A generation aware of the risks of eating disorders now has performance-enhancing drugs available at a click--but not much information on their possible side effects.
A new survey from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids found that 11% of the 3,705 high-schoolers surveyed reported “having used” synthetic human growth hormones without a prescription. This reflects that use may have more than doubled from when a similar survey was conducted four years ago. One in five teens even reported knowing at least one friend who uses a performance-enhancing drug (PEDs).
As an educator who works with children and teens around the country and a high school senior, we believe that more young people are turning to steroids and other PEDs for one reason: the constant pressure for both boys and girls to have a “perfect” body.
It’s common knowledge that girls are under tremendous pressure to conform to an unhealthy and unrealistically thin body image. It may seem odd that some girls would look to PEDs to achieve this “perfect” body, but a quick internet search reveals thousands of advertisements for steroids promising weight loss specifically for women. This generation of girls has grown up knowing about eating disorders and their potential health dangers. Is it possible that girls today are now seeking out drugs (that they can instantly buy online) because they think it will give them the edge to achieve the ideal body—without knowing their possible side affects?
For boys, the common assumption is that steroid use is associated with athletes. But there’s increased cultural pressure for all boys, not just athletes, to fit a hyper masculine body image. It begins early (for example, 6-year-old boys commonly believe they should have a six pack) and then intensifies as the boys get older. Combine that with our collective inability or unwillingness to give boys a language, and therefore permission, to talk about the pressure boys feel to conform to an unrealistic image of masculinity (as we regularly do for girls with cultural messages of femininity) and it’s almost impossible for boys to admit their shame and inadequacy. Consequently, they’re driven to solve the “problem” privately, however they can. In that light, taking PEDs for purely aesthetic reasons becomes a logical decision.
For high school athletes, it’s all about getting bigger and better. Almost every guy wants to gain weight and muscle. Even among non-athletes, many boys get teased for being skinny and small or having “moobs (“man boobs”). But just as constant is boys’ insistence that they can never share these humiliations publicly. In the rare times they do complain, adults hardly give it the serious consideration they do when girls are targeted in the same way.
In the January issue of JAMA Pediatrics, a study (Prospective Associations of Concerns About Physique and the Development of Obesity, Binge Drinking, and Drug Use Among Adolescent Boys and Young Adult Men) reported that 18% of boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. They’re also at increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes: Boys in the study who were extremely concerned about weight were more likely to be depressed, and more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking and drug use. Though 18% might be on the low side, between 28% and 68% of young men at a normal weight perceive themselves to be underweight, according to the .
What’s the cost? The common assumption is that boys don’t care about being teased about body image the way girls do. We challenge that assumption and want to shift the conversation about PEDs and body image so we all believe boys have the right to receive the same empowering messages that girls get. We live in a culture that can undermine your sense of self by giving you one, almost impossible, image of an “acceptable” body. Boys, just like girls, have the right to know that. Boys, just like girls, have the right to acknowledge that it affects your sense of self and you have the right to talk about it without being dismissed or ridiculed. And finally, boys, just like girls, have the right to be educated about these issues so they don’t risk their physical health and emotional well being to chase an impossible ideal.
Rosalind Wiseman is the author of Masterminds &Wingmen and Queen Bees & Wannabes. Keo Jamieson is a senior at Boulder High School in Boulder, Colorado.