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Size Hero: How Steroids & Muscle Marys Conquered the World

How steroids got into our bloodstream and changed the shape of masculinity

(Guardian, 6 Dec, 2007)

‘Roids may sound as Eighties as Cher’s black-lace bodice. But they’re baaak, even bigger and bustier than ever.

According to a series of recent reports, steroids, or ‘juice’ or ‘gear’ to the initiated, once an exotic drug of cheating athletes and freaky bodybuilders have entered the mainstream and have become just another lifestyle product for young men: some boys as young as 12 are taking the drug.

And this despite the frightening possible side-effects meticulously listed in these press reports, including liver, heart and kidney damage, atrophied testicles, erectile dysfunction, depression and raised aggression. (Though, arguably, you could also experience most of these simply by following Arsenal FC.)

The key to this mainstreaming of steroids is vanity. If you want to get into people’s bloodstream these days, promise to make them like what they see in the smoke-glass gym-mirror. According to the surveys, the large majority of young men using the gear are not doing so to be stronger or faster or scarier – all traditionally acceptable ‘masculine’ ambitions – but to look more attractive. To look shaggable. Or just make you look.

In other words, young men are taking steroids the way that many gay party boys have taken them for years: to look good on the beach or dance floor or webcam. ‘Muscle Marys’ – as they’re called by envious, less-muscular gays – are apparently no longer a strictly gay phenomenon. Muscle Marys are where masculinity is at, Mary.

It shouldn’t be so surprising. We don’t really need surveys to tell us this. It has, after all, happened right before our eyes. It’s the media that has mainlined steroids into the culture and our kids. Unlike, say, very skinny girls, very muscular boys are very popular. An anti ‘Size Hero’ campaign like that we’ve seen against Size Zero is unlikely. Steroids are an essential, prescribed even, part of the way that the male body has been farmed and packaged for our consumption since it was laid off at the factory and the shipyard in the 1980s.

A generation of young males have been reared on irresistibly – and frequently chemically – lean and muscular images of the male body in sport, advertising, magazines, movies and telly, even in the cartoons they watch and the computer games or toy dolls (or ‘action figures’) they play with. It seems all that’s left of masculinity in a post-industrial, post paternal world, apart from a science-fiction-sized penis, or a right foot good enough to get you into the Premier League, is a hot bod. Men and women – but especially men – will give you kudos for that. So will people casting reality TV series.

Even Action Man (GI Joe in the US) is now a Muscle Mary. Perhaps because he’s only twelve inches tall, Action Man seems to have been hitting the ‘juice’ big time. He’s also got himself a nice deep all-over tan – to better show off his pumped muscles.

Since the 1960s his bicep measurements have more than doubled from a (scaled up) 12″ to 27″ and his chest from 44″ to 55″. His current ‘cut’ physique would be rather difficult to achieve just by eating corned-beef hash rations – especially since, as far as I’m aware, a portable plastic gym isn’t yet one of his basic accessories. In an example of life imitating art, or at least squaddies imitating dolls, steroid abuse by soldiers is increasingly common: US soldiers in Iraq have been caught ordering steroids online, and it was recently alleged that a sizeable proportion of Blackwater mercenaries are on ‘the gear’.

Muscle Marys aren’t just for Xmas – they’re also for High Office. Arnold ‘Commando’ Schwarzenegger, seven times Mr Olympia, who has admitted using industrial quantities of steroids since he was in his teens (though denies he takes them now) is today the walk-on-water Green Governator of California and Republican inspiration to David Cameron – after a successful Hollywood movie career playing an under-dressed heavily muscled male masseur pretending to be an action hero. Quite an achievement when just walking without painful chafing must have been difficult.

Partly because of Arnie’s 80s ‘special effects’, Muscle Marys are de rigeur in the movies today – even in middle-age. The ageing star of a recent epic blockbuster whose career has largely been built on his six-pack was widely rumoured to have been on so much ‘gear’ trying to look ‘invincible’ that he frequently had to be stretchered off the set at the end of the day, poor love. Meanwhile ‘Comeback Kid’ Sylvester ‘Rocky’ Stallone (aged 60) was caught by Australian customs with several vials of his comeback secret earlier this year.

The ailing James Bond franchise successfully re-launched Bond and made him more attractive to younger viewers by reincarnating him in the pneumatic form of Daniel Craig – Bond became his own big-chested Bond Girl – and last year’s smash hit film ‘300′ featured ‘Spartans’ who looked less like ancient warriors than Muscle Marys at a Toga Party. Or the “juiced-up” professional wrestlers in Speedos that so many boys today have on their bedroom walls.

