TW: this article discusses drug misuse, mental health issues and eating disorders
In a recently released report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), it was revealed that the number of young people in the UK using anabolic steroids has significantly increased, and that there are four times as many people using the drug now as there was last year.
According to the UK Home Office’s report from 27 July 2017, ‘Drug misuse: findings from the 2016 to 2017 CSEW’, anabolic steroid use in 16 to 24 year olds has increased from 0.1 percent in 2015/16 to 0.4 percent in 2016/17 – meaning an estimated 19,000 more young adults in the UK are taking anabolic steroids this year compared to last. The report also notes that this is a reversal of the trend between 2014/15 and 2015/6, when there was a significant fall in steroid use from 0.5 percent to 0.1 percent.
So why have Britain’s young people suddenly upped their consumption of this class C drug? Given the alarmingly long list of negative side effects, from hair loss to reduced sperm count to increased risk of heart attacks, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose to take such a damaging drug.
Why do people take steroids?
The survey for 2017 indicates a significant rise in the number of 16 to 24 year olds taking anabolic steroids. The obvious answer to the question why, is that people want to appear physically larger and fitter. But this just raises another question – why do today’s young people feel this pressure to conform to a stereotypical ideal of fitness?
At the time of writing, there are 46,180,697 posts on Instagram with the tag #fitspo. If you search for the ways the ‘fitspo’ movement can be harmful, the majority of articles that first come up discuss how it can be damaging to women. And this is true – there’s an incredible pressure on young women especially on confirming to a patriarchal ideal of beauty and fitness. However less discussed is the idea that the perpetuation of toxic masculinity within fitness culture is harmful to young men as well.
An unhealthy perception of what it means to be ‘masculine’ or ‘fit’ contributes greatly to the reason why people continue to use steroids, even if they are experiencing the harmful side effects. The NHS suggests that adolescent boys may misuse the drug due to suffering from body dysmorphia, a disorder which means the sufferer believes their body is different to the way it actually looks. They believe that the use of anabolic steroids will help the achieve a desired level of fitness… when in reality, the drugs are extremely detrimental to your health.
As Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in addiction at the University of York, told The Telegraph, the changing concept of masculinity is mostly to blame for this increase in steroid use in young people.
“In some ways young men have been catching up with young women over the last few years, they are more sensitive and vigilant about how they should look and this is becoming more acute. I think it is to do with appearance and masculinity, and the messages we absorb through social media.”
With the rise of social media and the ease of spreading ‘fitspo’ trends and images, it’s very easy to cultivate your feeds and exist in a ‘bubble’ which defines fitness and health as one specific thing. As with the dangers of ‘thinspo’ and pro-eating disorder blogs, the ‘fitspo’ online space can be an echo chamber for dangerous ideas and promote harmful behaviors in the name of achieving a certain look.
And it’s not just social media to blame – many have attributed the popularity of reality TV shows such as Love Island to the rise in this fixed ideal of masculinity. Indeed, when male Love Island contestants are described as a “gym-obsessed Ken doll”, “footie fitty”, “prize-winning muscle man”, “gym-loving daddy” or “athletic Adonis”, there’s no doubt as to what kind of physical shape and lifestyle these shows glorify.
With little to challenge these views in the words of mainstream and social media, it’s easy to understand how this could lead young people to push themselves beyond what is healthy – and when that’s still not enough, they turn to performance enhancing drugs.
The physical and mental effects
The ‘selling point’ of anabolic steroids is that they increase muscle mass and decrease fat – though the list of much less desirable side effects is both extensive and alarming. As well as leading to potentially dangerous medical conditions in men, such as high blood pressure or heart attacks, they can also reduce sperm count, cause erectile dysfunction, severe acne, and stomach pain. In women, usage can cause facial hair growth, swelling of the clitoris, issues with your period, and hair loss. And in both sexes, anabolic steroids can cause heart attacks, strokes, blood clots and fluid retention.
And those are just the physical side effects. Abuse of this substance can also lead to an increase in aggressive behaviour, mood swings, manic behaviour, stunted growth in adolescents, hallucinations, and delusions. Like many other substances, anabolic steroids are addictive, and withdrawal symptoms commonly include depression and anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and muscle or joint pain.
In addition to all this, there’s also the implications of sharing needles. Anabolic steroids are often injected, and the same effects associated with recreational drugs use are also at risk here, such as damage to veins, hepatitis B or C infection, and even HIV transmission.
Steroids are a class C, which can only be sold with a prescription by a pharmacist. While it is not illegal to possess anabolic steroids for personal use, it is illegal to possess, import or export anabolic steroids if supplying or selling them – including giving them out to friends. The penalty is an unlimited fine or even a prison sentence. In professional sport organisations, most ban anabolic steroid use, and test competitors for the substance.
Challenging harmful behaviours and ideas
As with many harmful behaviours, the majority of people partaking in them are fully aware of both the medical and legal consequences involved. So whilst educating young people (as early as possible) on the effects of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs is important, what is more pressing is the need to challenge the ideologies that lead to this kind of behaviour.
Perpetuating a single idea of what masculinity looks like is no better than splashing images of the perfect female body across advertisements, television shows and social media. While the body positive movement has begun to loudly oppose the patriarchal ideal of feminine beauty, it’s vital that the equally patriarchal ideal of masculine fitness is also challenged. Young men are just as likely as young women to turn to harmful lifestyles in order to achieve what they have been taught makes them desirable, as is evident in the alarming rise of steroid use in the UK.
Unfortunately, there are messages everywhere telling you what you should and shouldn’t look like, whatever gender you are. It’s essential that we speak out louder against these voices, to protect ourselves and the people around us.