The term ‘image and performance enhancing drugs’ (IPEDs) is used to refer to substances that enhance muscle growth and reduce body fat, such as anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) human growth hormone (hGH), insulin and Beta2-agonists (e.g. clenbuterol). Recent research1 by Dr. Mair Underwood from the University of Queensland explores the social lives of recreational IPED users. While the research is, by its own admission, limited to a specific fringe community, the implications are that there is a big picture problem here that needs to be addressed.
The research took an ethnographic approach, diving in to understand the culture of IPED use among Zyzz fandom. The Zyzz fandom is an international online community of thousands of recreational bodybuilders who idolize the deceased recreational bodybuilder Aziz Shavershian (the eponymous ‘Zyzz’). They describe themselves as a group, defend the boundaries of the group against attacks from outsiders, and police the boundaries of the group through community-specific language and humor. According to Dr. Underwood, they are, to the best of her knowledge, the only international recreational bodybuilding community.
As much as they are into recreational bodybuilding, they also revere alleged IPED user Zyzz. Therefore, Zyzz fandom provided the researcher an opportunity to investigate how IPEDs are experienced and acquire meaning within such a community in most part because Zyzz’s status is in large part due to his allegedly IPED fuelled transformation.
There are a few things we took from this research that bear thinking about:
IPED is a cultural issue among recreational bodybuilders. That means that there is no real competitive driver and, despite the obvious uncertainty over the impact on health, there is no penalty for use. That untethers it from any mainstream judgement.
The belief in the enhanced male physique is never going to go away, and it doesn’t seem to matter much how you arrive at results. The ultimate reward for being shredded and muscular outweighs any downsides in getting there.
Online social interactions play a very big role in determining what drives fitness goals for certain demographics. Peer pressure or groupthink is different in a connected world. Which means that it is easier to be cloistered with like-minded people and to shield yourself from anything that might be conceived as judgmental. This can mean, as it does in this case, there is a divide between the bodybuilders and the medical and scientific communities who need to find mutual respect to help each other improve research results.
You can get into the details of the research yourself: the following YouTube video by Dr. Underwood is a user-friendly summary of the paper that appeared in the International Journal of Drug Policy.
In addition, Dr. Underwood was kind enough to answer some of our questions on the research.
BM: What inspired you to do this research on IPEDs?
Underwood: I was really concerned that most use of IPEDS is among recreational bodybuilders but hardly anyone was trying to understand their perspective. There is the potential for harm with regards IPED use and we need to minimize that potential. If we are going to impact on use we first need to understand use and to do that we need to consider the user’s perspective. So I hope I am providing a foundation for future efforts to minimize harm to IPED users (including changes to policy but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen!).
BM: How common do you think the opinions of the Zyzz community are to the rest of the casual bodybuilding world?
Underwood: I’m pretty sure that the Zyzz fandom is not representative of recreational bodybuilders worldwide. For instance Zyzz fans seem to be aged about 17-25 whereas I know that the average IPED user is considerably older. I also know that a lot of bodybuilders consider Zyzz to be a bit of a dickhead, and I must admit that I did too until I spent months and months (now 1.5 years) considering the impact that he has had. Of course there is a big difference between Aziz Shavershian and his online persona Zyzz. Zyzz is, as Aziz himself said, a “fictional character”. He is a parody and an exaggeration. So when I talk about Zyzz I am not talking about Aziz but rather the online persona which may not in fact have much in common with the real person. While there are aspects of Zyzz I really don’t like (e.g. his blatant misogyny), I think you have to admire the way that he brought young men together to support each other in the strive to improve themselves, and the way that he got so many people to discover the benefits of lifting (including myself!). I started this research with no intention of lifting weights but after a few months and 36 hours of Zyzz videos I starting having the urge to lift weights! I love how it has changed my embodiment and will be forever in Zyzz’s debt.
BM: Is there a need for IPED warnings and public service announcements as there is today for other drugs? I mean, is it a problem that requires greater attention on a general level or is it isolated?
Underwood: We don’t know a huge amount about the prevalence of IPED use because of its prohibition, but it does seem that the number of users is significant and that use is increasing.
I can only speak confidently about use in Australia though. What we know is that 3.1% of male and 1.7% of female Australian secondary school students have used IPEDs.
