Pumped Up Kids: New report shows adolescents hit the gym (and the steroids) in search of muscles

My mom tells me that when she was a teen in the 1960s, girls weren’t encouraged to exercise or play sports. Instead of softball practice or P.E. kickball games, she did a calisthenics routine in her room every night while listening to an Elvis record (sides A and B for maximum fitness!). She didn’t do those jumping jacks because exercise is good for your heart or makes you less of a jerk. No she, like many teen Elvis fans, was in it for her looks.

Well, according to a New York Times piece from earlier this week, teens still work out to change their looks just like they did in my mom’s day, but that’s not all: A recent study shows that boys are increasing their workout routines and their “muscle-enhancing behaviors” (everything from diet changes to steroid use) along with them.

a young man lifting weights in front of the mirror at the gym
Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times

Now this study, published by the journal Pediatrics, might be new, but—despite the Times headline—the notion that adolescent boys have issues with their bodies certainly isn’t. That boys are affected by harmful media messages and unrealistic standards of beauty/handsomeness has been reported on many times in the past decade (including right here at Bitch!). And considering that it’s only been a topic of research for about that long, we can assume boys have been caring about this stuff for far longer. Like, for as long as teens have cared about their looks (a long time). In fact, the Times reports, “Pediatricians are starting to sound alarm bells about boys who take unhealthy measures to try to achieve Charles Atlas bodies.” Atlas was born in 1892. Old news, right?

What is new though are the ways these body image issues are being expressed. The Pediatrics study, which looked at close to 3,000 adolescents, found more teens visiting online forums like “fitspo” Tumblrs to talk about their workouts and pore over photos of soccer stars and Jersey Shore six-pack abs. In addition, “muscle-enhancing behaviors” were common in this sample for both boys and girls: From the results: “For example, 34.7% used protein powders or shakes and 5.9% reported steroid use. Most behaviors were significantly more common among boys.”

Yes, these are new trends and yes, they are troubling. (Although my “fitspo” search returned just one image of a man and hundreds of images of women, so take the “boys are obsessed!” news with a grain of salt.) However, Tumblr is also a new(ish) trend. So is Facebook. So is the abundance of protein and weight gain powders, many of which are marketed to men. So are 24 hour gyms. Should the cause and effect alarm the media’s sounding—that these things are causing adolescent boys to become body conscious—be the other way around? Are websites and weight gainers changing teen boys? Or do we just have more ways to obsess over, alter with chemicals, talk about, and pump iron with our bodies now?

This might be the pre-Millennial in me (what’s up Generation Catalano?) but I found the most alarming part of this study to be not the kids hitting the weight rooms, but the supplement use:

“The problem with supplements is they’re not regulated like drugs, so it’s very hard to know what’s in them,” said Dr. Shalender Bhasin, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and chief of endocrinology, diabetes and nutrition at Boston Medical Center. Some contain anabolic steroids, and even high-quality protein supplements might be dangerous in large amounts, or if taken to replace meals, he said. “These things just haven’t been studied very well,” he said.

Why are these supplements available to adolescents—or anyone—if we don’t know what’s in them? With the very real pressure teens face to look and act a certain way, a way that includes unrealistic body standards, we should hardly be handing them magic powders and promising them chiseled pecs. If you were a teenager—or anyone—wouldn’t you rather drink a chocolate shake than achieve physical fitness in a healthy and reasonable way? I know I would.

The story that’s come from these results is about boys, because boys are more likely to partake in “muscle-enhancing behaviors,” and because boys and body image is a more exciting story for the media since girls have been dealing with this shit for a long time now, but that’s a false dichotomy. The study looked at teens of all genders, and many girls reported lifting weights and changing their diets as well. Clearly the problem lies not with adolescent boys, but with a culture that promotes thin-yet-muscular-yet-big-yet-small-yet-hot-yet-cool bodies and promises results through gym memberships and powdered drinks.

Like the weight gainers they’re consuming, these musclebound body issues require further investigation. In the meantime, if you know of any teens looking to get in shape, consider buying them an Elvis record.

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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