The body as a chemistry experiment: Steroid use among South Wales bodybuilders

Michael Bloor; Lee Monaghan, Russell P. Dobash and Rebecca E. Dobash 1997

Chapter 2 in  Nettleton, S., & Watson, J. (Eds.) The body in everyday life, London: Routledge, ps. 27-44


The bodybuilding scene, with its studios and sub-culture, has been described as one aspect of the so-called 'body-boom' experienced in many western cultures (Weis 1985: 287). Characterised by the lifting of weights and adherence to special dietary regimens, bodybuilding is a growing participation sport which involves devel­opment of the physique for aesthetic effect (ZviFuchs and Zaichkowsky 1983; Thirer and Greer 1978). Whether individual bodybuilders aspire to sculpt their body simply for personal satis­faction, competitive endeavour, or both, drug-taking has also been described as an important aspect of this sporting lifestyle (Gaines 1974: 73; Klein 1986: 122-4; Klein 1993: 147-52; Monaghan 1995: 3~5). The issue of drug-taking in bodybuilding is the topic addressed in this chapter.


One important dimension of drug use among bodybuilders is that of systematic personal experimentation in types, courses and dosages of drugs taken. Consider, for example, the remarks of this experienced competition bodybuilder, interviewed by Lee Monaghan, about the twenty-odd courses (or 'cycles') of steroids taken over his bodybuilding career:


my cycles were my own cycles. They're not standard cycles, like I wouldn't take a six-week [course]. I would possibly, like, do six months on steroids and at least do two months of this and do two months that. And the last two months I'd do this. I would see what would work better. I would experiment on myself.

(Interview 046: 2147-2158)


It will be argued that many bodybuilders view their drug use as a tool, a means for self-realisation and self-expression. Their drug use is carefully planned, monitored and adjusted. Drawn from their own accumulated experimentation and experience, from conversations with fellow-users, and from the study of magazine articles and underground handbooks, many bodybuilders' knowledge of drug regimens, effects and side-effects qualifies them as 'ethnopharmacologists'. That is, lay persons with a detailed sub-cultural understanding of the pharmacological properties of particular compounds, similar to that knowledge of native remedies and native taxonomies of disease studied by anthropologists among non-western peoples (e.g. Frake 1980). This ethnopharmacological knowledge is not necessarily consonant with that of scientific pharmacology (it may be partly opposed to, and critical of clinical knowledge), nor is it necessarily clear and distinct: it is very much individualised knowledge about which particular drugs, combinations of drugs, courses and dosages are likely to be most effective for a particular individual in building the body to which that individual aspires: building your very own body through your very own chemistry experiment.


Ethnopharmacological knowledge by bodybuilders can be con­ceived as a parallel phenomenon to other areas of lay expertise on health matters. For example, there are parallels with the expertise which many patients with chronic or recurrent conditions develop about the individual manifestations of the condition in their own particular case (see, for example, Macintyre and Oldman (1977) on the expertise of migraine sufferers). Nor are steroid-users unique among drug-users in their interest in the effects of drug-taking: an absorbing interest in the effects of drug-taking is a feature of most drug-using sub-cultures. Where steroid-users differ from users of other drugs is the extensiveness of their ethnopharmacological knowledge and in the purpose of their drug use: steroid use, for the most part, is an instrumental activity undertaken with the aim of developing the user's body.


However, not all steroid-using bodybuilders are thought by bodybuilders themselves to view steroids in this instrumental and experimental light. Many bodybuilders will draw a distinction between steroid use and steroid abuse. Steroid-users will distance themselves from the reported abuse of steroids through excessive or indiscriminate steroid-taking, or steroid-taking in the absence of a proper training regime. This abuse of steroids is seen in a similar light to the taking of opiates or amphetamines and provides a contrast to the ennobling and self-realising project of the dedicated, steroid-using bodybuilder. A parallel can be drawn with the contrast found between LSD-using 'heads' and Methedrine-using 'freaks' in 1960s San Francisco, where the older, higher status 'heads' would emphasise the self-realising objective of their acid use and distance themselves from the hedonistic speed 'freaks' (Davis and Munoz 1968).


