The American Body Image and Steroid Use

Humans are always looking for an edge. Whether in academics, athletics, or simply physical appearance, humans are always trying to find a way to get ahead of the competition. One of the most highly controversial and publicized means of doing so are performing-enhancing drugs or steroids. Contrary to popular belief, athletes are only part of the population that regularly uses steroids. Musicians, actors, even “reputable” occupations such as police officers and firefighters are some of the heaviest users of performance-enhancing drugs. So what does this say about the American perception of the human body? It takes two anthropological approaches to tackle this question.

This first anthropological method we will use to analyze steroid use will be through cultural evolution. This is a dated methodology but will provide us with some interesting feedback. The cultural evolutionary theory is all about placing societies on an evolutionary rating scale from savage to civilized. At first glance, a cultural evolutionary anthropologist would likely rate a society that uses steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs on the side of civilized. Since steroids are created almost entirely artificially, it would take a highly evolved society with advanced technology to engineer such a substance. No “primitive” society could just stumble upon the formula for steroids, thus making this a trait of a more culturally civilized society. However, one can take a different observation from a cultural evolutionary viewpoint at steroid use. Steroids are engineered to make humans specifically stronger, and since humans are doing the work themselves, and not machines, a cultural evolutionary anthropologist could derive that a society that uses steroids is less culturally advanced than that of one who isn’t.

An alternate anthropological theory that one can approach the cultural phenomenon of steroid use is through an interpretative lens. A more modern approach to anthropology, interpretative anthropology searches for the meaning behind cultural symbols. Steroid use is an interesting cultural symbol to tackle because it can reveal a variety of different societal meanings. Possibly the most visible meaning that one can derive from a society’s use of steroids is that its individuals are extremely aware and competitive when it comes to their outward appearance. Even though the risks of steroid use are very well known, individuals still take the risk in order to look “better” than someone else. Another reason why one might be taking steroids might simply be a desire to have a better chance of defending themselves. An interpretive anthropologist may conclude that a society’s use of steroids could mean that society is very cautious when it comes to self-defense and be searching for yet another way to defend him or herself from the uncertain.

The Steroid phenomenon is one that an anthropologist could approach in a multitude of different ways. The theories of Cultural Evolution and Interpretative anthropology are only two ways of approaching this societal artifact. Steroid usage should continue to be at the forefront of anthropological studies because its impact on society will only continue to grow.

– Grayson A.

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36 Responses to The American Body Image and Steroid Use

  1. Scott MacDonald says:

    I liked your use of cultural evolutionist theory and how your broke it up between the medicinal development and the actual usage. That’s the same thing I though of when I first read this. Obviously this culture would be more scientifically developed if they could actually create such a thing, but then if you look at the decision to use, one could see a total lapse in this “evolved culture”. The decision to use steroids shows mental insecurity and a primitive Neanderthal, meathead attitude. So it’s definitely an interesting duality between evolved or primitive with regards to steroid use.

  2. katie van amson says:

    you did a good job applying the cultural evolutionist theory although you didn’t specify the background of the cultural evolutionist that was looking at the situation. a modern cultural evolutionist from europe could say that we are uncivilized for relying on our bodies for manual labor, though a person from an ancient Egypt could say that by finding a way to increase our strength we are more capable and therefor more civilized. Also, an interpretive anthropologist would, as you stated, look at what we do (steroids) and try to see what it means to us as individuals as well as a culture. the reasons why people take steroids are personal and vary, so it’s a perfect topic for interpretive anthropology and would defiantly be interesting to study. I think that most people that take them do it either because everyone does and they need to be able to compete, or to excel in hopes of a career/position in their sport/job.

  3. Colton Erickson says:

    I liked the way that you used Interpretive Anthropology to show steroid use as a cultural symbol. It makes sense that an increase of self consciousness within a society could be represented by an increasing usage of physical and appearance enhancing substances. I was slightly confused with the way you went about describing how a cultural evolutionist would view steroid use. I think it is a bit difficult to describe such an evolution considering the fact that cultures have been using substances that supposedly enhanced the body in different ways for thousands of years. To better explain the view of cultural evolutionist, maybe you could look at the idea of how the desire to look good has increased over time and how it has led to the prolific use of steroids.

