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Steroids won’t cure toxic masculinity Young men are killing themselves for an empty ideal

Who wants to look like a brown condom stuffed with walnuts anyway? Credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Who wants to look like a brown condom stuffed with walnuts anyway? Credit: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images


February 3, 2023   5 mins

A spectre is haunting the gyms of the West. If the bodies on display there look better than they did in the Nineties or Noughties, the reasons go far beyond our expanded knowledge about training and nutrition. It’s thanks to steroids. 

The Times last week reported that steroid use in the UK has increased tenfold over the past decade, while recent studies have shown that 2% of Canadians, and between three and four million Americans, have used steroids in their lifetimes — with roughly a quarter of those users reporting “psychological dependence” on the otherwise-non addictive drugs.

I have been on the periphery of the strength and fitness culture for my entire adult life, and steroids have always been part of the athletic game: if you want to win, not just at bodybuilding and powerlifting but at any sport, you take performance-enhancing drugs. Initially, I had primarily positive views about the drugs: steroids, I thought, were merely a means to an end, a way of getting stronger and increasing functional capacity, something reams of academic and anecdotal research have confirmed they do. However, I gradually learned that the individuals using them in this way are few and far between.

That small pool of people largely consists of pro athletes, driven by financial incentives or competitive instincts to pursue every conceivable advantage. But recreational users have always outnumbered professional users, whose livelihoods depend on athletic performance. And that gap has only widened as these drugs have become available everywhere from internet forums to legally operating testosterone clinics. Their pull is irresistible: a relative of mine who never played sports or even took to the bodybuilding stage was arrested for felony possession of steroids in 2014. 

These recreational users are trying to win a different kind of game. When I started investigating steroids, an increasing number of users were following in the footsteps of Aziz “Zyzz” Shavershian, a Russian-born Australian who built a following on YouTube at the end of the Noughties. One of the first notable influencers to emerge on the now ubiquitous site, Zyzz preached a gospel of “aesthetics”, relying on steroids consumed in conjunction with exercise to develop a physique similar enough to his idol Frank Zane’s that it would win him the undying admiration of his followers.

The key difference, of course, was that Frank Zane — whom I interviewed a year ago — was a professional athlete, training his body to win bodybuilding pageants, and Zyzz was merely someone who wanted to look the part. Zane detested selfies and self-recorded footage, believing it to be deceptive and no substitute for up-close, objective inspection of another person’s body; Zyzz relied on these methods to project a particular self-image. Taking steroids arguably made him weaker and sicker, not stronger. Zyzz died after a cardiac arrest aged 22, the victim of a congenital heart defect and cardiomegaly — an enlarged heart — worsened by the drug use that, like many fitness influencers including the recently disgraced Brian “Liver King” Johnson, he had spent the majority of his career denying he used. (Zyzz’s deception was exposed a month before his fatal heart attack, when his brother Said was arrested for possession of anabolic steroids.)

Zyzz’s early death should have made him a cautionary tale. Instead, he became a “muscle martyr” beloved by other fitness posters. People like my felonious relative saw him and wanted to be him, while emerging social media platforms provided convenient playgrounds for their carefully-curated exercises in brand-building narcissism. I’ve now interviewed hundreds of users, and the reasons for their use all arise out of some sense of absence, some internal emptiness. A gay user whose steroid-abetted transformation I profiled explained to me that he wanted to transition from being a chubby, schlubby teen to a “hyper-masculine” man. Others said they added mass in the hope of “becoming someone”; all that hypertrophied flesh would obscure an essential lack of self. Several steroid users who were attending bodybuilding pageants merely as spectators told me how eager they were to be mistaken for competitors, that passing for one would constitute the highlight of their year. 

“The first casualty of steroid use is the truth,” the fitness journalist and bodybuilding competition coach Anthony Roberts has told me repeatedly. Even if steroids are obtained with a perfectly valid prescription, there is still a cultural taboo that prevents most users from admitting to using them. As Roberts tells it, lying is the oldest and most effective performance enhancer of all: lying about what you take, how much you take, what else you take — because steroid use, for many, is but a small part of a drug-filled lifestyle. Certain fitness influencers, in addition to denying or at least staying silent about steroid use, have gone even further, inflating their on-screen workouts with the use of fake weight plates and exaggerated claims about their performance.

Meanwhile, they are risking their health. Heavy steroid users are already uniquely susceptible to cardiovascular problems — and so many influencers are using steroids in excess of what a physician would prescribe for therapeutic use. Those with pre-existing heart problems, like Zyzz, are uniquely vulnerable, particularly in recent times. During the pandemic, each widely-publicised bodybuilder death was met with waves of accusation: at first, it was the evil virus that did them in, then it was the “clot shot”. Never mind that most of these so-called “recreational users” are teetering on death’s doorstep at all times, aware that even a common cold could stop their engorged hearts.

