On Monday, the journal Pediatrics released a study on steroid use by teenage boys. The research’s most telling discovery was the rate of steroid use among teenage boys who identified as either gay or bisexual; 21 percent of gay or bisexual respondents indicated they had used steroids to promote muscle gain and improve body image as opposed to only 4 percent of heterosexual respondents who reported steroid use.
The findings have provided researchers a new direction to approach teen steroid use, albeit, a sad one. Aaron Blashill of the Fenway Institute and coauthor of the study remarked, “it’s a bit sad that we saw such a large health disparity” and went to note that more attention was needed on identifying why steroid use is much more common among young, gay or bisexual men.
Future researchers could look to Louis Peitzman’s description of his own struggles as an overweight, gay man. Peitzman found that despite the community that welcomed him when he came out, it was not completely welcoming of his body image — an issue not unique to the LGBTQ community. His was bullied as a child more so due to his appearance than his sexual orientation. The “shame” he feels is more of a “credit to society, where all fat people are treated like second-class citizens.”
The image of masculinity in society creates insecurity in not only the overweight, but in underweight young men as well. Blashill sees it as a double-standard, where calling a boy skinny or encouraging him to put on weight should be seen in the same manner as calling a girl fat, but this is not often the case. Richard Lyon in the Huffington Post stated that “by and large, it is the kids who look and/or act different who are most likely to be targets of bullying”. Lyon, an “identified sissy” growing up, felt the prevalent negative response to not conforming to the masculine stereotype as person who did not value sports or fit a body type that most young men were assumed to strive for.
Body image and weight related bullying and issues segue into the idea of what masculinity means to gay and bisexual men. A second study and meta-analysis from 2009 supports a connection between masculinity and perceptions of relationships and acceptance within the gay community. It reveals that gay men who take out personal advertisement tend to assign masculine sounding traits to themselves in an attempt to appear more desirable. Similarly, the study references previous work that showed that a masculine physical appearance led other in the gay community to believe that a man was more sexually adventurous. This was followed up by another finding from a study conducted in 2008 that found similar conclusions to the study from this past Monday, that some gay men turn to anabolic steroids to keep up with the masculine body image.
While standards for masculinity have changed some, being muscular and strong remain the pinnacle of masculine ideals of physical attractiveness. A New York Times story from 2012 examining steroid use among teenagers actually suggested that body image standards for men have become substantially more stringent–or at least, some young men feel more pressure to meet them. That some young men turn to steroids in a response to these pressures isn’t surprising–especially given how quickly the drugs work. Steroid usage can even be a last desperate attempt to escape bullying and fit in to social norms. However, repeated use risks addiction and adverse health. These health risks, especially to the heart and liver, as the are not reversible, a less-publicized problem of steroid use than side effects like acne and shrinking testicles.
Reducing the rates of steroid use among young men in general, is an important goal. But the best way to do it may not be to emphasize health, but rather the more poignant issues of body image, bullying, and masculinity. That’s a harder task. But it’s one with broader benefits, too.
Mason Atkins is an intern for Think Progress.