  4. Kyle Santi says:

    Grayson you make excellent observations about steroid use. I’m intrigued by your assertion that a cultural evolutionist would view steroid use as less culturally advanced than a society that uses machines instead. I never would have thought of that. Your interpretive view is also fascinating and it makes a lot of sense. I like this blog!

  5. Since my predecessors have already commented on your excellent use of a cultural evolutionist’s point of view, in which you analyze steroid use as representative of both primitive and civilized on the evolutionary spectrum, I will question your assumption that humans are universally competitive and seek moving ahead of one another. Could this be a cultural evolutionist’s assumption within itself? Perhaps some humans/societies would see steroids as pointless, as they have evolved to a state in which human competition and exploitation is not an intrinsic or extrinsic goal at all. Or is this human need for “edging” out the competition intrinsic and apparent in the human condition and relevant to any stage of a cultural evolutionary spectrum?

  6. wesley gordon says:

    you did spectacular job on emphizing the theories you were gong to use in the paper. The way you made steriod use a cultural symbol was creative and i would have never looked at steriod use how a cultural evolutionist would view steriod use. Great job on the paper

  7. Martha Daley says:

    I found your essay very interesting, especially the two perspectives you took on steroid use using cultural evolutionary theory. I would just like to add to your assessment that steroid use could indicate a less developed society is that it might have been interesting to point out that our society has developed these treatments to increase our physical strength and improve our outward appearance, but we don’t really have any kind of way of improving mental capacity or intelligence. I don’t really know enough about that sort of thing to know if that would be possible or if there is any scientific research towards it, but I do think it is telling that our culture that is supposedly so much more “advanced” than past or current more “primitive” cultures puts so much of it’s money and scientific research in making its members stronger, faster, or more attractive rather than more intelligent, the quality which supposedly sets humans apart in the animal kingdom.

    • Kayla Clancy says:

      Martha,
      You bring up an interesting point about advancing society in a cosmetic way. It goes to show how much American culture emphasizes the way people look. I do believe that more money is put into improving appearance because that’s where many people choose to spend their money. However, I do want to bring up the fact that drugs have been synthesized to enhance intelligence. These “smart drugs” are often ADHD medications, such as Adderall. They are used in order for people to be more productive and sleep less. In the competitive job market and college system we live in today, many people have started using “smart drugs”. I personally believe that from a Cultural Evolutionist perspective, this way of advancing the human mind through chemical engineering should be considered a highly evolved society. Though I do completely agree with your point that advancing the human physique through steroids isn’t really making the culture more advanced since we are not bettering the next generation.

  8. Colleen Godfrey says:

    I think from a symbolic-interpretivist perspective you should consider the performance enhancing side of steroids even more so than body image. Whereas steroids can be taken to change a body image, I think the use to perform better says more about a culture. From a symbolic-interpretivist perspective the use of steroids could help explain the pressure placed on athletes, musicians, and police officers. The most obvious meaning that can be taken away from steroids as performance enhancers is that a society places so much importance on being the best that the potential risks of aggressive behavior, high blood pressure, and psychiatric disorders are eclipsed by the drive to be #1.

  9. Blaine Wajdowicz says:

    I really appreciate the different stances taken from a cultural evolutionist standpoint. While we have the means to manufacture these chemicals, what does it say that we are using these? Considering this, I think the phenomenon of steroid use from a practice theory standpoint says a lot about the expectations of our culture. While it is understood these chemicals aren’t socially acceptable to use (often times eliciting sanctions against their use), our cultural drive to be better than others around us (more ripped, stronger, faster, etc.) almost allows this behavior to occur.