Bodybuilding prodigy Dallas McCarver, for example, died in 2017 with organs so enlarged that they strained credulity, and a recorded testosterone level of 55,000 nanograms per deciliter (the normal range for a male falls between 300 and 1,000 ng/dl, and the highest recorded testosterone level captured in a failed Olympic drug test was 20,000 ng/dl). So, as they near peak muscularity, and fame, these bodybuilders are also nearing the end of their lives. Their spectacular bodies serve as both temple and tomb. 

Hours of conversations with men like these have led me to believe that their behaviour is, in part, a response to the socioeconomic situation in which we find ourselves. Since the early Eighties, in the West, deindustrialisation has proceeded apace and the world of finance has become dominant. To people coming of age, it might appear as if nothing is made anymore but money. Farmers and manual labourers, such as the steamfitter captured in Lewis Hine’s famous 1921 photograph, sometimes exhibit a high degree of muscular development related to their jobs. By contrast, middle-class workers, performing increasingly less strenuous work for more than a century, have to actively cultivate muscular physiques to project power for which there might be little purpose — beyond showing that they aren’t subject to the degenerating tendencies of their age. In the absence of any tangible construction projects, the only thing that you can gain approval for building is your body — a body that is both an “aesthetic” calling card and a prison for your enlarging viscera and solipsistic thoughts.

In more recent years, there has been much commentary on declining male testosterone levels. Blame is assigned to everything from poisoned food to sedentary lifestyles. Some pundits, such as manosphere influencer Mike Cernovich, have urged men to set aside $80-100 a month for testosterone replacement therapy. Whereas Cernovich’s cohorts would most probably deride the prescription of SSRIs for depression, or oestrogen for transgender-identifying individuals, they accept a pharmaceutical solution for the crisis of masculinity. At least testosterone administered in a clinic is accompanied by regular blood tests that can detect cholesterol issues and other problems before they become dangerous. But it is still another of modernity’s many panaceas: here is a weekly or biweekly needle to the thigh or buttocks that will make you feel and perhaps even look like someone you are not, but feel entitled to be — or at least appear to be, on social media.

The overdiagnosis of SSRIs, the superfluity of steroids, and the legions of men killing themselves to look strong are tragedies. They are disordered responses to a kind of existential emptiness, a world in which our identities are all we have left to display and sell. And we know, deep down in our hearts, that such a meretricious product is worth nothing at all. 


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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Derek Smith
Derek Smith
1 year ago

I remember a panic over steroids being the subject of an episode of ‘The Cook Report’ in the early 90s. Everything old is new again.

And once again, there is no such thing as ‘toxic masculinity’. There are only toxic people – of both sexes.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

The author is both toxic and male

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
1 year ago

He worked for the ‘Good Man Project’, which tells you everything you need to know.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

I didn’t know that. I abhor that site with a passion. I aspire to be the complete opposite of the emasculated men who write those smug articles for it.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

I’ve just looked at it, and am duly nauseated.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

So he is a living breathing advert for steroids; one of those men who repulses any reasonably normal male. What we used to be able to call a f****** (in the South Park not the gay sense)

Last edited 1 year ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

I didn’t know that. I abhor that site with a passion. I aspire to be the complete opposite of the emasculated men who write those smug articles for it.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

I’ve just looked at it, and am duly nauseated.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

So he is a living breathing advert for steroids; one of those men who repulses any reasonably normal male. What we used to be able to call a f****** (in the South Park not the gay sense)

Last edited 1 year ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Derek Smith
Derek Smith
1 year ago

He worked for the ‘Good Man Project’, which tells you everything you need to know.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Smith

The author is both toxic and male

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
1 year ago

I remember a panic over steroids being the subject of an episode of ‘The Cook Report’ in the early 90s. Everything old is new again.

And once again, there is no such thing as ‘toxic masculinity’. There are only toxic people – of both sexes.

Phillipa Fioretti
Phillipa Fioretti
1 year ago

To see young men objectifying themselves in order to feel better is to see what young women have been doing since forever.

It is tragic for all of us, driven by the ever growing visual nature of our screen based culture and the lack of meaning and belonging this generates.

Lack of access to status drives the size of trucks young men drive, the size of their muscles, the size of their resentment and bewilderment.

I’d say we’ve let them down, but I won’t bear responsibility for the technology driven hypercapitalists and their project of making us all into products that have personal branding, rather than humans who have belonging and secure purpose.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

I agree with everything you say with the exception of blaming “hypercapitalists”, whatever that is.
The real issues is found in the quote, “….lying is the oldest and most effective performance enhancer of all…” Humans everywhere seem to be predisposed to lying in order to obtain an unfair advantage somehow. Lying started with Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. Long before capitalism.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

I agree with everything you say with the exception of blaming “hypercapitalists”, whatever that is.
The real issues is found in the quote, “….lying is the oldest and most effective performance enhancer of all…” Humans everywhere seem to be predisposed to lying in order to obtain an unfair advantage somehow. Lying started with Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. Long before capitalism.