WWE wrestler Chris Benoit’s recent murder-suicide of his wife and child and intense media speculation about whether it was steroid-related (steroids were found at his house and his postmortem testosterone level was ten times normal) has caused a major scandal in the US. But it has been as obvious for many years that most of these guys were sprinkling more than sugar on their Cocoa Pops (and Benoit was relatively scrawny compared to some wrestlers).

That’s, after all, what people were looking at. What they were paying to see. Pro wrestling is showbusiness, and steroids are the business – at least when it comes to making spectacular bodies.

As a result of this and other recent steroid scandals in American football and baseball – including at High School level – a panic has emerged about the use of steroids by US athletes. But this has tended to obscure how mainstream steroids already are in the US and how, as in the UK, they’re principally (ab)used by non-athletes (only 6% of users played sports or considered themselves bodybuilders).

In the UK there have been calls to ban the sale of steroids online, crackdown harder on gyms selling them and educate young people about the dangers. Well, everyone is in favour of education, and no one is in favour of teens using steroids, but it’s unlikely that any of this will seriously reverse the Muscle Mary/Size Hero trend.

Steroids can’t be uninvented – or filtered out from the culture’s bloodstream. They’ve already changed the shape of masculinity. What’s more, unlike most if not all of the expensive supplements advertised in FHM, Men’s Health and Nuts as ‘muscle-builders’ and ‘fat-burners’, they actually work. And I know whereof I speak: I dabbled with the ‘juice’ myself as a callow youth. They certainly did what they said on the tin: I only stopped because they made me even spottier and angrier than I already was.

In an age when what’s authentically masculine is unclear, but what’s hot is as in-yer-face as a nice pair of pecs, injecting synthetic manliness, despite the possible risks to your actual man-bits, is not going out of fashion anytime soon. The only effective way to discourage their use will be to come up with a new generation of muscle-building drugs that work as well as steroids but have fewer side-effects. I’d certainly take them.

Steroids are the metrosexual hormone – they make men saleable and shaggable in an age that doesn’t have much idea what else to do with them.

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

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10 thoughts on “Size Hero: How Steroids & Muscle Marys Conquered the World”

  1. I did a cycle or was it two on my own, then left it alone until sanctioned by MDs for AIDS wasting, low testosterone levels. It was warranted to some extent but I got access to far more than necessary for “health”. Still, I don’t know that steroid use is up there with ciggies or alcohol in terms of real danger used without total abandon. I’m not sure it’s such a big deal. I think innumerable Aiden Shaws of the world may have exacerbated otherwise untreatable difficulties via various choices, but. . . well I’ve been over this turf before in ye old comments section. . .

  2. Dear Mr Simpson,

    Thank you for alerting us all to this creeping menace to public and pubic health. Also, for explaining yet another cause and excuse / justification for the continuing collapse of public decency and courtesy. After reading your illuminating prose: So many things now make sense!

    It used to bewilder me how ‘upset’ supposedly Adult Men get about driving cars or simply queuing for products and services:

    Now I know it’s not ‘Road Rage’ but ‘Roid Rage‘.

    I had assumed the rude motorists who cruise, I mean, curse me on a daily basis, had simply been watching too many episodes of ‘Top Gear’!
    All that blaring of horns and flashing (of lights) just because I happen to ‘look ‘ at them, smile and ‘wink’, whilst licking my lips after recently masticating some salty nuts. I’m only trying to be friendly!

    I have also experienced it in the supermarket as some moron with 600 cans of beer in his trolley can’t wait to get to the till to get home and ‘off his trolley’: So simply barges into me! Using the metallic shopping basket on wheels as weapon of choice.

    I hope Flight Attendants are into ‘this kind of thing’! I don’t want any unpleasant Mid-Atlantic Trolley Dolly hissy-fit outrages: Just because Airlines expect their Young Male Employees to conform to ‘customer expectations’ regarding minimum pectoral requirements, pert butts, etc.

    Often I’m innocently waiting at the Night Bus Stop eating some chips: Only to be targeted by some specimen as the ‘outlet’ for all their pent up frustrations and steroidal derangements. Simply because they have not been given instantaneous genital gratification after buying some young lady 10 Brandy and Babychams at the ‘Discothèque’ – as I think ‘dancehalls’ are called by young people today.

    I always try to reason with them, subtly suggesting various ways that might relieve them of their disturbed passions: In a way that doesn’t involve slashing me with their Stanley Knife! Sometimes I succeed: But often I have to flee in terror, which isn’t a very nice way to end the night. Is it?