  10. Isaiah Grayck says:

    Your essay is put together very well and the support of your different theories are interesting and gives a good understanding of how steroids and the theories relate together. I liked the different points made for the symbolic-interpretivist paragraph and what types of things this type of theorist would conclude. Well done.

  11. Allison Dudley says:

    The issue of steroid use has been a controversial debate especially with the news of Lance Armstrong’s admitted usage not long ago. I like the approach you took, looking at why individuals themselves take steroids. But seeing how looked down upon steroid use is, I think it would be beneficial to note within your cultural evolution description how the secrecy of steroid usage has evolved. While steroid usage can be clearly visible in “super-human” bodies of some people, it is taboo to admit to steroid usage.

  12. Kait Bashford says:

    I really like your Cultural Evolution explanation of steroid use, as a civilized use of technology and innovation. You could also argue that steroid use is civilized because we are concerned with representing ourselves in ways that are as civilized as possible. I also liked how you suggested “steroids are engineered to make humans specifically stronger, and since humans are doing the work themselves, and not machines, a cultural evolutionary anthropologist could derive that a society that uses steroids is less culturally advanced than that of one who isn’t”. I would have never thought about it like this, thinking that if we didn’t have the intelligence and resources to create performance-enhancing drugs, we would be in a way primitive. Very creative, and crazy to think about!

  13. Lana Porter says:

    I am interested to what a culture and personality anthropologist might say about this phenomena. Because steroids do not change the personality of a person, they may question what it is about physical appearance we value so highly, and what that says about our culturally formed personalities. Being larger and stronger than others means that one is powerful and in control, which is something we value. Also, the willingness to put our health in danger for the sake of physical appearance says something about the superficiality of us and our society.

  14. Annika Sandberg says:

    It didn’t occur to me that the practice of steroid use was so common among professions other than sports so I find this blog very interesting. I find it a little disheartening that our society has come to being so dependent on drugs or other nonnatural means to alter our bodies and minds. But because it is so common, I wonder what someone viewing steroid use through the Practice Theory would think. Would they think steroid use is expected or common among professions or would they see it as something still hidden that people didn’t want to admit to actually doing?

  15. Sophia Grenier says:

    This was very interesting for me to read. I didn’t know that steroids were commonly used outside of athletics, so the knowledge that their use is actually seen as fairly normal came as a surprise to me. It would be interesting to study why the use of steroids is still so secretive; as you stated, Cultural Evolutionist theory could support the claim that steroid use is a sign of being more civilized. While I’m not personally sure if that’s actually the case, it would be interesting to see where the trend came from.

  16. Taylor Rose Martin says:

    This was a really unique topic to explore! I found your cultural evolutionary interpretation of steroid enhancers persuasive because you explored both ends of the spectrum, both “civil” and “savage”. Although, I will admit, using this approach for your topic was a bit of a stretch, as it is hard to interpret steroids on a “civilized” scale. I am happy you took steroid use outside the realm of athletes, as it is important to break beyond stereotypes and conceptions. Your interpretive theory was interesting, as you placed body image into a cultural and competitive framework, which is very relevant to the contemporary united states. It would have been really interesting if you explored female steroid use, and what this means in society- even through a feminist approach.

  17. Adriana Petersen says:

    Since most of the essays I have read have only described their topic as either civilized or uncivilized when using the cultural evolutionary theory, I really liked your analogy of how steroid use could be seen as both. Steroid use is both sophisticated with its affects on the human body as well as in a way, especially when it comes to sports, cheating in that it changes the true abilities of one’s body. I thought your analysis of steroids through interpretive theory was extremely relevant, especially for the United States today. It is a major symbol of our society and the affect of media on people’s view of what the body should look like. It also, as you said, shows the competitiveness in gaining success and how one must physically appear to sometimes be successful, especially in the entertainment industry. I think a cultural personality approach could easily be applied to the use of steroids and could help to contrast what the differences are in societies with a large amount of steroid use to one with none. It can also show what the values are of that society that uses a greater amount of steroids versus the one that doesn’t. I think steroid use shows the increase in obsession over what is valued in terms of body image and what isn’t that seems to be occurring in many cultures today.