In this chapter we will review the experimental, instrumental, ethnopharmacological orientation to steroid use of many body­builders and analyse narratives (atrocity stories or cautionary tales) bodybuilders would tell about steroid abuse, showing how this contrast between use and abuse serves to distance the narrators from unwelcome associations with other drug-users (‘junkies') and legitimise, in their eyes, their drug-taking activities. First, we offer a brief account of the study methodology.




Data collection methods embraced both ethnographic work and depth interviews. Ethnographic pilot work was undertaken at a range of possible fieldwork sites in twelve cities and towns across South Wales (fifteen gyms, twelve leisure centres, two needle exchanges, one clinic and three bodybuilding competitions). On the basis of this pilot work, a small number of gymnasia (all of them commercial properties open to any member of the public) were selected for detailed ethnographic study. In order to minimise bias in fieldwork contacts, the main ethnographic study was conducted on a time-sampling basis. Additional data were collected at a local needle exchange and at a Well Steroid Users Clinic. Despite the sensitive nature of the research topic, productive field­work was conducted in these various interactional settings. Whilst other drugs researchers have encountered difficulties in accessing the views of steroid-using bodybuilders in South Wales (see Pates and Barry 1996), overt ethnopharmacologic research was facilitated in this male-dominated subculture given the ethnographer's age, gender and other aspects of self. Lee Monaghan (male, mid-twenties and a keen sportsman) reported little difficulty obtaining 'the native's point of view' whilst conducting participant observation.

Sixty-seven depth interviews were conducted with both steroid-using and non-using bodybuilders, both men and women. While most of the interviewees were recruited through ethnographic contacts, deliberate efforts were made to recruit some of the sample by other means, including a group of interviewees interviewed at a local prison. All the interviews were transcribed and the transcripts and ethnographic fieldnotes were indexed using Ethnograph - a computer software package. Indexing of the fieldnotes and transcripts has allowed a systematic approach to data analysis, developing analytical propositions which apply to the entire universe of data carrying particular indexed codes; this approach is variously termed 'analytic induction' or 'deviant case analysis' (Bloor 1978).


Ethno pharmacology: 'You've got to be like a scientist'


Many bodybuilders describe their drug use as a planned and carefully monitored activity, formulated and conducted in the light of evolving experience and detailed study:


I've not used em now for almost nine months. Really, if you're concerned about your health, you don't want to be on them all the time, maybe two cycles a year is best - on for two months, off for four months, then back on again for two months. Last year though I took five cycles. That's why I've laid off them for a while. I've been buying a supply for myself though, been stocking up for my next cycle. I plan to use my head a bit more this time though. Like, I read that the receptor sites in your muscles don't recognise the same steroid after three weeks use. So the best thing is to change the steroid after that amount of time. I'm planning on using Dianabol, then Sustanon, then some Deca.

(Fieldnotes: 4362-4382)




Interviewer: Okay. Right, how many cycles have you completed? Roughly.

S07: Um, 12 to 14 I would say.

Int: 12 to 14. And how frequent are they? Is there a sort of pattern or . . . ?

S07:           Before I started competing I would like do 3 months on, 3 months off; but since I've started competing I've tried to get 10 weeks off between the cycles. But the cycles may last, like this one is a 21 week cycle, this one is. But I've had 10 weeks off before I've started it. . . . I pre-plan everything and I make a note of most things ...

Int: So how do you take them?

S07: Injections and orals. ... But I've tended to stay off the orals lately because they seem to suppress my appetite. But I will take them. I mean, saying that it's the bulkers that seem to suppress my appetite more than the cutting orals, because I suppose the cutting orals need to suppress your appetite a bit. But I've had a bit of trouble with the bulking ones suppressing my appetite. ...

Int: Okay, now can you describe to me the current cycle?

