Local drug services estimate there are up to as many as one million steroid and performance-enhancing drug users in the UK.
One indicator of their increased usage is the rise in the number of the drugs being seized. Seizures increased by 35% in 2014 compared with the previous year, while the total number of doses increased from 1.5million to 2.5 million. Furthermore, needle exchange services have revealed that the number of steroid takers using their services outnumbered all other drug users combined.
This highlights that steroid use is now considered ‘mainstream’, with its former exclusive association with body-builders and athletes shifting to include greater numbers of people using them to try and improve their looks and even to improve their job performance.
Such drugs can increase muscle size, strength and their ability to recover much faster than they would naturally. Many people working in jobs that are physically demanding or may benefit from a larger physical presence may take them, even if they are aware of the numerous negative side-effects, in order to feel more capable.
A former police officer who used steroids, and left the force when he faced disciplinary charges, told Sky News his reasons for using the drugs. With his identity hidden, he said: “I’m a police officer and I look like a comic book hero, and I’m in a costume. Nine times out of ten my sheer presence alone was enough to defuse a situation.” He added: “I will still say, and I won’t regret saying this, it made me better at my job. That’s why people take it. It’s a performance-enhancing substance.”
In the interview he suggests that he stopped using the drug to end side-effects such as the mood-swinging pendulum that occurred with severely fluctuating testosterone levels from the ‘on and off’ nature of taking the substances. But more importantly he stopped because of the health issues it presented. He said: “My liver was inflamed, that was as a result of taking oral steroids because your liver has to deal with the toxins. The left ventricle in my heart was enlarged and my thyroid was on the verge of packing up.”
It is not just negative side effects of the drugs that are an issue, but also the risk of HIV and hepatitis when sharing needles and the dangers surrounding obtaining the drug itself. Steroids are a Class C drug, which means they can only be possessed and imported for personal use and not sold, but this does not stop countless numbers of internet sites offering them for sale. With such services being illegal and therefore unregulated, fake drugs are commonly distributed to buyers, who may have no recourse if things go seriously wrong when taking them. The drugs can often be made with a substance even more dangerous to health than performance-enhancers and are much less likely to provide any of the supposed positive effects.
Joseph Keane, who runs The Bridge drugs project in Bradford suggests that the majority of steroid users take the drugs purely for the appearance it gives them. He said: “It’s all to look good on a Friday night and it’s predominantly 15-25 year-olds. I have had a 15 year-old injecting steroids straight into his chest and I have heard anecdotally of guys as young as 13 [using the drug]. He added: “That is the sort of pressure that is on them to look good at a young age.”
Perhaps in such cases, where users resort to taking the drug almost entirely for their looks, it is arguable that fitness and men’s lifestyle magazines are partly to blame. Much like the air-brushed beauties in magazines aimed at the fairer sex, they often portray the ‘ideal’ image to aspire or conform to that is simply unobtainable for a ‘regular’ person.
Alterations to photographs in such magazines are common, but models of both genders can also take some extreme measures to achieve their desired look for picture perfection. For some female models it may be starving themselves or taking drugs to suppress their appetite. For male fitness models in particular it may be use of steroids, and greatly dehydrating the body before a photo-shoot so the skin appears tighter over their muscles. This can temporarily result in the more defined, vascular look that the magazines wish for, but it can also be very risky. Dehydrating the body to such levels is dangerous, especially when coupled with the cutting out carbohydrates from a diet, which is another technique used for a similar effect.
It is not just the dangers that are extreme, but also the particular measures that some models will go to. Daniel Martin, a veteran fitness model has revealed some of the more drastic measures that models will take to achieve their look. He said: “I open a bottle of red wine the night before and on the morning of a photo-shoot I have another glass of wine and some wine gums,” He added. “The sugar in the sweets and the alcohol draw more water from the skin, leaving you looking as lean as possible.”
This may sound rather enjoyable to some, but it takes a greater physical and mental toll when joined with depriving the body of carbohydrates, usually beginning at least 48 hours before a photo-shoot. Martin suggests there is an unspoken acceptance that this is standard amongst male fitness models: “There is a sense that magazines expect you to turn up dehydrated and dizzy. I’ve been on castings where there are six or seven models who are so groggy that they need to grab a chair to sit down and literally can’t speak.”
With such ‘ideal’ body images being created using these methods along with the use of photoshop, fake-tan and misleading before and after snaps, certain people may adopt increasingly dangerous methods in an attempt to replicate the look. Such aspirations seem unachievable in the real world. Daniel Martin said: “It’s impossible to look like that seven days a week, despite what the magazines tell you. We can’t achieve that look. Nobody can.”
Although the model does not mention performance-enhancing drugs directly this may reveal some of the factors that motivate people in the UK to use substances like steroids in an attempt to conform to what is culturally perceived as an attractive, masculine look.
In such publications the subject of steroid use is seldom touched upon, because of the stigma around the use of these drugs. It is perceived as a form of cheating, not only when it is used for competing in a sport but also as a ‘short-cut’ to a more muscular physique. It is an almost unspoken and opaque entity within the industry, but many models may feel that they need to use steroids to achieve their look and continue to get regular work within their field.
In an American documentary on the use of steroids called Bigger, Stronger, Faster fitness model Christian Boeving spoke out about his own use of the substance. He explained that he started training with weights when he was 14 years-old and started taking steroids at 16 years-old, as he wanted to replicate the physique of Arnold Swarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. He also suggested that people should know that it is not just conventional sports supplements people in his industry are taking.
The documentary’s maker Chris Bell hints about false perceptions created by fitness magazine advertisements when he asks Boeving: “If I saw the advert and said ‘I want to look like you’, I’m going to take [the product advertised], but what I don’t know is you’ve taken steroids, do you have any problem with that?”
Boeving replied: “If someone looks at an advert that I’m in and says if Christian Boeving takes [the product advertised], which I did and I do, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t take something else. If they chose to believe that’s the only thing I’m taking to look like that, then so be it. They should be smarter than that.” He added: “Is it misleading? Possibly a little bit, yeah. But is it a lie? Absolutely not.”
With the exception of photographic alteration, this does not mean to say that magazines particularly condone or encourage all the extreme methods models use to achieve the looks that the publications desire. But whether or not they would do anything about it on its discovery, or even if it is ultimately their responsibility to do so, is perhaps only speculative for now. However, with such techniques becoming prevalent within lifestyle media and with the increase of steroid availability and use, it may seem unlikely that it will ever be seen as anything other than mainstream in the future. That is unless a major factor like its classification were to change, which would maybe change the user’s adoption and perception of performance-enhancing drugs.
AlphaBiolabs can test for a range of steroids in both a legal capacity and a public one. To learn mre about our drug testing or to order your steroid test please see our drug testing pages.