  18. Martin Golibart says:

    I really like the way you looked through the lenses of the cultural evolutionist and the symbolic anthropologist. However, when reading the first paragraph, I thought you would have used a structuralist viewpoint. Structuralism studies patterns of human thought and how each culture adapts using these patterns based on their environments. What you said about humans always wanting “to find a way to get ahead of the competition” is dead on. A structuralist anthropologist would say that the universal mind pattern for humans is that they want to constantly improve themselves in order to be the best. The structuralist would then say that since different cultures have different environments and systems, this is where the ways they improve themselves differ. In America, we have scientific advances in medicine that will help us improve our strength. In parts of the world where this medicine is not available, people choose healthier and more natural ways to better themselves. The structuralist would say that the universal mind pattern of wanting to be the best is put into place in our culture by using steroids.

  19. Michaela Quinlan says:

    I found this analysis of steroid use to be very interesting, especially the view from a Cultural Evolutionist. I agree that from this perspective the view of steroid use could be split on opposite sides of the spectrum. The description regarding the “civilized” aspect of the development of steroids is very well thought out. But, I believe the primitive aspects of steroid use could be analyzed in a different way. The Cultural Evolutionist may look to these “artificial” muscle gainers as primitive because they don’t produce healthy, naturally made muscle. The fact that Americans feel the need to look big and strong in order to compete against one another is quite primitive as opposed to intellectual competition. The fact that people believe they need to take supplements in order to attain these physical “heights” instead of working muscles the natural way to gain strength is not civilized in the slightest. Though the chemistry and science behind steroids is fascinating, the way in which they are used in certain instances is far from high culture.

  20. Very interesting read. I think your analysis of steroid use from a cultural evolution perspective highlights an important flaw in that field of anthropology. As cultural evolutionists get specific about issues, as you’ve done with steroids, dissonance on whether something is “civilized” or “primitive” is bound to occur, due to the complexities of each issue.

  21. Christopher Sol says:

    Great essay. The theories were perfect with explain the theories. I like how you looked at it through the “interpretative lens” and saw it as a symbol for how people wanted to be safer. The cultural side of this essay was very interesting. The author saw it as a civilized act or ritual not primitive. This i believe is a good way in explaining it through that theory

  22. coltsedbrook says:

    As a former minor league baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals organization, I would say that PED’s are always on the minds of the individuals who are playing the game. I was approached by other individuals in the organization asking if I wanted to use PED’s and I refused based on my beliefs in the Lord. I did however see teammates and other players within the minor leagues get caught using PED’s. Yes, it may allow you to gain more muscle mass, and feel better after a game, but it still does not mean you can get to the big leagues.

    Grayson, I do not believe that baseball players are concerned with the way that they look in the mirror as to what a body builder or model would, but think the benefits of using PED’s is extremely unknown. I would have to disagree with your comment of someone who uses PED’s to defend themselves. I would think that if you are afraid of not being able to protect yourself in this day in age, one would either take a personal defense class or simply just buy a gun and take a class to have a concealed weapon. You made some significant arguments about the use of PED’s in your blog, and I enjoyed reading your perspective on the topic of PED’s/steroids. I would agree with your comment, “Steroid usage should continue to be at the forefront of anthropological studies because its impact on society will only continue to grow,” because I think that Major League Baseball is an area where an anthropologist might be able to gather significant information regarding the reasons why players choose to inject PED’s into their bodies with the MLB coming down hard on players who abuse them. Great job Grayson!

    • Stephen Goddard says:

      I’d have to agree with you Colt on the reasoning of self defense, however it is significant to show that the interpretive approach is open to different viewpoints. The arbitrary nature behind symbols leaves room for a lot of different theories and conclusions. Despite the reasoning behind why a person chooses to start taking PED’s, I feel it is important to note that it has addictive properties opening discussion for drug abuse as a whole.