S07: Right. At the moment now I'm doing a 9-week bulking cycle. Do you want to know what I'm taking? (Yes please) Deca for 3 weeks, Heptylate for three weeks, Testoviron for 3 weeks. And then the last 4 weeks - then I'll stack them [i.e. combine them] with Pronabol. ... Weeks 1 to 3 is just Deca on its own. Weeks 4 to 6 will be Heptylate. But on week 6 I'll start the Pronabol as well. (Right) Yeah. And then weeks 7, 8 and 9 will be Testoviron and the Pronabol. (Right. Fine) Do you want the amounts or ...? (Yes please) With the Deca, it's about 300mg a week, which would be three l00mg injections. The Heptylate would be about 750mg a week. The same with the Testoviron. And the Pronabol will be, um, week 6 will be six 5mg tablets a day which is 2l0mg. And then weeks 7, 8 and 9 will be 270mg.

(Interview S07: 2333-2651)


The multiple use of drugs within a particular cycle (known as 'stacking' or 'pyramid stacking') is typical. In Korkia and Stimson's (1993) national survey of steroid use, the mean number of drugs taken within the respondent's last cycle was 3.2 for men and 2.2 for women. Steroid use is only one aspect of a planning project that also involves a carefully regulated and modulated training programme and dietary regime, complete with various nutritional supplements and perhaps other non-steroid drugs such as Human Chorionic Gonadotrophin (HCG), diuretics, and growth hormones:


S43: I try to alter my diet every few months. . .. Because I don't just rely on the steroids. I rely on everything I've got: my vitamins, my food, my training, everything. Because I change everything all the time. ... When I do come off them I take HCG to turn my own hormones back on, which people don't know a lot about, things like that. It's like I say, I don't like people they do 3, 6 months on the stuff I don't do that: I'll be like 6 to 8 weeks. Full stop. And I'm off. On and off And then I leave it 3 weeks before the HCG has gone right through my system. So I use them because I honestly believe that I'm using them correctly. . . you can't use the same steroid all the time because it's like any drug, your body will build a resilience up to it and get used to it. So what you want to be doing, just like I said with your workouts, you swap them round . . . you've got to be like a scientist as well.

(S43: 127-2850)


This ethnopharmacological knowledge is a shared knowledge communicated not only through handbooks and dealers' instructions, but also through countless casual conversations like that reported in this fieldnote:


Aneurin: Theoretically, Dianabol shouldn't work, as it's a very crude form of testosterone. It does work though, practically for everyone, as it binds itself easily to the receptor sites. As I say though, Dianabol is so crude, it shouldn't work.

Tegwin: Cyp [Testosterone Cypionate] puts the mass on. That really works.

Aneurin: You're likely to lose it afterwards though.

Tegwin: Yeah. The only reason why I think I kept it is because I went on the Deca [Nandroline Decanoate] after the Cyp.

(Fieldnote: 2742-2757)


Names have a considerable symbolic value in any ethnopharmacological knowledge system. It is possible to construct a taxonomy of different steroids used by local bodybuilders together with their slang diminutives ('Cyp'), their supposed properties, dosages and administration routes. Another aspect of ethnopharmacological knowledge related to steroid taxonomies is the extensive argot ('stacking', 'pyramid stacking', 'hardeners', 'cutters', 'bulkers', etc.). However, the aspect of steroid-users' ethnopharmacological knowledge which deserves particular attention here is that of the highly complex 'cycling theories'.


Cycling theories concern the lengths of courses, variations in dosages within courses, combinations of different courses both sequentially and interactively, combinations of different courses with other dietary and training regimes, and spacings between different courses. Most steroids are taken in cycles: in a national UK survey of steroid use, 88 per cent of the ninety-seven respondents reported that they took their drugs in cycles (Korkia and Stimson 1993: 83). Cycling theories also embrace lay theorising about how steroids work: many research subjects discussed at length the role of 'receptor sites', for example. It is, of course, the cycling theories which link ethnopharmacological knowledge with the planned and instrumental character of much steroid use. While novice steroid-users may follow a cycle suggested by a dealer or an experienced acquaintance (a 'gym doctor', in the argot), more-practised users quickly begin to plan their own cycles. Some novices when first using steroids may fail to complete a cycle for fear of side-effects or detection:


S039: I had a few tablets and I gave myself one jab. And I thought, 'Oh, I can't feel right, doing this.' Like the guilt, because I felt, you know, like a drug addict, you know. So that's what really put me off I thought, I was thinking, 'Oh God. If my mother walked into my bedroom and caught me sticking a needle in my arse.' I'd just, it would just be the shame of it. So.


