One in eight young men takes muscle-building products

Young men are adopting risky behaviors to build muscle and lose weight. The more masculine they see themselves, the higher the risk of taking supplements.

Rapid body change is a fundamental part of adolescence. It is also a time where products that purport to affect your size and shape, like muscle-building products or laxatives for weight loss, can become particularly appealing. A study published in the journal Pediatrics looks at gender conformity and the prevalence of muscle-building products and laxatives in adolescents and young adults.

We spoke to the lead author, Jerel P Calzo from San Diego State University Graduate School of Public Health. The study’s other authors include S. Bryn Austin, Boston Children's Hospital, Kendrin R Sonneville, Harvard Medical School, Benita Jackson, Smith College, and Emily A Scherer, Dartmouth University.

ResearchGate: Can you give us a brief insight into what spurred you to study “mainstream” or “conforming” kids?

Jerel Calzo: In the United States and in many other countries, cultural norms for beauty and physical attractiveness are different for men and women. For example, having bigger muscles may be considered attractive for men, and being very thin may be considered attractive for women. To achieve those appearance ideals, some people may engage in risky behaviors, such as taking muscle building products in the hopes of increasing their muscularity, or taking laxatives in the hopes of losing weight. We were interested in studying whether kids who were more gender conforming – that is boys who were more masculine and girls who were more feminine – had greater risk for muscle-building product use (boys) and laxative use (girls).

RG: What were your results?

Calzo: We found that by young adulthood at age 19, 10.5 percent of women used laxatives for weight loss in the past year and 12 percent men used muscle-building products. Increased gender conformity in childhood was linked to greater risk for laxative abuse among females and muscle-building product use among males.

RG: What does it mean to be gender conforming for men and women?

Calzo: Men and women who are more gender conforming engage in a broad range of behaviors and actions and exhibit an outward appearance that fits social expectations for one's gender. In this study we focused on childhood gender conformity. For example, a boy who is more gender conforming may play exclusively with toys that are more stereotypically masculine (e.g., GI Joe). By contrast, a boy who is less gender conforming may be less exclusive in his toy preferences, or even consider playing with Barbie and My Little Pony. Because appearance is a major component of gender conformity, it is possible that gender conformity may also be linked to greater engagement in risky behaviors to achieve the ideal appearance for one's gender.

RG: Which source do you think (media, movies or otherwise) is the most prominent in telling males that they should be muscular?

Calzo: This is a difficult question to answer as there is not enough research in this area to say for sure which source is "the most prominent" in telling males that they should be more muscular. Based on your question, the assumption is that it's predominantly the media. However, males receive messages about their body and body image ideals from many sources, including their parents, peers, romantic partners, and coaches. If we were to just look at media, much of the research on the sociocultural influences on body image has been conducted on the experiences of girls and women and the effects of media exposure, like reading magazines, on body dissatisfaction, like feeling fat or wanting to be thinner. We do know that boys and men are definitely vulnerable to the harmful effects that media images overall have on body dissatisfaction, drive for muscularity, and even use of muscle-building products. What we can glean from this existing research is that TV, movies, and magazines send a similar message idealizing muscularity. What matters more is how much exposure youth have or choose to have to these different sources. In addition, some of these sources also differ in their level of advertising for different products. For example, print magazines and blogs may be able to include more advertisements for muscle-building products.

RG: What are the dangers in using these muscle building products, particularly when you are still growing?

Calzo: Because some muscle building products are hormones, hormone analogues, or affect hormones, one of the primary concerns for young adult males is related to puberty and side effects related to secondary sex characteristics including facial hair and breast development. Second, because of lax federal regulation around these products, muscle-building products are considered "safe" until proven otherwise. It’s possible that muscle-building products may contain substances that are detrimental to youth's developing bodies that are not detected until an adverse event occurs. They are simply not worth the risk.

RG: When did these types of behaviors become a part of male gender identity? Are the pressures men feel comparable to women?

Calzo: I might rephrase this question a bit, since it's more the case that these behaviors have long been a part of male gender identity. Men have been weight lifting and using muscle-building products of various forms for many decades. They just have not received much research attention until recently. It's difficult to say whether the pressures men feel are "comparable" to the pressures women feel. However, boys and men who are dissatisfied with their bodies, who are striving for impossible muscularity ideals, and who are engaging in dangerous practices, such as using muscle-building products, are suffering. That's a public health burden that must be addressed through research, education, and developing evidence-based clinical practices.

Featured image courtesy of flickr.