    Now I realise they are probably ‘victims’ of this cult-like usage of ‘steroids’, I will be more circumspect in offering assistance in future!

    I also have suspicions that certain Alpha-Females in their Hummer-type S.U.V’s may be using something more than just HRT patches to get that Madonna-esque, don’t mess with me- Amazonian lady look.

    Your article has alarming implications! Please make sure you send a copy to The Home Secretary.

    Of course, as with so many other problems in Modern Society: It is the ‘homosexual-ists’ and their irresponsible propaganda for ‘party’ lifestyles who are responsible for this reprehensible phenomenon.

    An acquaintance of mine gave me a book to read called ‘My Downfall’ by some unfortunate soul called ‘Aiden Shaw’. It was a work of unusual honesty and self-examination concerning his ‘cinematic career’. He took steroids too. He seemed to realise: They make you big, but they don’t make you clever. And really, it’s all a bit ‘high-maintenance’, this whole ‘gay’ thing. From what I can see.

    Disgusted of Malvern Wells, England.

  3. It’s huge with High School athletes in the U.S. and Canada too, parents are scoring the steroids for their sons and let’s not leave out daughters who play sports. Enhanced performance means college scholarship, celebrity, perhaps a professional career. Ultimately steroid abuse, growing your body at such a rapid rate results in injury to say nothing of the mental side effects. Nice to look at but really how many Muscle Gods do we need in this world?

  4. Thank you for your great article/blog entry/whatever! Too many people have the belief that only women care about what people think about them. Popular belief is that all men do exactly what they want regardless of what the ideal man is.
    What makes me really angry, though, is that women are “allowed” to be vain, but men are not. There are still hillbillies that put up “beware of gay man”-signs outside your door if you comb your hair one time too many. This fear of effeminate behaviour must stop. Let’s just all agree that effeminate means “good”. Fine!
    Anyway – that people destroy their bodies to be beautiful or even accepted is not acceptable. And why do Hollywood lack imagination? Why are they creating the same movies over and over with the same stereotypic women, men, villains, homosexuals etc? Artistic freedom is overrated when the artist’s no artist. I want to see more types of characters and bodies onscreen, and I want more rules and regulations concerning commercials. Now I’ve said enough. No, just one thing more: I’m not attracted to muscle marys. Just letting you know that there are people who doesn’t think highly of gym heroes. But I’m Swedish, so who cares about what I think?

  5. ‘…boys who do not excel in sports should feel compelled to reinforce their masculine self image by taking measures to enhance their secondary sex characteristics as manifested in their habitus.’

    I’m one also. I did row for my school, but that never got anyone laid.

  6. One more comment/critque of a nerdy/scientific nature:

    Clinically, ‘steroid’ refers to a broad class of cholesterol-based hormones, which in addition to testosterone and other androgens (DHEA, etc.) includes all the estrogens, progesterone, cortisol, and the various vitamin Ds.

    Obviously the androgens are the sub-set of steroids to which you are referring. However, these days most juicers use them in consort with non-steroid (protein) hormones like Growth Hormone (GH), insulin-derived growth factor, and even insulin itself, as in addition to mediating the uptake of simple sugars in fat does it the same for amino acids in muscle.

  7. I’m glad you pointed out the interesting overlap (or perhaps consilliance) between wimps on ‘roids and ‘Muscle Marys’. Whereas in earlier times the playing fields were considered a training ground for those ‘muscular Christians’ who went off to govern the Empire or conquer the West, in the post-war, post Imperial, post-industrial era, success in sports has become and end unto itself, and sports heroes the paradigm of masculinity. The tables have turned to such an extent that in the Blackwater goon squad we have mercenary soldiers masquerading as sports figures.

    Therefor it should come as no surprise that boys who do not excel in sports should feel compelled to reinforce their masculine self image by taking measures to enhance their secondary sex characteristics as manifested in their habitus.

    I happen to be one of them (to some extent, at least.) The caveats regarding exogenous androgen notwithstanding, I will never be ‘huge’ because I could never rationalise consuming the huge amounts of protein required (4+ g/kg) to ‘build’ in a world where at least a billion children still go to bed hungry. I know, how quaint of me.

    U.S military recruiters — or rather the advertising agencies they retain — are canny, and place their expensive ads during televised sports events as a way of suggesting to those sempiternal bench-warmers another avenue in which they may prove their masculinity. I suspect that their are more than a few potential Muscle Marys in this sad-sack cohort, which may account for the somewhat higher incidence of homosexuals (i.e. ‘Friends of Freddy’) in the military.

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