There is some suggestion that IPED use is rapidly increasing. For instance, the Illicit Drug Data Report states that the number and weight of national steroid seizures in the 2014-15 financial year were the highest on record. In fact the number of seizures increased 48.2% from 357 in 2013-14 to 529 in 2014-15, and the weight of seizures increased a whopping 1 756.2% from 17.2kg in 2013-2014 to 320.4kg in 2014-15! The number of steroid arrests has also increased from 936 in 2013-14 to 1 210 in 2014-15.
Data from the Australian Needle and Syringe Program Survey indicates that the percentage of individuals who are new to injecting drug use (those within the first 3 years of injecting drug use) who reported that IPEDs were the last drug they injected increased from 10% in 2009 to 38% in 2014. This is a percentage higher than any other type of drug. Therefore it seems that of all injecting drug use, IPED use is the one that is increasing the most rapidly. In fact, there are reports that in some areas, IPED users now comprise the largest cohort of needle and syringe program users. So it seems that IPED use is at significant levels and is increasing.
Does this warrant public service announcements? With regards actual injection behaviors and those aspects of use that we have definite information regarding the risks I think so. But the facts of the matter are that we don’t seem to know a hell of a lot about IPED risks. There isn’t much research, and what there is doesn’t seem to explore the doses that bodybuilders actually use (and the impact of their harm minimization strategies such as cycling and post cycle therapies). So we don’t really know what the risks of use are so it would be hard to mount campaigns without a better knowledge base.
I am a social scientist, not a chemist, endocrinologist or whatever, so it is hard for me to comment. All I can tell you is that some people say that the risks of IPEDs have been exaggerated and are much less than other drugs (including legal ones), while others say that we are headed for disaster in the not too distant future as most IPED users are still relatively young and we won’t know the true impact until they get a bit older (they compare it to our knowledge of the risks of smoking back in the day when the majority of smokers were under 50 – we didn’t know what was going to happen until they got older and the risks started actually manifesting).
What I think we do need is support services that are specific to IPED users. IPED users don’t consider themselves as the same as other illicit drug users (and I agree that they are very different). IPED users don’t fit well into existing services that are focused more on other illicit drug use. I think we also need to conduct research in consultation with the bodybuilding community to investigate the actual ways these drugs are used (but prohibition is an obvious limitation on this).
At the moment bodybuilders don’t really trust the medical and scientific communities (e.g. the medical and scientific communities initially said that AASs didn’t improve muscle and continued to do so until 2000, whereas bodybuilders knew from experience that they were wrong) so we need to build bridges. To bridge the divide between bodybuilders and the medical/scientific communities we need to foster mutual respect.
There is a lot of prejudice against bodybuilders in academia and health care (for instance colleagues have called my participants “dickheads”), and there is a lot of suspicion of academics and health care providers among bodybuilders. We need more research that demonstrates respect for this community and that attempts to understand how their behaviors make sense given the culture we live in.
We also need to make scientific knowledge freely available to the public so that they can make informed decisions on the basis of current knowledge (which admittedly is lacking but it’s a start).
There was a time when the bodybuilding world was the center of the fitness world, the one in which people go to gyms and do things like sets and reps. This may be the selfie generation’s logical extension of the ethos of bodybuilding giving it context in a modern world where manufacturing your looks, by any means, is a lifestyle choice.
However, IPED users in this research seem to fit into a typical profile for habitual drug users. No one seems to be aware of the long-term impact of their approach to drugs because, they are young and we won’t really know the impact until much later. People didn’t think smoking was harmful until aging smokers started to show the effects of prolonged smoking.
At the end of the day, IPED use among casual bodybuilders is a sub-culture that doesn’t see drug use as being a right or wrong choice. It’s the norm for this community and IPEDs helps the community to create idealized bodies which fuel easy social interactions. How can it be bad if that is all going on at the same time?
Like most issues relating to drugs, prohibition is seen as failing by users and, in this case, may be counterproductive in helping to educate the bodybuilding community about the harm of drug use. Yes, it ain’t cheating if you ain’t competing. You’re just doing what everyone else is doing to stay relevant and accepted. The acceptable face of shooting up.
1. Underwood, Mair. “Exploring the Social Lives of Image and Performance Enhancing Drugs: An Online Ethnography of the Zyzz Fandom of Recreational Bodybuilders.” International Journal of Drug Policy 39 (January 2017): 78–85.