Phillipa Fioretti
Phillipa Fioretti
1 year ago

To see young men objectifying themselves in order to feel better is to see what young women have been doing since forever.

It is tragic for all of us, driven by the ever growing visual nature of our screen based culture and the lack of meaning and belonging this generates.

Lack of access to status drives the size of trucks young men drive, the size of their muscles, the size of their resentment and bewilderment.

I’d say we’ve let them down, but I won’t bear responsibility for the technology driven hypercapitalists and their project of making us all into products that have personal branding, rather than humans who have belonging and secure purpose.

j watson
j watson
1 year ago

The Author doesn’t mention ‘Roid Rage’ – the tendency for anabolic steroids in some to increase aggression and potential threatening behaviour – and where that can have behaviour implications for the others too. It’s at that point perhaps this crosses a line of concern from free choice to a wider concern? Would have been interesting to hear Author touch on this.

Christopher Thompson
Christopher Thompson
1 year ago
Reply to  j watson

Excellent point.

Christopher Thompson
Christopher Thompson
1 year ago
Reply to  j watson

Excellent point.

j watson
j watson
1 year ago

The Author doesn’t mention ‘Roid Rage’ – the tendency for anabolic steroids in some to increase aggression and potential threatening behaviour – and where that can have behaviour implications for the others too. It’s at that point perhaps this crosses a line of concern from free choice to a wider concern? Would have been interesting to hear Author touch on this.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Oliver Bateman has a real problem – with other guys. My guess is one too many atomic wedgies.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

LOL. Agreed!

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

LOL. Agreed!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Oliver Bateman has a real problem – with other guys. My guess is one too many atomic wedgies.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

Zyzz was probably over-compensating for being the last name in the phonebook.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

Zyzz was probably over-compensating for being the last name in the phonebook.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

I disagree with the characterization of bodybuilders as “athletes”. They are no more “athletes” than Sly Stallone or Dwayne Johnson is an “athlete” when they steroid themselves to bulk up for a role. Achieving a look that is judged subjectively is very different than pursuing a sporting goal (higher, faster, stronger).
To me, this toxic use of steroids is just another part of “transhumanism”. Like the transgender issue, it’s about feeling that we can be born in a body that we don’t want. And transhumanism promises we can “fix” it.
“You can never get enough of what you weren’t really looking for in the first place”

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

I disagree with the characterization of bodybuilders as “athletes”. They are no more “athletes” than Sly Stallone or Dwayne Johnson is an “athlete” when they steroid themselves to bulk up for a role. Achieving a look that is judged subjectively is very different than pursuing a sporting goal (higher, faster, stronger).
To me, this toxic use of steroids is just another part of “transhumanism”. Like the transgender issue, it’s about feeling that we can be born in a body that we don’t want. And transhumanism promises we can “fix” it.
“You can never get enough of what you weren’t really looking for in the first place”

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

People are (or should be) free to do whatever they want to their “meat bag.”
Certainly women, in varying degrees, have been doing it from time immemorial.
It’s not the job of the government to restrict self modification.
Controls to prevent danger to minors and exploitation by illicit organisations are reasonable but impingement on individual freedoms is not acceptable.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  William Shaw

As other commenters point out, the trouble with applying bodily autonomy to the case of steroids is the effect steroid use sometimes has on behaviour.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago
Reply to  William Shaw

As other commenters point out, the trouble with applying bodily autonomy to the case of steroids is the effect steroid use sometimes has on behaviour.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

People are (or should be) free to do whatever they want to their “meat bag.”
Certainly women, in varying degrees, have been doing it from time immemorial.
It’s not the job of the government to restrict self modification.
Controls to prevent danger to minors and exploitation by illicit organisations are reasonable but impingement on individual freedoms is not acceptable.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

I go to the gym because I like being reasonably big, strong, and fit, but would hate to look like a body-builder.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

I go to the gym because I like being reasonably big, strong, and fit, but would hate to look like a body-builder.

Jonny Stud
Jonny Stud
1 year ago

‘The similarity is that Zane was a professional show-pony, training his body to win aesthetic approval in exactly the same way as Zyzz but in the medium of public show because social media wasn’t invented then’ – corrected it for you. If youtube was around in Zane’s heyday who’s to say he wouldn’t have used it in the same way? The author seems to demonise one person for doing the exact same thing as another.