      The evolutionary theory seems to work well with this topic despite its many “armchair” flaws. It is reasonable to assume that people can only develop such an advanced synthesis of drug by being in a developed stage of life. I think depicting this topic through gender differences and alterations would lead to a lot of unique conversations and theories. Steroids have so many different uses, some good and some bad, and it would probably be beneficial to evaluate a topic like this through the practice theory in order to gain better individual details.

      Good Job!

  23. Miles Agan says:

    Very interesting essay, I think steroid use is a great topic regarding cultural anthropology. The interpretative theory is an excellent theory to use when analyzing steroid use, especially in the United States where it is very available amongst professional athletes. Lance Armstrong’s use of steroids and other “unnatural” supplements caused a huge public outrage. I think the media blows many things out of proportion. His use of steroids made him look weak to the public because of how the media portrayed him and the use of anabolic steroids. According to Lance Armstrong and other athletes who have been “caught” or decided to expose the truth have explained that steroids are just a part of the professional athlete culture. The use of steroids without a doctor’s prescription is, however, illegal and against the rules, but the interpretation that people have about steroid use has resulted in some unfair judgments. Lance Armstrong helped raise millions of dollars for cancer research with his global image, something he will never be discredited for.

  24. Daniel Greer says:

    I like the idea of examining steroid use through an evolutionary anthropological lens, though I wonder if you could have applied it in a different way. It seems to me that the essence of evolutionary theory is not in its dichotomy between barbaric and civilized, but in its attempt to compare cultures and to classify and rate them according to certain characteristics. Applied this way, you might have compared steroid use across cultures to plot the relative significance of body image in each culture. From there, you could make a statement about the importance of body image in contemporary US society. Of course, this might be too loose an interpretation of the theory, and I think you wrote a fine paper regardless.

  25. Hannah Hilden-Reid says:

    I found it interesting that the author decided to approach this article using the cultural evolution theory. For this topic I wouldn’t have found myself using that theory initially but the analysis was very well done and eye-opening. I enjoyed how there were two interpretations of steroid use via this one method.

  26. Brianna Dascher says:

    I think the point about steroid use being considered uncivilized by a cultural evolutionist is perhaps a bit off-base. I think a cultural evolutionist would find the use of one’s own body preferable over use of machines, because it’s a more classical and traditional form of labor. Although I question that reason specifically, I completely agree with your assertion that a cultural evolutionist would find steroid use some level of uncivilized, especially because it changes the original notion of how a person functions.

  27. Alexandra Sapien says:

    I loved how you used cultural evolutionary theory to observe the progression of body image. However, i would have to disagree with the conclusion you came to say that steroids are only used by the less culturally advance. I would instead theorize that body image has someone remained the same, yet the time we have put into it has decreased. Large muscles or someone in good shape has always been categorized with someone who is stronger and therefore better than someone without, or someone weak. The only difference is people don’t need to be the strongest to advance higher up in a society therefore now we exercise our brains rather than our bodies, leaving us with a yearning to still look just as strong, but put in less effort, i.e. resorting to steroids.

  28. Elliott Cairns says:

    I definitely agree with your second paragraph and the symbols that have stemmed from steroid use. The abuse of steroids is concerning but for all elderly men who suffer decreased testosterone can find hope with monthly doses of Human Growth Hormone (HGH). Steroids offer a way to increase the length of the human body and if used properly can create a stronger and healthier human race. The symbols currently associated with steroids do portray a hyper-masculine and aggressive attitude. Until the transition of these symbols, the full potential of human growth hormones will remain unfulfilled.

  29. Kitman Gill says:

    Like most of the previous commenters, I liked that you took two different views on how a cultural evolutionist might view steroid use. It opened up different windows through which to observe the phenomenon of steroids. I also really liked that you cleared up the misconception of steroids being primarily used by athletes. I had always believed the misconception, but it’s always refreshing to learn something new.
    I think another interesting aspect of steroids to look at would be the addiction factor. Continued steroid use can lead to becoming addicted, even though they don’t create a high. