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Why are so many people using steroids?

The prevalence of anabolic androgenic steroid abuse is on the rise and the proportion of the population that has at some point used steroids is between 1% to 5% worldwide. Why are so many people choosing to take steroids?

Our instant gratification society

Perhaps rising steroid use is a symptom of the instant gratification society we live in. Over the past few decades the way we act in our day-to-day lives has been changing drastically from the way human beings have traditionally behaved for centuries. Communicating with others often involved travelling to the destination of one of the parties or writing a letter (which included actually getting up and delivering it to a post office).

Contrast that with what we have today. There’s minimal effort required to open WhatsApp and send a quick emoji to indicate agreement with something or to string together a few lines to get your message across. The physical activity element of communication has been getting lost on us, arguably since the widespread use of the telephone and more recently, email.

Ordering food is the same. Just tap a few buttons on your phone and you’ll have a pizza delivered straight to your door. Society has increasingly moved towards one in which gratification is expected instantly. As a result, when people see there’s an option to take a substance or compound that greatly speeds up the process of building muscle and losing fat, why wouldn’t they jump on this opportunity?

Food delivery rider

Unless you’re genetically blessed, achieving a lean, muscular physique can take years of work. It doesn’t happen overnight and is the opposite of what we’re being bombarded with i.e. same day delivery, turnaround in 24 hours, pick up within 10 minutes etc. Also much like we don’t consider the consequences of having our desires for food, communication and transport instantly gratified, many people are enamoured by the prospect of achieving their ideal body as soon as possible that the consequences of steroids use are an afterthought.

Social Media

On Instagram, you’re presented over and over again with photos of people with amazing physiques. You may have been working out in the gym for years, but you don’t quite look like these amazing Instagram models. What are they doing differently?

The secret… well it’s not a secret anymore – is that even Instagram models don’t look like the way they do in their photos. It’s commonly understood that influencers use Photoshop to manipulate any perceived ‘imperfections’ as well as choosing the most flattering lighting and angles. Often fans have called out the difference in appearance between the photos of an influencer and their videos.

Few are open about the digital editing and behind the scenes work that goes into getting the perfect photos. No wonder, then, that many people resort to steroids with the intention of reaching an appearance level that they feel is naturally unattainable. The point is, these appearances are unattainable for anyone, including the people in the photos themselves.

Bodybuilder doing exercise

However to give credit where it’s due, some people with large followings are being transparent about the photo editing process. Some of them show how a slight change in angle and lighting can make a dramatic difference to one’s appearance.

What’s the consequence?

People are seeing others take steroids but they’re not seeing punishment, consequences or sanctions. Strictly speaking, this isn’t entirely true because there are likely to be health consequences to one’s steroid usage, but on a societal level, it’s almost as if steroid usage is rewarded!

You don’t hear about someone losing a starring role in a Hollywood movie because of their steroid use. In fact, society praises them for their super fast transformation. And there are rumours that steroids are encouraged to facilitate these transformations. Similarly it’s commonly understood that steroids go hand-in-hand with being a fitness influencer because a natural physique is unlikely to garner as much attention. Many people in the industry simply avoid mentioning anything about steroids rather than denying it. This is the safer route for them.

The International Federation for Bodybuilding (IFBB) sanctions the Olympia Fitness & Performance Weekend, annual contests in which the best bodybuilders compete for their respective titles. At the highest level, it is well understood that bodybuilders are taking steroids dosages at dangerous levels. Many have openly admitted to doing so; competitors understand the risks and are willing to take them. But until October 2022, the IFBB was a signatory to WADA, the world anti-doping agency. Up until October 2022, steroid usage was getting a free pass from the very body that’s supposed to be cracking down on it. Only on 17th October 2022 did WADA publish a press release declaring the IFBB non-compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code.

Athlete preparing to start a race

A Level Playing Field

Perhaps more people are using steroids because it’s harder to get caught. It’s widely understood that drug tests are easy to pass. Lance Armstrong, once the most tested athlete on the planet, never failed a drug test.

Conversely, there may be a phenomenon occurring here where people feel the need to take steroids simply to even out the playing field; and this doesn’t just apply to athletic endeavours. A justification could be: “Everyone else is taking steroids and benefiting from an enhanced appearance, so why can’t I?”

In countries such as Brazil and South Korea, plastic surgery has been described as the ‘great equalizer’ – a way for people to rise up the ladder in societies where opportunities can often depend on one’s appearance. Steroids can similarly be seen as an equalizer, particularly when there’s an understanding that so many other people are using it.

In 1988, Ben Johnson won the gold medal for the 100m sprint, breaking the world record. He was later disqualified and stripped of his gold medal for testing positive for stanozolol. Ben Johnson has often been the poster child for a steroid cheat, comparable to what Lance Armstrong would go through when he admitted to doping. But although Ben Johnson did cheat, 6 of the 8 finalists in that race in 1988 have been implicated for drug use, causing people to label it as the ‘dirtiest race in history’. The playing field, it seems, could only have been level if you took steroids.

The future

Although there appear to be a larger number of people taking steroids, a counter-steroid movement is growing, particularly on social media in which influencers promote natural training. They aim to convince people that steroids can provide gains but at the risk of long-term side effects. There is also growing awareness about who is likely to be on steroids, assisted by people who are transparent themselves about their own steroid use. They explain what you can expect taking steroids and the impact it’s had on them. Armed with this knowledge the general public can make more informed decisions about steroid usage.

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