Safety or Strength: Body-Regulating Policy in America

What are Steroids?

Androgenic anabolic steroids are hormone supplements that can boost one’s athletic performance, significantly increasing his or her odds of building muscle. According to a study by the International Journal of Sports Medicine, anabolic steroids can speed up the rate of muscle growth by a factor of up to 16. Accelerating muscle growth using steroids can, therefore, increase one’s strength very quickly, which can be advantageous for bodybuilders and athletes. Though other kinds of steroids exist, “steroids” discussed in the media usually refer to anabolic steroids, having been made famous by bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Anabolic steroids aren’t always used for “gains,” however. Some people need steroids for medical purposes. Doctors can prescribe androgenic anabolic steroids in small doses (much lower than what athletes and bodybuilders traditionally use) to people experiencing delayed puberty, loss of function in the testicles, and other conditions. Veterinarians can also prescribe them to animals.

Mike Bolkovic: “Juiced Up”

An episode of Vice News’ Youtube series “SWOLE,” which has accumulated upwards of 13 million views, interviews bodybuilder and steroid user Mike Bolkovic about his experience with steroids. I highly recommend watching the entire piece – I promise it’s more culturally relevant than watching a modern-day Schwarzenneger pick things up and put them down. 

Why Use Steroids?

One may be inclined to use steroids for athletic achievement or attainment of a specific kind of physique (a bodybuilder’s domain). Mike’s peer discusses competitive pressures to achieve a particular physique in the bodybuilding world, explaining that “when you’re competing at a certain level, you have to even the playing field… it’s to make you perform better.”

His claim isn’t entirely true, however. Both “natural” bodybuilding competitions and “non-natural” bodybuilding competitions exist. Competitors are not tested for steroid use before “non-natural” contests, implying that steroid use is not prohibited. In “natural” bodybuilding competitions, competitors are tested for steroids and steroid-mimicking supplements to confirm he or she achieved his or her physique “naturally.” Competitors can choose to participate in either kind of competition – so in reality, Mike’s peer could have chosen to compete in natural tournaments if he didn’t want to use steroids.

So, someone might use steroids to get a leg up in the competitions they devote their life to – fair enough. In several instances throughout the video, however, Mike and his peers reveal that socio-cultural pressures were influencing their steroid abuse, rather than the pressure to win at the competitions. 

Mike’s comments illustrate his desire to appear dominant. He explains, “I enjoy walking places, especially with my girl, and people are looking at me, like holy sh*t, let me just stay out of this guy’s way.” As he struggles to lift some weights, he exclaims to himself, “stop being a little bitch, let’s go!” Here, he demeans a potential version of himself that wouldn’t be able to execute that specific lift.

The particular psychological factors behind Mike’s drive to appear dominant could be unique – but one can speculate that masculinity ideals of strength and dominance might be warping his priorities (and the priorities of steroid users like him). He admits his fear of losing what he determines to be dominance – physical strength – when he acknowledges that he has a “fear in the back of [his] mind about not being as big as I am [he is] now.” 

Negative Consequences

You might be thinking, so what, the guy wants big muscles! What’s wrong with a little steroid injection here and there? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s not so much the desire for a specific physique that’s so damaging (though it can be) – it’s the incredibly dangerous impacts that anabolic steroids can have on the body. Gynecomastia, a conversion of excess testosterone into estrogen leading to the development of breast tissue, is commonly discussed in the media as one of the main effects of steroids (indeed it is, occurring in 37% of steroid abusers). Though gynecomastia may be superficially unsavory, other consequences can be far more dangerous. 

Steroids can cause increased strain on the heart (enlarging it to potentially dangerous sizes), increased blood cholesterol (which can lead to heart disease or failure), and spontaneous cardiac arrest. Stroke-causing blood clots, liver strain, tendon failure, and increased risk of prostate cancer are just a few of steroids’ other possible adverse effects. Their correlation to hypomania, anxiety, and depression, compounded with their highly addictive nature, make steroid use a threat to mental health as well. The audience recognizes that Mike’s top priority – achieving his idea of dominance – is unreasonable; the most popular comment reads:

Examination of steroids’ pros and cons prompts the question: if athletes or bodybuilders like Mike are desperate enough to ignore steroids’ possible consequences, where would they purchase them, what policies exist to regulate their distribution, and is their regulation ethical? Should the government or the individual decide between safety and strength?

Policy

The Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990 made illicitly obtained (unprescribed) anabolic steroids promoting muscle growth a Schedule III Controlled Substance – the same classification as narcotics and LSD. Simple possession of illicitly obtained steroids imposes a $1000 minimum fine and a maximum of one year in jail. Aside from legal consequences, the use of steroids for athletic achievement is becoming obsolete, since most professional sports leagues prohibit their use. Some athletes may turn to mask agents, which are substances that can act to produce a false negative result in a urine test for steroids.