And, as we shall see below, it is the failure to complete a cycle which marks out, according to many respondents, the abuser. Failure to use steroids within a cycle betokens a lack of discipline and the absence of a planned goal.


It should be clear here that this ethnopharmacological knowledge is not equivalent to the pharmacological knowledge of the scientific specialist. It is not simply that this ethnopharmacological knowledge is not clear and distinct. There are certainly confusions in our steroid-users' knowledge: while one respondent (S03) confidently described Winstrol as 'liver toxic', another (S44) stated equally confidently that 'Winstrol is non-toxic to the body'. However, as Schutz (1970, 1962; Schutz and Luckmann 1974) has pointed out in his work on the social distribution of knowledge, there are many elements of common-sense thinking in scientific thinking and indistinctness in scientific thinking too. What distinguishes steroid-users' ethnopharmacological knowledge most clearly from pharmacological knowledge is its focus on the particular rather than the general, its focus on the particular bodily experience of the individual user. This individualised knowledge is explained by users partly in terms of differences in genetic make-up and susceptibility to different regimens, but mainly in terms of the need continually to alter cycles in order to overcome increased toleration of the drugs in the present cycle:


Int: How come you sort of changed from them and tried different things? I mean did you just start experimenting or what? what were you doing?

S35: No. What . . . what it is, as soon as I started taking em I wanted to find out a bit more about em. Because, like you know, I didn't want to just take something where I didn't even know what the effect was, what it does, or nothing. So I thought I'd have read up on it. Other people talk to you about it, people who know about it, like. And they said that if you do stay on the same thing for. ... After about six weeks, it's not going to work for you anyway, no matter what is. Cos your body gets used to it. Your receptors won't accept it any more. So after it's about six weeks, you're better off changing to. ... Still using an anabolic, but using a different anabolic, so your body is having something different, so it won't get too used to it. So that way then your body [is] still going to keep growing, whereas if you do stay on the same thing for six months you're just going to have no effect at all. Like, so you're just wasting money that way. So that's the only reason why I just keep changing.


Ethnopharmacological knowledge emphasises the importance of individualised knowledge, of flexibility, change and personalised planning. It emphasises the importance of the careful monitoring of drugs administration and of effects; it encourages and legitimises an experimental approach to drug-taking.


Use and abuse: 'It's about control'


While ethnographies of other groups of drug-users have also noted the consuming interest that all drug-users have in matters connected with drug use - strengths, purities and effects, for example - the extent and specificity of many steroid-users' ethnopharmacological knowledge is clearly exceptional. Indeed, steroid-users distinguish themselves sharply from other drug-users. When a South Wales needle-exchange began to provide injecting equipment suitable for steroid-users (who, because they normally inject into muscle tissue, require larger needles than intravenous injectors), exchange staff were asked by steroid-using clients if staff would schedule separate sessions for steroid-users, as the bodybuilders did not like mixing with the exchange's other ‘junkie' clientele.


The self-differentiation of one group of drug-users from another has been noted before in the literature. Davis and Munoz (1968) described the self-differentiation of LSD-taking 'heads' from Methedrine-taking 'freaks' in 1960s San Francisco. There were obviously differences in patterns of drug use, with acid being taken by 'heads' perhaps once a week, while Methedrine ('speed') was being taken by injection by 'freaks', often very much more frequently. But a critical heads/freaks distinction made by the heads themselves related to the purpose of drug use: a freak uses drugs as an end itself but 'a head . . . uses drugs for purposes of mind expansion, insight and the enhancement of personality attributes, . . . as means for self-realisation or self-fulfilment' (ibid.: 160). Davis and Munoz noted that heads were older, higher status persons (artists, shop-owners, etc.), in contrast to the transient, quasi-criminal freaks. Playfully, and controversially at a time when the American counter-culture sought to stress a complete disjunction between itself and the culture of earlier generations of Americans, Davis and Munoz equated the instrumental/ expressive, head/freak distinction with wider distinctions between American classes: 'put crudely, LSD equals self-exploration/self-improvement equals middle class, while Methedrine equals body stimulation/release of aggressive impulses equals working class' (ibid.: 161).


