Steroids and bodybuilding a case for substance misuse

Professional body-builders have been using anabolic steroids for many years in order to shape and reshape their bodies to their convenience. The principal reason why this has happened is because the body has become an object through which people achieve individual self-identity by continuously modifying its size, shape and appearance. In the words of Yvone Wiegers published in the Journal of Popular Culture this implies that “bodies became malleable objects which can be shaped by the vigilance and hard work of their owners”. To that comment it should be necessary to add that according to the Drug and Sport Information Service the use of steroids have become more widespread in Britain in parallel with body image concern. In addition, the British Crime Survey has also exposed that steroid use was more commonly reported than heroin use. Indeed a study revealed by Drugs: education, prevention, and policy showed that needle exchanges in the UK have also witnessed a significant increase in the number of steroid-using clients.

Mostly all research done on body-builders and steroids agree with the idea that the muscular body is representative of those who sacrifice personal conveniences and transcend physical and psychological pain in order to achieve an attractive masculine persona in the case of men and to combat the mainstream slender ideal in the case of women.  And as it happens, male bodybuilders aspire to a hypermasucline self-identity embodied in a “muscular mesomorphy”, that is a body type characterised by well developed chest and arm muscles and wide shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist. On the other hand female bodybuilders are more concern with defining their bodies as healthy, athletic and tone, rejecting the huge and enormous adjectives by which men refer to their bodies. A common characteristic, however, to both men and women seems to indicate that increasing muscularity is synonymous of greater self-esteem and bigger self-confidence. This is in part is due to the fact that bodybuilding provides the necessary self-reliance to exert control over someone’s life.

Another reason why steroids are so valuable, particularly, for male bodybuilders is that steroids use is a very useful tool to combat wounded masculinity. Following Helene Keane’s research on male steroid use and disordered masculinity published on health: A Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine it can be affirmed that the consumption of steroids among men is a symptom of cultural disorder motivated by one of the biggest ills of modern western society which is its obsession with body and its attachment to rigid ideas of embodiment. Furthermore, steroid use is a symptom of a relatively new but increasingly prevalent syndrome known as muscle dsymorphia. In a way, this syndrome acts as the reverse of female anorexia nervosa in men because vulnerable users feel the need to consume steroids not only to resist but also to combat media images portraying the Alpha-Male. And it is precisely, the space between the frustration produced by the lack of muscled masculinity identity and the desire to acquire one where the real problem with steroids lays.   

The usual sufferer of muscle dysmorphia are men who are chronically preoccupied with their perceived lack of muscularity and regard themselves as small and weak despite their normal strength and size. These feelings normally lead them to think that they are not real men and when they exercise they hide their bodies wearing bulky clothes and avoiding beaches, pools and locker rooms. These attitudes are very similar to anorexia in young women. And just like media images and social pressure to be thin promote anorexia the gym subculture, bodybuilding magazines and Hollywood action heroes produce a similar but opposite disorder in men. Put in other words, that means that if anorexic women stop eating and become obsessed with diets and pills to keep thin, men suffering muscular dysmorphia exercise a lot and consume steroids in order to reaffirm their masculine role. Another feature common to both male and female sufferers of these diseases is that neither of them is capable to see their bodies as they really are.

Steroids use also leads to the consumption of other drugs. Reports of steroid consumption among high school and college students in the USA published from the late 1980’s onwards lead to the conclusion that a significant number of young steroid users who were NOT participants in competitive sports consumed such substances in order to enhance appearance, muscularity and masculinity. The same studies demonstrate that rather than being different from other drug users, steroid users were more likely to use alcohol, tobacco and other “mood-altering” drugs including marijuana, and cocaine than non users.  One of the possible reasons behind these behaviours could be that steroids are normally injected and as such this represents a more likely possibility of commitment to drug use. Undoubtedly, this occurs because users become social transgressors when they are forced into the black market to obtain their needles. Another similarity with conventional drugs is that steroid users embody a destructive, out-of-control and unsocialised masculinity. In most cases steroid consumers show a tendency towards risk and aggression as well as a reckless risk taker attitude.

All the above examples of irritability, moodiness and uncontrollable outbursts of aggression are able to produce rapid transformations of the self. Roid rage is a phenomenon attributed to disturbances that occur due to high doses of steroids, the interruption of these doses and the psychological pain resulting from muscle loss. Needles to say, these negative effects related to abstinence or overdose clearly remind the images of any other drug user. This perception, however, is not shared among steroid users for two main reasons. The first one is that users who has not experience side-effects do not rely on objective evidence until it is too late, and the second is that steroid users have minimised the importance of side-effects relative to the positive effects of their body image. Moreover, further research on steroid use has established that greater levels of knowledge about steroids are not related to negative attitudes about their use and also that education about consumption only has a minimal deterrent effect.