Michael Wilcox shows me a photograph of how he used to look when he was 18, skinny and weighing 8½st. In the picture he has sharp cheekbones, slim hips and twiggy arms. For complicated reasons involving a lads’ night out, he is also wearing a dress. “I’ve totally changed since that photo,” says Michael, now aged 20, grinning. “I don’t want to be small any more.” And he’s not. He is 11st and adding muscle all the time. His target weight? 15st.
Michael shows me another photograph of how he’d like to look. It is Lazar Angelov, a Bulgarian “personal trainer, nutrition consultant, fitness model and motivator” — a ripped sirloin steak of a person. Michael found Lazar on Facebook and saved his picture to inspire him. “I can’t explain it, really. It’s the way I want to look. I’ve always been tiny. I don’t like it. I just want to be big.”
Michael, who is unemployed, goes to the gym every day. While heaving a 31kg barbell over his head, he tells me he once trained for eight hours straight. He watches himself in the mirror, his thick biceps accentuated by a skimpy white vest. But Michael’s dramatic physical transformation isn’t just the result of intensive gym sessions. He is one of a growing number of young men regularly taking steroids to achieve their ideal body shape. His compulsion to use them, part of a trend sometimes considered the inverse of anorexia, has a name: bigorexia.
Steroids entered mainstream awareness through stories of professional sportsmen using them as performance enhancers. Mimicking the effects of the male hormone testosterone, steroids increase muscle mass and decrease fat, giving athletes a competitive (and controversial) edge. Now these drugs have emerged from the locker rooms of professionals into common use. They are especially popular among young men.
“It’s difficult to even guess at the number of people using steroids,” says Jim McVeigh, acting director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, who has been researching steroid use for more than 20 years. Because steroids are a controlled Class C substance available legally by prescription only (possession isn’t illegal, but supplying them is), it is difficult to find accurate figures for their usage. A conservative estimate by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), a healthcare body that advises the NHS, suggests that almost 60,000 people aged 16 to 59 used anabolic steroids in England and Wales in 2013. McVeigh believes the real figure to be in the hundreds of thousands — “far more than heroin addicts”.
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