There is an obvious parallel here between 1960s 'heads', drop­ping acid as an instrument of mental and spiritual development, and that of 1990s bodybuilders injecting themselves with steroids as an instrument of bodily development. The parallel can also be taken somewhat further, since Davis and Munoz point out that by no means all acid-takers are 'heads', with 'heads' deprecating those who would trip acid at music venues and the like, just for expressive reasons, just for the hell of it, without realising the supposed higher meditative and religious potential of the drug.


Similarly, all our steroid-using bodybuilders were able to draw a distinction, not only between steroid use and the use of drugs such as amphetamines and opiates, but also between steroid use and steroid abuse. Some respondents would equate abuse simply with over-use or indiscriminate use. But there was also a view that abuse of steroids connoted the improper and unplanned taking of steroids, taking steroids without cycling plans. Indeed, over-use might be operationally defined as exceeding planned dosages, an absence of control:


S39: there's safe limits to take [on] which to make steady gains. Or there's . .. you can make gains by taking a real. . .. If you take a large amount you are abusing it, but if you take an adequate amount, then it's nothing. Well, you know, it's safe.

(S39: 2695-2703)




S47: Abusing is overdosing on them, taking way over the top every day, and not having breaks, and just keeping on taking them. And using is using what you are supposed to use, just taking a bit training and taking it in the right dosages.





Int: would you say steroid users then are similar or dissimilar to other drug users, drug abusers, like users of heroin, cocaine, or . . .?

S38: Um, I would say they're different.

Int: So could you explain?

S38: Different in the sense that, when they're used properly, they're done in a cycle. You come on for so long and do your cycle and then you come off. Then you're, say, off it then for a couple of months. Er, someone who's on heroin, they're on it on a daily basis, year in year out. And there's no control, there's no control on the quantities that they take

(S38: 2717-2730)


There was a widespread recognition that steroids could be psychologically addictive, in the sense that some bodybuilders found themselves unable to cope with the inevitable weight-loss between cycles and so would attempt to combat this by continual steroid-taking. Again, such absence of control is indicative of the steroid-abuser; an individual who fails to take steroids 'correctly' and who thus increases the likelihood of potential side-effects without necessarily enhancing drug effectiveness:


S36: it is hard to control yourself you know, when you are losing weight, because you do get a drastic weight loss. But you learn to cope with it over the years and stop it depressing you. Like a mate of mine who is working with me now, he had a weight loss and his trousers were falling down. And he had to go back on them. This was what I was saying: he can't control it in his head, this weight loss. He had to go back on them, you know. And I lose a lot of weight. It does bother me in a way, but I know I have to come off them and I have to stay off them. This is the best way to do it and go on them when the time is right. ... It's about control.

(S36: 3342-3367)


The uncontrolled, unplanned abuse of steroids was frequently illustrated by the use of 'cautionary tales' - the term is Goffman's (1968) - like that of the friend with the falling trousers (above). These narratives nearly always relate to third parties:


There's Meredydd who comes here [gym]. He didn't have a clue. He took a jab of Sustanon 250 and after three days took another because he thought the first jab wasn't working. Then when he didn't see any change he took another at the end of the week. F*****g hell, it takes three weeks for it to work anyway ... Meiron said this lad doesn't train seriously.

(Fieldnotes: 3559-3571)


I know someone who took em three months before starting training as he thought they'd get him ready. F*****g prat! He just got fat - big belly hanging out here.

(Fieldnotes: 3465-3471)


S39: this person down the gym, the night before, um, he done the 'Wales' show, he literally, he literally. ... They had, him and a friend had a bag full of 'gear' [drugs]. He tipped it all out the bag. And he was jabbing up all night. And he took everything. And he watched his body in the mirror change his head grew, his cheekbone grew. I mean he almost died actually on the stage. And he didn't know if he was coming or going. And that's bloody steroid abuse isn't it? I mean he was sticking needles in his leg, in his arse and in his back.

Int: Was he taking that Esiclene? It sort of makes the muscles swell up temporarily.

S39: Oh you put it straight into the muscles don't you? (Yeah) Oh I think he was taking everything. He was taking 'growth' [growth hormone]. You know, just handfuls of tablets. And, you know, just devastated: he didn't know he was on the stage he didn't know where he was.

(S39: 2710-2745)


Respondents are always users, not abusers. Abusers are always third parties, except in a few instances where the currently responsible user/narrator may admit to previous abuse, when a novice:


P1: The first time I used steroids was years ago . . . I had a jab off a friend who had been training for three or four years and I'd seen him go from eleven stone to around. ... So that's the first jab I took. In the leg as well - f*****g killed [me]. F*****g hell, that's I think down to stupidity like: I didn't even know whether . . . I could have been injecting into a main artery, like, for all I knew. I didn't know nothing, that was the first time. Eight years ago. That was the first time I ever took any steroid, injected steroid.

Int: You weren't even training then were you?

P1: No.

Int: Did you know you had to train as well for the steroids to work?

P1: No I didn't have no knowledge whatsoever about training and all that. I thought: bang at it and away you go, like.

(P1: 2256-2308)


These narratives, like story-telling in other cultures, serve to define a normative order, distinguishing proper steroid use from improper steroid abuse for all collectivity members (Coffey and Atkinson 1996). Further, delineation of boundaries is reinforced in various media of communication; for instance, broad-ranging parameters for effective and safe usage are identifiable in steroid handbooks (e.g. Phillips 1991; Duchaine 1989). However, since steroid-users' cycling theory promotes and demands experimentation in courses and dosages, it is not possible for narrators to specific normative 'cycles' which are universally applicable. Certainly, it would be wrong to assume cynically that improper use is simply a higher dosage or a longer course than that currently being practised by the narrator, though extremely high dosages are universally condemned:


Angharad had the Sunday Express and it had an article about women using anabolic steroids. There was something [in it] about the female bodybuilder featured on The Cook Report [television programme]. Angarad said: 'She's in a right state now. Even her teeth are supposed to have fallen out. It's her own f*****g fault though. She's a f*****g stupid cow: she took way too much.

(Fieldnotes: 3811-3821)


And some drugs may also be universally condemned by story­tellers at all levels of use, for example, Nubain, an opiate-based painkiller that was briefly popular among some bodybuilders in South Wales, but led to addictive use (see the case studies reported by McBride et al 1996) and is shunned by story-tellers; a questionnaire study of 176 steroid-users in Cardiff reported only two instances of Nubain use (Pates and Barry 1996). Narrators also condemn steroid use unaccompanied by proper dietary regimes and training regimes, although (again) what constitutes 'proper' training may not be normatively established:


Angharad ... told me about Meredydd's diet: 'He said he'd made a real effort to eat before training. I asked him what he'd had that day and he said: Cake. F*****g cake! Can you believe it! He's a f*****g idiot. I asked him what sort of cake - maybe I'd got it wrong and he'd had a rice cake. No, it was a marzipan cake!

(Fieldnote: 593-613)


There's some dickheads out there, there are people like that. Some of them are kids, but most aren't: they're in their twenties a lot of them. I used to train in Valleytown and they're mad there: they'll take anything, they don't care. These lads come up to me and say: 'Can you get us any gear then?' And I'd say: 'Well, you've got to be training hard for em to work.' These lads weren't: they'd only just started training really. But they'd go: 'Oh, we're training hard. Now, what can you get us?' So I'd say: 'Well, there's Dianabol'. They'd not know what it is, but they'd go, 'Dianabol, yeah, great! Get us some of that then.' I wouldn't bother, but they'd come up to me again after a week and ask: 'Where's the Dianabol then?' I'd say: 'Well you know it's twenty-five pounds' I could get it at the time for twelve pounds, but I'd say a ridiculous price, as they didn't know anything about it. I'd get it for them. Then they'd say: 'Oh my mate wants some.' So I'd be getting their mates some and here I was getting one hundred and fifty pounds a week for practically nothing. And, you know, they weren't training or eating right and after a few weeks you'd look at them and they don't look any different on it.