How People Obtain Them

What do these policies mean for those trying to get their hands on anabolic steroids? Since doctors can have their license revoked for overprescribing anabolic steroids, obtaining a medically unnecessary prescription is hard to come by. Therefore, most athletes and bodybuilders purchase steroids illicitly, from veterinarian prescriptions (“for their pet”), off of black markets (on the dark web), or from smugglers who purchase the steroids in countries where they are legal, despite the risk of facing jail time. 

Risks of Illicit Steroids

All illicit means of obtaining steroids pose consequences (aside from possibly facing jail time and fines). Contents of steroids used on animals are unregulated, meaning their components have not been proven to be safe for human use, or animal use, for that matter. Veterinarian prescriptions may be more reliable than obtaining steroids off of the black market, though. A study by the Hartford Courant showed that steroids from the dark web or black market are often contaminated or even entirely fabricated. They may contain lead, flammable substances, and carcinogens, each of which is incredibly toxic to the body. An Australian bodybuilder died at the age of 33 by injecting pure arsenic (a metal) into his veins, assuming he had purchased anabolic steroids. Despite these risks, some people still buy and use illicit steroids.

The Ethics of Body Regulation

It’s no secret that the government attempts to regulate the health of its citizens through policies, like steroid prohibition (as discussed above), the prohibition of certain drugs, abortion permittance or restriction, and, most recently, food. The FDA banned synthetically created trans fats in 2018 (what you find in grandmothers’ Crisco jars), for example, due to their particular health risk-inducing properties. Though these policies attempt to protect the health of Americans, they may also exist in part to lower health care spending – more sick Americans means more national health care dollars spent. Even though there are aspects of these policies that benefit the government, at the heart of them is the government’s core responsibility: protection of its citizens. 

Examining a broader scope of “protective” health policy reveals some inconsistencies in the government’s attempt to manifest this responsibility in practice. The government protects Americans from physical maladies stemming from marijuana use (depending on the state), but not from alcohol use, which is arguably worse for the body. The government protects us from some harmful foods, like trans fats, but not from others, like carcinogenic preservatives. 

American policy is also inconsistent in its regulation of steroids. First of all, the government’s classification of steroids as a Schedule III drug is arguably imprecise – steroids differ from other Schedule III drugs in that users compromise some facets of their health for a different form of health or physical ability: remarkable strength. Steroids may hurt but can also help – they may enhance someone’s career if he or she is willing to make that trade-off. In contrast, LSD, narcotics, and other Schedule III drugs only hurt one’s body. 

Policy on plastic surgery and CTE (traumatic brain injury incurred from occupations requiring consistent trauma to the head, like professional football), contradict the government’s stance on steroids. Invasive plastic surgery procedures like liposuction (surgical removal of fat) also pose severe health consequences if abused (including sudden death during surgery) – yet, medically unnecessary plastic surgery is legal. Similar to steroids, plastic surgery is a form of medical technology that can improve one’s career, if he or she works in a looks-based industry like modeling, for example. CTE, shown to exist in 80 to 99% of autopsied brains of football players, is unregulated as well. 

Football players legally compromise their brain health for athletic achievement. Models or actors and actresses may legally risk health consequences associated with plastic surgery for success. Why can’t bodybuilders? One might argue that physicians oversee plastic surgery, so abuse of operations to the point of health complications is unlikely. Perhaps this could apply to steroids if their use were to be monitored by licensed physicians, too. In sum, the government isn’t entirely consistent. But inconsistency in policy that oversees one’s bodily autonomy raises critical ethical questions.

Firstly, is one’s body indeed his or her body? To what extent may one exercise control over his or her own health – and is complete bodily autonomy a fundamental human right? Some would argue that a body is only one’s own to a certain extent, because of unavoidable environmental factors. 

If complete bodily autonomy is a fundamental human right, should the government control which environmental exposures one can subject their body to? A typical response is that as long as one is not harming others in the alteration of his or her own body, he or he should be able to manipulate their own body as he or she wishes. A simple application of this argument would imply that all drugs should be legal, however. “Harming others” could include using government dollars to medically treat self-induced maladies. But if all lifestyle-related conditions requiring government dollars for repair were considered to be “harming others,” receiving treatment for obesity covered by government dollars would also be morally reprehensible. These questions are undoubtedly complex and require analysis beyond the scope of this blog post.

Though using steroids individually doesn’t directly affect others, if the government permits the sale of steroids, how would our capitalist economy influence people to use them – and could that be a form of harming others? Misinformation, false advertisement, persuasion from companies, and potential emerging societal pressures and influences (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) could cause consumers to make uneducated decisions to use steroids. 

Steroid policy illuminates the complexity of policy creation. The government is supposed to protect communities and individuals, but how do we balance protection from health maladies with one’s freedom to compromise his or her health in exchange for something else – like strength, success in the modeling industry, or success on the field?