Jonny Stud
Jonny Stud
1 year ago

‘The similarity is that Zane was a professional show-pony, training his body to win aesthetic approval in exactly the same way as Zyzz but in the medium of public show because social media wasn’t invented then’ – corrected it for you. If youtube was around in Zane’s heyday who’s to say he wouldn’t have used it in the same way? The author seems to demonise one person for doing the exact same thing as another.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

The interesting thing just hinted at in this article is the idea that weaker men may well have been the primary beneficiaries of modern, industrial capitalism. In a world where physical strength was necessary for more jobs, such men (and women) would suffer.

What the industrial revolution did for physical work in the 20th century, the computing and AI revolution is doing for mental work in the 21st. I wonder if history will repeat itself? Will AI allow the less talented to compete the way powered machinery allowed the less physically talented to do so?

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

If the prevailing goal is to make everyone equal, then you would be correct. God help us all.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

I’m pretty wary of machine learning too, Warren. But I’m trying to come up with reasons it might not be dystopic. We’ve been increasing the level of intelligence needed to successfully navigate and compete in modern, industrialized society for a couple of centuries. Maybe machine learning can help level that playing field. I’m a geek; in the pre-industrial world, I die. So I have some sympathy for those who have been left out of this one.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

I’m pretty wary of machine learning too, Warren. But I’m trying to come up with reasons it might not be dystopic. We’ve been increasing the level of intelligence needed to successfully navigate and compete in modern, industrialized society for a couple of centuries. Maybe machine learning can help level that playing field. I’m a geek; in the pre-industrial world, I die. So I have some sympathy for those who have been left out of this one.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

If the prevailing goal is to make everyone equal, then you would be correct. God help us all.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

The interesting thing just hinted at in this article is the idea that weaker men may well have been the primary beneficiaries of modern, industrial capitalism. In a world where physical strength was necessary for more jobs, such men (and women) would suffer.

What the industrial revolution did for physical work in the 20th century, the computing and AI revolution is doing for mental work in the 21st. I wonder if history will repeat itself? Will AI allow the less talented to compete the way powered machinery allowed the less physically talented to do so?

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 year ago

Is the description of the disorder akin to muscle and body dysmorphia?

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 year ago

Is the description of the disorder akin to muscle and body dysmorphia?

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Slender toff with charm and manners beats butch oik bodybuilder to the eye of the lovely maiden every time…

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Slender toff with charm and manners beats butch oik bodybuilder to the eye of the lovely maiden every time…

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 year ago

Since the late 1960s, many young men have been given the choice of either being effete ineffectual office worker, body builders or coarse crude oiks like Andrew Tate. Swearing has become a sign of toughness. Jeremy Clarkson’s ” The Greatest Raid of of All ” interviewed Commandos who survived on the St Nazaire Raid. Officers such as Corran Purdon MC, Dr Tiger Watson.MC and Micky Burn MC were very tough, fit and not over muscled. Watson became a doctor and Burn a poet.
Jeremy Clarkson’s the Greatest Raid of All – the FULL documentary | North One – YouTube
Ian Woolridge’s documentary on the training of the RMC ” Arctic and Mountaineering Warfare Cadre ” shows instructors are very articulate, skilled fit and agile, not coarse crude oiks.
Royal Marines: Behind the Lines: Episode 1 – Fain Would I Climb – YouTube
Nowadays, reality for most young is whatever comes out of a screen. Most in the media only associate with other middle class types.Are there any writers/media types on cultural issues and/or media types who have served in elite British and Commonwealth military units or have friends /family who have done so? Perhaps a modern day Micky Burn MC or Patrick Leigh Fermour DSO, OBE ?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 year ago

Since the late 1960s, many young men have been given the choice of either being effete ineffectual office worker, body builders or coarse crude oiks like Andrew Tate. Swearing has become a sign of toughness. Jeremy Clarkson’s ” The Greatest Raid of of All ” interviewed Commandos who survived on the St Nazaire Raid. Officers such as Corran Purdon MC, Dr Tiger Watson.MC and Micky Burn MC were very tough, fit and not over muscled. Watson became a doctor and Burn a poet.
Jeremy Clarkson’s the Greatest Raid of All – the FULL documentary | North One – YouTube
Ian Woolridge’s documentary on the training of the RMC ” Arctic and Mountaineering Warfare Cadre ” shows instructors are very articulate, skilled fit and agile, not coarse crude oiks.
Royal Marines: Behind the Lines: Episode 1 – Fain Would I Climb – YouTube
Nowadays, reality for most young is whatever comes out of a screen. Most in the media only associate with other middle class types.Are there any writers/media types on cultural issues and/or media types who have served in elite British and Commonwealth military units or have friends /family who have done so? Perhaps a modern day Micky Burn MC or Patrick Leigh Fermour DSO, OBE ?