‘Bigorexia’ hits teen boys using roids and supplements
Teenage boys as young as 14 are turning to body building supplements and steroids in a desperate bid to "bulk up".
A focus on sport - particularly in private boys' schools - and social media pressure is fuelling the trend which has health experts worried about the long-term effects.
Almost half of boys aged between 14 and 16 at one private school admitted to using supplements including protein powder to increase their muscles, while more than 60 per cent revealed they intended to.
Almost one in 10 admitted to using the creatine which increased muscle mass, while four per cent of those boys revealed they had used anabolic steroids.
Victoria University's Associate Professor in Health and Physical Dr Zali Yager, who led the study, said experts were seeing a "gateway effect" with boys moving from supplements to steroids.
Steroid use is particularly dangerous but Ms Yager said there are also concerns around supplements as they are largely unregulated and most users buy in from overseas where there is even less oversight.
"Supplements can contain high levels of caffeine or replicate to become testosterone in the body. Supplement manufacturers are very good at chemically creating something that is almost it but not quite a banned substance so it is then ahead of any regulation,' she said.
The study was prompted by conversations with school teachers who were alarmed by the sounds of supplement drink shakers replacing eating at lunchtime.
They are currently rolling out Goodform, a boy's body image and supplement prevention school program aimed at adolescent boys.
Scott Griffiths, who leads a National Health and Medical Research Council-funded research program on body image and eating disorders at the University of Melbourne said supplement use in teen boys was now "normal and ubiquitous."
He said muscle dysmorphia, sometimes known as "bigorexia" is on the rise with an increased focus on masculinity, fuelled by this generation's obsession with self image.
"We are getting to the point where boys in Australia have at least tried a supplement to burn fat or build muscle - it is more common than not and regulation of supplements in Australia is woeful," he said.
Paul Dillon, who tours schools talking to students about drugs and alcohol, said there has been an amazing shift in the changing physiques of the action figures, with many young boys basing their role models on rappers and action heroes such as Chis Hemsworth's Thor.
"Christopher Reeves in 1979 was considered muscular - now look at Henry Cavil. And Luke Skywalker has gone from looking like Luke Skywalker to looking like the terminator," Mr Dillon said.
For one steroid user, who wanted to remain anonymous, the illegal drug was easy to obtain and there are also online variants that can be purchased for "research purposes."
For 'Jack' a few cycles of steroids bought him the bulk he wanted - but at a cost.
"Me and my partner had a child and it just wasn't worth the risk."
He was also highly critical of the fitness influencers, making money off their followers by offering programs with false expectations.
"There are women and men in the gym, trying to look like the people on Instagram and they are all on steroids."
However on the platform some influencers opposed to steroid use are fighting back; a recent post by Layne Norton, who had nearly 400,000 followers recently posted about the "rampant undisclosed steroid user among influencers who always seem to be in shape."
Victorian George Skoufis never did steroids but was deeply involved in fitness and racing and understood well the body image pressures young men are under.
He developed anorexia nervosa from the age of 19 when he one day decided to diet. Before long, the amateur triathlete was striving for what he considered the "perfect" athletic appearance. After two years he developed a number of eating disorders and soon realised whatever number the scale read "would never be good enough."
The recognition that the fixation that consumed almost a decade of his life was in fact a mental illness was liberating.
"That was a massive turning point for me."
PERFORMANCE OVER BODY IMAGE
Fitness coach Asher Steele, 30, said the lack of mirrors in the Crossfit industry helps maintain focus on performance rather than body image.
A strength and conditioning functional workout he said in Crossfit aesthetic does follow but "the focus is on performance."
The Brisbane local from Carina said they do tend to get some fitness refugees fleeing the gym scene where body building is the primary method for training.
"They make the transition to Crossfit and find it really liberating," he said.
Mr Steele said there are body image pressures on young men, with social media playing a significant role.
"Men aren't immune to the allures of social media and we know women like athletic bodies."
He labelled some of the social media profiles of bulked up men as "quite grotesque and in some cases unrealistic" and pointed out that many of the physiques require almost full time training.
"Sometimes they are taking performance enhancing drugs and some of them are doing it full time because that's their job."
A former gymnast and trampolinist who had Olympic aspirations, Levi Wheatley, 25, from Waterloo, initially found the gym scene overwhelming and quite body image focused.
But he said joining Crossfit, a largely mirrorless strength and conditioning workout, helped him make the switch to concentrating on performance.
"I kind of shifted my focus on educating myself what I was doing, making sure I had the knowledge and knew how to eat properly and train properly with a structured program."
It was a completely different world to the fitness world he was used to.
"When I started at my first gym I was looking at the big guys and putting weight on and size on but I wasn't clued up with what I was doing," he said.
"It really shifted my mindset."
He believes that certain elements of the fitness industry are very body obsessed which can warp people's views but also that social media twists the ideals of what is healthy.
"A lot of it is dangerous, there are some good positive things and well-educated guys giving out free content but also lot of steroid type lookalikes giving out programs that are not even well detailed, I can't believe they get away with it."
COMMENT: WHY WE NEED TO CHANGE BODY IMAGE CONVERSATION AMONGST YOUNG MALES
The Butterfly Foundation's National Manager Prevvention Services Danni Rowlands writes:
When we think about body image issues, many people still believe these issues only affect adolescent girls. However, body dissatisfaction does not discriminate and as research becomes far more inclusive of males, the prevalence and experiences of males is becoming better understood.
A consistent finding is that stigma remains a significant barrier to males seeking help when serious body image, eating and exercise issues develop.
While the muscular body ideal has not significantly changed over time (think the Greek god Adonis), what has changed is the intensity and exposure to these ideals; media, social media, sport, gaming and also to a lesser extent in the toys designed for young boys. Parents may have noticed the increased muscularity in action figurines, and super hero costumes?
The harmful message reinforced to males through the promotion of muscular body ideals, is that the strength of a man can be 'seen', that stature and size defines
self-worth and can guarantee success in life. The topic of masculinity is, of course, a complex one, but it is important that the role of muscularity and the pursuit of male appearance and body ideals is a considered piece of the puzzle. It's also important not to oversimplify this issue for males, as the relationship a person has with their body is complex, personal and influenced by many things.
Unfortunately, when males are feeling unhappy with their weight, shape and muscle size, they are at greater risk of engaging in harmful behaviours such as restrictive eating, overtraining/exercise and excessive use of supplements and steroids to change the way they look, in the hope that it will change the way they feel. Sadly, research reports that these behaviours are increasing in adolescent boys.
So how do parents support their sons to develop a healthy body image? More importantly, how do parents include boys in the body image conversation and challenge masculine and muscular ideals.
For more information on body image and eating disorders in males please visit the www.butterfly.org.au or should you require support, advice or referral information please contact the Butterfly National helpline www.butterflynationalhelpline.org.au
Originally published as 'Bigorexia' hits teen boys using roids and supplements