Steroids can harm individuals. If legalized, forces of capitalism could cause their use to become popular, in part because of socio-cultural ideals of masculinity. Widespread use could seriously damage the health of our nation. However, our current widespread, legal alcohol abuse damages the health of our nation everyday; it arguably takes the same moral form as steroid abuse. 

In sum, policies surrounding the regulation of bodies are ethically inconsistent. If we are to regulate bodies, where is the line drawn? To what degree must the government protect us from our demise?

–Lana

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3921472

https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/pubs/brochures/steroids/public/

https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-2005-11-06-0511070697-story.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4462039/

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2645104

https://www.webmd.com/beauty/news/20000121/deaths-from-liposuction-too-high-study-shows#1

4 thoughts on “Safety or Strength: Body-Regulating Policy in America

  1. Hi Lana – your point that plastic surgery is just as unfair of an advantage in the modeling industry as steroid use is in athletic competitions was particularly interesting to me. I’m curious to hear your response to one of your last questions: “If we are to regulate bodies, where is the line drawn?”

    Are you proposing that there should be more or less no regulations on what people can do with their bodies? I feel like cynics of regulation would attack policies like the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990 for arguably making the consequences of steroid abuse worse; as you mentioned, people turn to illegal means of steroid acquisition, so it’s not surprising that they end up accidentally ingesting substances even worse for their bodies. At the same time, though, lack of regulations (like with poorly-regulated cosmetic surgery) can also lead to major health concerns.

    I also didn’t realize there was a distinction between “natural” vs. “non-natural” body-building competitions. This seems to suggest that using steroids is perceived as making you “lesser,” and this is also interesting to consider when steroids define the self-image of people like Mike.

    What stakeholders do you think should step up and demand consistency in (or the removal of) body regulations/policy? I’m definitely curious now as to how cultural attitudes toward body modification differ outside of the US and how much that is reflected in policy with regard to these issues.

    -Christina

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  2. Hi Lana,

    Really enjoyed the questions brought up in your post. I think looking through the lens of steroids brings up a bunch of interesting connections like the ones you’ve pointed out in bodybuilding, health treatments and modeling.

    I was particularly interested in the references you made to drugs/alcohol. I feel that these larger topics can be looped into the policy discussion around steroids with emphasis to a harm-reduction approach to policy rather than a preventative policy.

    Back in the 80’s we learned (although still haven’t fully reflected this in policy) that prevention-based policy toward drugs is incredibly inefficient and ineffective. Despite spending millions toward the war on drugs, we made almost no impact on slowing down illegal drug trade and violence around drugs. Looking at other country’s policies toward drugs, ones that have adopted strong production regulation and monitoring with harm-prevention policies such as free injection sites have seen much better progress toward drug usage.

    I think this folds into your discussion on steroids as I personally feel that government policy focused on prevention is both futile and unethical. If someone wants to alter their body through something like steroids, they should be given the freedom to do so. However, they should also be given full and transparent information as to the exact effects, risks, and costs of these drugs. To your point about current illicit usage, placing undue restrictions on steroids significantly hinders this process with a high cost to the individual and to society.

    I appreciate the questions this post brings up and would love for the discussion to be continued in class. Thanks for a great piece!

    – Oliver

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  3. Hi Lana,

    Thank you for sharing your insights into the steroid issue. Beyond the use of steroid itself you have discussed some thought-provoking points such as the impacts of steroids on people’s image and how that is induced by the inclination to masculinity.

    One point that I found particularly interesting in your post is how steroids policies illuminate the complexity of policy creation. Should the government simplify the process of regulation because there is no visible harm to others? Should freedom of altering one’s own body be regulated because of the potential side effects it could generate? The notion of defining body autonomy is surely complicated and questions us to rethink about policy boundaries. You have also pointed out cases where steroid use are “allowed” and loosely regulated such as in the case of competitions, which makes people reflect on the negligence in policy making.

    Last, I’ve found similarity between the discussion of steroids on male bodies to the overuse of diets and focus on body image on female bodies. Do you think these issues may be prompted by the social norms of femininity and masculinity?

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  4. Hi Lana,
    This is a very interesting topic that I honestly did not know much about before this. I think the question of the ethics of the regulation of these steroids is a hard question to answer. On one level, we have the question of whether regulating the human body is ethical at all. I could not discuss body regulation without bringing up the controversial topic of abortion. In the question of body regulation where abortion is concerned, there is both a life to consider and the potential for a second life. If the United States has the opinion that abortion is a women’s right, why should steroids be any different? Not to say that steroids should be a right, but that they should not be taboo or more highly regulated. In the cases of both abortion and steroids, there are both medical reasons and other personal reasons for going through with them. On a second level, we have to consider that perhaps the strictness of the regulations increase the risks associated with steroids. If the regulations were looser, less people would have the need to buy their steroids off the black market, and would therefore be less likely to die from impure or fabricated steroids.

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