Muscular body images pressure girls, boys into misuse of anabolic steroids

November 27, 2000

University Park, Pa. --- Girls and boys are now equally caught up in the social pressure for a muscular body image currently lauded in popular culture. A Penn State researcher contends those pressures are leading girls and boys down unhealthy avenues such as the misuse of anabolic steroids.

"Young girls have always had to struggle against the media stereotypes of stick-thin models or voluptuous sexuality, but with the rising popularity of women sports, girls are bombarded with buffed body images," says Dr. Charles Yesalis, professor of health policy and administration, and exercise and sports science at Penn State, and editor of the newest edition of the book "Anabolic Steroids in Sports and Exercise." "Now, young boys face pop culture musclemen like The Rock and Steve Austin, given the influence of professional wrestling shows."

"The current film 'Charlie's Angels' sports karate-kicking women in cool clothes," he added. "Today's children look with envy at the physiques of actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, and Linda Hamilton, whose roles call for a muscular build. Hollywood stars are openly taking Human Growth Hormone (HGH) injections to combat aging."

In addition, children are entering competitive sports at younger ages and many working families have children signed up in two or three sports. Parents, coaches and young athletes are facing growing violence in amateur athletics. The pressure to win at all costs continues to weigh heavily on children, Yesalis notes.

The concern is that many youths will take shortcuts to achieving a muscular build by using anabolic steroids. Female athletes also are pressured to achieve low body fat to excel in their sport. The Penn State researcher has seen evidence that the pressures are reaching down to young children. For example, the book cites figures from the Monitoring The Future Study, a national-level epidemiological survey conducted annually since 1975. Approximately 50,000 8th, 10th and 12 graders are surveyed each year.

The MTF data shows that during the 1990s, anabolic steroid use among 12 graders -both boys and girls - rose to an all-time high with more than 500,000 adolescents having cycled - an episode of use of 6 to 12 weeks - during their lifetime. And the percentage of girls alone doubled in the same period.

A 1998 study of 965 youngsters at four Massachusetts middle schools found that 2.7 percent admitted to taking illegal steroids for better sports performance. That included some boys and girls as young as 10 years old. "This year's Olympic doping scandals and the epidemic of anabolic steroids in professional baseball just glorify and justify steroids to impressionable youths," Yesalis notes. "The use of anabolic steroids has cascaded down from the Olympic, professional and college levels to high schools and junior high schools and now middle schools for athletes and non-athletes alike. "

"Anabolic steroids are made to order for a female wanting to attain a lean athletic body. While most drug abuse has outcomes that tend to discourage use, females who use anabolic steroids may experience a decrease in body fat, increased muscle size and strength, and enhanced sports performance," he says.

Girls and boys misusing anabolic steroids may win approval and rewards from parents, coaches and peers, but don't realize there are long-term negative effects on their health, particularly girls, according to Yesalis. Young girls face potential permanent side effects of male hair growth or baldness, deepening of the voice, the enlargement of the clitoris as well as the known risks of heart and liver diseases.

Published by Human Kinetics, the book incorporates the latest research, experience and insights of 15 experts on the scientific, clinical, historical, legal and other aspects of steroid abuse and drug testing. New information looks at the effects of steroids on health, particularly that of women.

This year, trials of East German doctors, coaches and officials reveal records of systematic doping of young athletes without their own or parents' knowledge. In 1974, officials' plan to turn the tiny Communist nation into a superpower in sports included giving performance-enhancing drugs to all competing athletes including children as young as 10 years old. The indictments included 142 former East German athletes who now complain of health problems. In media reports, several female athletes report incidents of miscarriages, liver tumor, gynecological problems and enlarged heart, all showing up decades after the steroid misuse.

"Our society's current strategy for dealing with the abuse of anabolic steroids in sport primarily involves testing, law enforcement and education," Yesalis says. "But our efforts to deal with this problem have not been very successful. Unless we deal with the social environment that rewards winning at all costs and an unrealistic physical appearance, we won't even begin to address the problem."
-end-
EDITORS: Dr. Yesalis is at 814 863 7333 or at cey2@psu.edu

Penn State

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