For many gay and bi men appearance is a huge deal. Our community seems to consistently define itself though images of attractive and shirtless muscled guys.
That can translate to a desire to make our bodies as sculpted as possible to meet that hard to achieve ideal. The guys who do transform their bodies at the gym become objects of sexual desire and represent an impressive commitment to a healthy lifestyle. But can striving to look good become a hazard?
It's not something we talk about much, but the use of image enhancing drugs like anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) is a growing reality for gay and bi men. It's no longer the preserve of professional bodybuilders but increasingly also of "ordinary" men you might see at the gym.
So what are steroids?
Steroids (also known as "juice" or "roids") are testosterone, or other substances that mimic the effects of testosterone, that can lead to quicker and increased muscle growth, strength and leanness.
Steroids are meant to be prescribed by medical or veterinary professionals for certain conditions (usually at far lower doses than used be athletes / bodybuilders). They can be injected or taken orally. In South Africa, it is illegal to use steroids for muscle building.
Despite this, gay men are using them to enhance their appearance. While there are few South African studies in this area, 2017 research found that the prevalence of AAS use among gay and bisexual men in Australia and New Zealand was 5.2%. A whopping 25.4% had thought about using steroids.
Why do we care so much about how we look?
We’re social animals, so people generally think about how they present themselves in order to fit in and look attractive. But there is research showing that gay men disproportionally suffer from negative body image compared to heterosexual men.
According to a recent UK survey, 84% of gay / bi men felt under intense pressure to have a good body, while only 1% considered themselves “very happy” with their appearance. So why are we so concerned about our looks? There are some theories:
1) Control. As gay or queer men we often feel that our life is determined by a society that rejects who we are. We may have a hard-to-shake sense of shame about being gay. Having control over our appearance and being attractive makes us feel better, more confident and accepted by society.
2) Power. When we grow up, and even as adults, we are subjected to society's biased tropes about gay men, including that we are weak and delicate. We may face bullying and hate violence and abuse. Being strong and well-built makes us feel much more powerful and safe.
3) Sexualisation of gay men. We are led to believe that being gay is all about sex and who we can hook up with. We’re indoctrinated with these ideas and so we often put too much of our value in our looks and how they can be used to attract others.
4) Self esteem and masculinity. Being gay is widely associated with being “girly” or a “sissy”. In our male-dominated out-of-kilter culture, femininity is frowned upon. Thus we may want to desperately avoid those labels. Being buff means no one is going to question your masculinity.
5) The effects of HIV stigma. The gay community has been linked to HIV for many years, especially internationally. In the earlier days of the epidemic the media was rife with images of emaciated gay men struggling with the virus. Being gay was associated with being sick or diseased. Bulking up with muscle sends out a message to the world: “I am healthy.”
6) Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). There has been some research that links the use of steroids with BDD. People who experience BDD may spend hours obsessing about their body, to such a degree that it affects their daily life. This can become an intrusive, exaggerated and serious source of anxiety and obsession. Some studies suggest that gay men may be more prone to suffer from BDD.
7) The Adonis Complex. Men have increasingly become the objects of sexualisation and unrealistic "ideal" body image in our society over the last few decades (just like women have traditionally been). We are under pressure to conform to "Instagram" perfection and may feel like failures if we don't. Eating disorders and excessive working out are linked to this.
8) It simply feels good to be desired and wanted.
What's the downside of steroids?
Steroids can help you build muscle and boost your confidence, but like just about everything in life there are possible downsides. According to experts the abuse of steroids can have a number of nasty potential consequences.
Short term effects can include: Acne; Mood swings; Trouble sleeping; Decreased sperm count; Impotence
Long term effects can include: Shrinking of the testicles; Growth of breast tissue in men; Thinning of hair and baldness; Anger and aggression ("roid rage"); Paranoia and delusions; Depression; Heart attack (cardiovascular damage, high cholesterol and blood pressure); Stroke; Kidney failure; Liver damage and tumours; Risk of HIV and other blood-borne diseases from injection use
Dependency: There are reports that steroid use can be addictive and longer term use may require withdrawal treatment. Users may spend a great deal of money and effort trying to source steroids and hide their use.
Can they be used safely?
Some claim that by managing their use through ‘cycling’ (limiting the periods in which they are taken), steroids can be used safely, or more safely. They also recommend that steroids only be taken by men over the age of 25 (once development is complete). The quality of the steroids must also be considered; it’s especially risky when buying from the black market. And any possible heart or other medical conditions should be checked out by a doctor.
Ultimately there isn’t much evidence to prove the safety of “managed” steroid use to build muscle. Because of ethical considerations few studies exist of people on steroids at the very high levels used for bodybuilding.
Whatever choices you make to improve your appearance, confidence and pulling power, try to get good advice to reduce any potential negative effects. Read up, get knowledgeable about the use of steroids and their risks and know what you’re getting into.
For judgment-free and confidential advice and counselling about body image concerns and / or the use of steroids and other substances, contact OUT's Ten81 centre in Pretoria on 012 430 3272 / 066 190 5812.