One way to slow that slip into frailty, it turns out, is by lifting weights, forcing your body to increase bone density and muscle fiber. So I bought a book by a Texas gym owner named Mark Rippetoe titled Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. I learned to squat, deadlift, and bench press. I came to love the emotional catharsis of channeling aggression into the bar. I made new friends: A former Force Recon marine chatted with me between lifts, describing the first Gulf War and how he’d nearly died falling from a helicopter; a massively muscled, bald kickboxer, who happened also to be a handsome gay biotech lawyer, stood behind me during bench press sessions, fingers under the bar, making sure I didn’t hurt myself.
I adored lifting with these men. It was the happiest I had ever been in a gym. A faster runner abandons you; a stronger lifter hangs out, kindly critiques your form, and waits his turn. My strength numbers shot upward, and so did my body weight: 190 pounds, 200, 210, 215. I bought baggy pants and shirts. Walking down the sidewalk, I felt confident. At parties with my wife, I saw men who ran marathons, and they looked gaunt and weak. I could have squashed them.
Upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength,” viewing the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood.
Soon, however, I suffered a creeping insecurity. Looking into the eyes of a banker with soft hands, I imagined him thinking, You deluded moron, what does muscle have to do with anything?
Sociologists, it turns out, have studied these covert athletic biases. Carl Stempel, for example, writing in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, argues that upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength,” viewing the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood. The so-called dominant classes, Stempel writes—especially those like my friends and myself, richer in fancy degrees than in actual dollars—tend to express dominance through strenuous aerobic sports that display moral character, self-control, and self-development, rather than physical dominance. By chasing pure strength, in other words, packing on all that muscle, I had violated the unspoken prejudices—and dearly held self-definitions—of my social group.
In the end I made the same basic decision that Dan John had made, defaulting to the familiar sports I’d grown up with. In my case, that meant adopting what Stempel calls “the most class exclusive approach to strength-building,” one that “moderately incorporates strength into a sporting lifestyle.” Backing off the weights and ramping up the running, biking, and swimming, I lost 30 pounds of muscle in three months. I loved Escape From Alcatraz so much that I’m still doing triathlons three years later. My wife does seem to like me a little better, and sometimes I think our friends even respect me more. But I can’t stop thinking I’ve betrayed Rippetoe, and I dearly miss the Force Recon marine. I miss the biotech lawyer, too, and no matter what I’m supposed to feel about physical dominance or moral character, I dearly miss feeling huge walking down the street.
When Rippetoe posted a link to this over at his Starting Strength forums, I read it, then set off a furor by responding: “So…his inner pussy dragged him back?”
Rippetoe, not noted for his own compassion and reticence, responded: “That’s very harsh.”
And several of his acolytes piled on, but more than a few didn’t. Be that as it may, the message here is quite interesting. Duane does a fair amount of writing for the NYT, and, of course, regards himself as being part of “the dominant classes.” Apparently these dominant classes are characterized by lockstep rigidity and blind adherence to signs and signals – call it their self-brewed semiotics of dominance.
And, apparently, being and looking weak is one of those signs. In fact, it is such a strong sign that Duane himself, once becoming aware of this class disapproval, made haste to drop an activity that not only made him strong, but made him healthier and likely to live longer.
That study I just cited, by the way, takes into account the dominant classes favorite aerobically-centered “fitness” sports like running, cycling, and the like. It concluded that however fit your cardiorespiratory system might be, if you’re stronger, you’ll live longer than an equally CV fit, but weaker, person.
So, at least on this metric, these dominants would rather rush, lemming-like, away from activities that make them stronger and longer-lived, merely to meet the projected prejudices of their class.
I wonder what other semi-suicidal activities they cleave to for similar reasons?