(Fieldnote: 3943-3978)


Clearly, to the above respondent, small-scale dealing to novice users is less opprobrious than improper steroid use. From the extracts provided, normative rules on proper and improper use may not be very specific about the content of regimens, but they nevertheless carry great force in defining the collectivity and those outside it. In short, 'outsiders', 'the fringe' and other 'marginal members' are regarded by narrators to be completely lacking in knowledge of drug-taking for bodybuilding purposes. However, it is also recognised that expertise is easily acquired by those who socialise with 'hardcore' (i.e. dedicated and committed) body builders and who are therefore made aware of the existence of steroid handbooks and other relevant sources of information.




The body may itself be viewed as a reflexive project, according to Giddens (1991): the body is a possible locale (there are others) wherein the denizens of late modernity can construct for themselves identities which are no longer their automatic birthrights. Bodybuilders would eschew any analysis which portrayed their activities as driven by a late-modern identity crisis, but their identities are crucially shaped by their physical appearance: Cooley's 'looking glass self' (1983) is no longer a mere metaphor. In this instance, identity-building takes a peculiarly physical form. Those bodybuilders who are steroid-users are engaging in chemical, not just social, constructions.


It is this project-like character of bodybuilding activities which serves to differentiate (for our respondents) steroid use from other forms of drug use and to differentiate steroid use from steroid abuse: like 1960s 'heads', bodybuilders take steroids for instrumental, rather than expressive reasons; the end of steroid-taking is not the experience itself but the body beautiful, or the body powerful, or even the body health-full, achieved through a complex and plotted interaction of training, diet and chemical regimens. This distinction between steroid use on the one hand, and abuse (and other forms of drug use) on the other, is part of a normative order, illustrated and enforced through narratives of addiction, sloth and failure. What marks the subjects of these narratives as outcasts of the bodybuilding world, or mere apprentices not yet fit for admittance, is either over-indulgence or the lack of any planned character to their steroid use. And even over­indulgence may have connotations of a lack of planning.


Central to the planned and instrumental character of steroid use is 'cycling theory', the individual and flexible tailoring of dosages, of course-lengths, of course-combinations, of other drug combinations, of training programmes and of diets in order to maximise individual 'gains' and minimise potential side-effects in the face of different genetic susceptibilities and changing patterns of drug tolerance. Cycling theory both requires detailed ethnopharmacological knowledge and self-monitoring and encourages a degree of individual freedom in self-experimentation. The bodybuilder scans the mirror, not just in gratification, but also as a scientific scrutineer: the adage 'your body is a temple' is being replaced with 'your body is a laboratory' (Muscle-Media 2000 1996). This self-experimentation has no final and triumphal end. There is no Holy Grail at the end of The Cycling Quest, no ultimate and perfect cycle: cycling theory demands constant and progressive change to confound drug tolerances.


Concern has been expressed about the health risks associated with steroid use (e.g. Klein 1995). Steroid use has been linked (although not perhaps directly or conclusively) with increased propensities to violence ('roid rage'), with acne, gynaecomastia, changes in libido and appetite, with blood-borne diseases, lesions and trauma associated with harmful injecting practices, with infer­tility (Lloyd et al. 1996) and with long-term physiological damage - particularly damage to the liver, kidneys and the cardiovascular system (see, for example, the review by Kashkin (1992) and the self-reported side-effects of steroid use in Korkia and Stimson's (1993) national survey of steroid-users). Not all the necessary laboratory work has been concluded, but it seems plausible that physiological damage to the liver and kidneys is likely to be associated with medium-to-long-term steroid use, often at high and increasing dosages. Following this line of argument through, cycling theory, with both its careful self-regulation of use and its legitimisation of continuing and progressive self-experimentation, becomes both a guard against, and a spur towards, such self-damage. Indeed, bodybuilders themselves may concede that some chemistry experiments are best conducted in the laboratory, rather than the home. However, citing limitations in the existing research base and medicine's long-standing reluctance to accept the performance-enhancing properties of steroids, bodybuilders are currently more likely to give primacy to their own shared ethnoscientific understandings of anabolic steroids over the warnings of clinicians and pharmacologists.




The research reported on here was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). An earlier version of this chapter was presented at the BSA Medical Sociology Group Conference. We gratefully acknowledge the help of our many anonymous research subjects, of numerous service-providers in South Wales (not least Dick Pates, Huw Perry and Andrew McBride) and of Sam Edwards, who assisted in some of the interviewing.



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