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Photo credit Jamie / Flickr

Photo credit Jamie / Flickr

A Look at Steroid Abuse in South Wales

My friend Clara is the living embodiment of modern-day female perfection. Tall and willowy, she wears a size zero and eats like a racehorse. Last year she introduced me to her new boyfriend Greg who stood 6’6 in his bare feet and had shoulders like giant over-ripe watermelons. His body was incredible, and I mean that in the traditional sense of the word – it was preposterous, implausible, absurd. I still remember the laboured way he manoeuvred himself into the pub-garden plastic chair like an elephant trying to perch on a thimble. As a couple, Clara and Greg were like the Welsh Barbie and Ken, yet it was only Clara who got questioned suspiciously about her body type. People would ask her if she was ‘ill’ or an anorexic, and they looked at her incredulously when she told them that her slender frame was down to good genes, a good diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Contrary to popular belief, Clara was not suffering from body dysmorphia. But Greg was. He owed his hulking great muscles to a dangerous addiction to anabolic steroids.

Steroids, Knockoffs and Side Effects

Anabolic steroids are synthetic substances relating to testosterone, the male sex hormone. Developed in the 1930s to treat hypogonadism, a condition where the testes cannot produce sufficient testosterone for normal development and sexual functioning, anabolic steroids are fantastic at treating impotence issues, delayed puberty and muscle wasting due to HIV infection or other diseases. But scientists soon discovered that anabolic steroids could help build muscle in laboratory animals, making the drug vulnerable to abuse by bodybuilders, weightlifters and athletes looking to improve performance.

In Wales, seven out of ten men using ‘hardcore lifting gyms’ are regularly using steroids. Professor Bruce Davies from the University of Glamorgan’s health, sport and science facility said that 53% of gym-going Valleys men were using steroids in 2001, but the figure jumped to 70% in 2006. There’s no reason to suspect that the number of steroid users has reduced since 2006, and staff who work at needle exchange programmes in Wales comment that steroid use is worsening year on year, reporting a 600% increase in users over the last decade.

The internet’s illegal drug sites are fuelling this staggering increase in steroid abuse, with the ‘perfect’ jacked-up physique just a mouse click away. But if you scratch the surface of the internet steroid business, it becomes clear that buying steroids online is a dangerous activity indeed. Online buyers often have no idea what they’re buying, and considering the stuff that’s packed into counterfeit steroids, it wouldn’t be good for business if sellers were transparent about their product. Almost 40% of steroids used in South Wales are fake, and drug charity worker John Lowes of the West Glamorgan Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse commented that boys as young as 16 were taking steroid tablets made for cattle, and that the potential side effects of these drugs have never been studied in humans. Sometimes the counterfeit steroids contain baby oil or cooking oil, but often they contain no steroid at all.

As unpredictable as knock off steroids can be, it’s the real thing that poses the darkest threat. Real steroids are often bought online by young men and boys who are desperate to beef themselves up. Young people aren’t renowned for responsible and level-headed decision making, so often these steroids are bought impulsively and without research. Most of the time young users have no idea what’s in the drug or what side effects to expect either through ignorance or an understandable unwillingness to translate foreign medicine sheets. In the spirit of competition, young men are taking enormous doses of the hormone to catch up with their friends, despite the fact that young men are in their muscle building prime and have no need for any extra help.

Talking to Wales on Sunday,  John Lowes commented that these young boys and men are doing irreparable damage to their bodies, as they are not yet fully developed and some side effects will therefore be irreversible. ‘Their bodies will switch off its own testosterone production because it’s getting it from an external source’, he remarked, ‘and because they haven’t researched what they’re doing and don’t take a break between courses of steroids to allow their testosterone to recover, it might never switch back on, leading to testicular atrophy, erectile dysfunction, and problems with their sperm production which can render them infertile. Bone growth is another issue. Steroids cause the bones to mature earlier and because they haven’t developed properly their bones may never develop to their full potential.’

Young men also inject ‘synth oils’, inert substances that expand muscle fibres beyond normal limits, artificially plumping them up to outrageous proportions. Another popular activity is called ‘stacking’, in which users take boat loads of steroids followed by masses of other medications designed to alleviate side effects. Common side effects of steroid use include bleeding into the joints, tendon ruptures, skin discoloration, weakening of bones and tendons, acne, blurred visions, cataracts, bruising, insomnia, mood swings (or ‘roid rage’), lower resistance to infection, osteoporosis, stomach bleeding, water retention, and diabetes. It’s hard to imagine how many medications these men must be using to counteract a list like that. It’s even been reported that the drug Tamoxifen, a hard-core chemotherapy medication used to treat breast cancer, is being taken by men to reduce the common side-effect of ‘man boobs’.

So why has steroid use spiralled out of control in Wales? The internet can’t be blamed entirely; supply is simply meeting demand.

Be The Impossible

I mentioned my beautiful friend Clara. She’s used to getting the third degree about the way she looks, mostly from other girls who are insecure about themselves and attribute Clara’s slender frame to anorexia. Women have always been bombarded with images of unattainable perfection and instructed to conform to those ideals or else, but the internet, reality TV, and social media have started to swivel their lens to focus on the ‘perfect’ male body. The compulsion to transform oneself into a huge muscular Adonis has been given a name: ‘bigorexia’ or ‘muscle dysmorphia’. In practice it is the exact opposite of anorexia nervosa, the compulsion to become as small as possible, but it is underpinned by many of the same psychological processes. People who suffer from ‘bigorexia’ are under the impression that they are small and weak, even when the vision in the mirror is of a huge and powerful man. According to recent research conducted by the BBC, as many as one in ten gym-going men suffer from this condition. In the same way that anorexics will take huge quantities of laxatives in order to lose weight, bigorexics will pump themselves with steroids in order to become their idea of perfection. According to the NHS, people who have muscular dysmorphia could be suffering because of a genetic disorder, or a chemical imbalance in the brain.  But it could also be down to our ‘macho’ culture, where young men are conditioned from an early age to believe that muscles and brawn are the equivalent of power and success, when in fact bigorexics are at a high risk for depression, hopelessness and even suicide.

It’s no real surprise that the areas most affected by steroid use are in the Welsh Valleys. The Valleys have the highest percentage of mental illness in the UK, with high unemployment, low job prospects and poverty. Self worth in the valleys used to be linked to mining and the social connections built around the community. Now, community ties are broken and young men are left aimless. What else is there to do to better yourself? If you can’t get the dream job, then maybe you can get the dream body.

One of the first things we can do as a society is to take note of our friend’s and family member’s psychological state regarding their body. We assume that excessively slim women are suffering from mental illness and starving themselves, but we are letting men with body dysmorphia slip through the cracks. We need to let men know that their self worth is not stored within their biceps. Steroid misuse is a dangerous activity, so let’s start asking questions. It might be hard being Barbie, but it’s just as hard to be Ken.


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