort few could ever develop. Standing out in this world has traditionally demanded an all-or-nothing approach. In 2016, Mark Bell, a former competitive powerlifter, openly explained to me that he has taken steroids throughout his career because he would be irrelevant without them. Among the strongest people on the planet, those breaking records and turning heads thrive while onlookers and wannabes applaud their superhuman efforts.
That exclusionary dynamic has turned away even accomplished strong people. One of the best-known bodybuilders of the 1980s, Bob Paris, famously quit the sport during what should have been his competitive prime after coming out as gay on Oprah. He seemed like the next big thing, a 2.0 version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, winning the Mr. America and Mr. Universe competitions and appearing on all the muscle-magazine covers. But as he wrote in his memoir, Gorilla Suit: My Adventures in Bodybuilding, the chemical demands of bodybuilding and its stifling, cliquish hypermasculinity made him decide to retire for good in 1991.