Shape of the future

Observations on bodybuilding

British muscles are swelling. Syringe exchange units around the country say that steroid users now outnumber clients for all other injectables combined. But rates of steroid use aren't the only thing that's changing: so is the type of person who uses the drugs.

According to Martin Chandler, a specialist in steroid use at Liverpool John Moores University, the rise is caused by people "younger and less knowledgeable" than their previous counterparts. "What scares me is their limited research and understanding," he says.

Although steroids, which have been linked to kidney and heart damage, are legal for personal use, it remains illegal to supply them. Budding users in the past had to rely on bodybuilders at the gym for links to suppliers. These bodybuilders considered steroids to be the sacred potions of professionals, inappropriate for ill-informed adolescents. As Chandler puts it: "If a 16-year-old walked into a gym asking older guys for steroids, they would have got a clip round the ear."

The internet is changing all that. Younger users are able to bypass the usual gatekeepers and buy steroids online, for prices as low as £4 an injection or £20 for a tub of pills. Chandler thinks there are dangerous consequences to such a trend. "At least if a dealer sells steroids to you face-to-face they can pass on some safety information. But if you're just entering your credit card number online you could be paying counterfeiters, and you have no information exchange," he says.

If the demographic of steroid users is changing, so too are their motivations. Among older users, the drugs were often taken as a means to open up non-academic job opportunities. This was particularly true in former manufacturing towns. When manual workers found themselves unable to make a living in the old industries, they often trained as security staff, bouncers or police officers to continue making a living through their bodies.

But, unlike mining and manufacturing work, for instance, these new careers did not develop appropriate physiques "on the job". Being a doorman might require a big build, but the job itself is more likely to cultivate guts than shoulders. Hence the rise of gym culture, and steroids.

Now, according to Chandler, it is fashion rather than function that motivates the younger generation to pump up: "Ultimately, what new users are concerned with is body image. It's got nothing to do with performance gain - it's about aesthetic." The trend is not surprising. Men's magazines are booming; there are also flourishing industries in male health, diet and supplements. Meanwhile, multimillion-dollar advertising budgets are pulling in actors and sportsmen to sponsor the "male ideal".

For the current generation of boys, body image is changing. We will have to wait and see what shape their masculinity will take.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis