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The once-taboo topic of anabolic steroid use in the fitness and bodybuilding communities has become its own internet content genre.
“Natty or not” videos, in which people often speculate about who is “natty” (shorthand for natural) and who is using steroids (not), now routinely rack up millions of views on YouTube and TikTok, while hundreds of commentators a day debate on a dedicated subreddit that influencers and celebrities are using steroids to fuel their physiques. Podcaster Joe Rogan has recently touched on the topic, as has PewDiePie, one of the most followed people on YouTube.
The movement is championed by some notable names in bodybuilding who for years decried the secrecy around steroid use, which they say also misled people to have outsize expectations for their own fitness goals. But the videos have also started a discussion over whether they are breaking stigma and secrecy or normalizing a dangerous substance and unhealthy body standards.
“In a way it almost gets more people on the sauce,” M.K. Angeletti, the creator of the YouTube channel Revival Fitness, said of “Natty or Not” online content. “The baseline intention is good, but then you open a door that spirals out of control.”
Steroids have been a part of the fitness world for decades, with some research estimating as many as 4 million Americans having used some sort of “anabolic-androgenic steroid” to help build muscle despite the substances’ well-documented adverse health effects, including mental issues and possible damage to the liver and the kidneys. And while possession or sale of anabolic steroids without a prescription is illegal, a growing number of fitness influencers either talk openly or strongly imply that they aren’t “natty.”
Meanwhile, the rise of social media and the fitness influencer community have created well-known body image issues among young people.
“My social media homepages are filled with bodybuilders who look like they are on steroids but claim to be natural, which makes it really difficult for me to know what is realistically achievable as a young person trying to get into the fitness game,” said Jacob Mathiasmeier, 21, who started his own fitness page on TikTok this year.
Mathiasmeier said many young people, including teenagers and preteens, watch TikTok videos of bodybuilders who aren’t being forthright with their regimens. “How is that realistic for them?” he asked.
Among the earliest fitness influencers to openly discuss his own steroid use was Greg Doucette, a powerlifting world champion who became a bodybuilder and fitness influencer. Doucette said he started talking openly about steroids, including his own use, when he started to create a lot of fitness content four years ago. It was those videos, in which he was honest about his steroid use, that originally went viral, he said.
“When I was very open about what I was doing, rather than people saying they hated me, people responded by saying how refreshing it was to see someone be honest,” Doucette said.
As for concerns that talking about steroids could normalize their use, Doucette said the notion that people would be unaware of steroids was shortsighted.
“Do people think a 16-year-old aspiring bodybuilder has never heard of a steroid?” he said.
Doucette has been particularly transparent about his regret over his steroid use on social media.
A broader fitness boom in recent years — boosted in part by the coronavirus pandemic — has included the rise of many muscle-focused fitness influencers, many of whom boast millions of followers, while hundreds of others with smaller followings.
Steroid-focused videos are only a small part of the broader scene, but they can draw some of the most heated debates. A video Doucette posted in May discussing whether fitness influencer William Li takes steroids has more than 670,000 views and more than 2,000 comments. Li has addressed steroids, saying he doesn’t use them.
One popular version of “natty or not” videos features people asking people at gyms or fitness conventions whether they use steroids. Quite often, the people will say they do.
Ryan Schmidle, a Los Angeles-based fitness influencer with over 500,000 followers on TikTok, uses his platform to discourage his followers from taking anabolic steroids and shares openly about his medically prescribed steroid use.
Bodybuilder Noel Deyzel posted a video to his YouTube account titled, “Why i’m open about my steroid use.” In the video Deyzel tells his 2 million YouTube subscribers he came clean about his use because he hoped to help a young generation that lacked guidance, even though, he says, he was told he would never get sponsors after having talked about his use of so-called performance enhancing drugs, often called PEDs.
Other influencers openly promote steroid use, referring to the drugs by a variety of slang and sometimes meticulously tracking their steroid use.
Not everyone is so forthcoming. Mike Matthews, the CEO of the fitness brand Legion, said the problem of “fake nattys” (people who don’t admit to steroid use) creates false expectations and nudges people toward using them.
“Being set up for disappointment because their results are not nearly as impressive as influencers on PEDs can actually encourage and lead kids to want to use steroids themselves, because they incorrectly conclude that they have bad genetics,” Matthews said.
PEDs allow the body to work harder and recover more quickly, so when influencers post their workout routines and natural lifters can’t complete them, they are often discouraged, Matthews said.
“And where do they get these over-the-top workouts? They often come from people on drugs,” he said. “Natty or Not” content helps fight both, he said.
Mathiasmeier said he sees the movement toward open discussion of steroids as a net positive, even if he suspects many people continue to use them without admitting it.
“I wish it was more open and that people were more honest about what they used,” he said. “But it does feel like we are starting to get there.”
Jake Traylor is an associate producer for MSNBC.
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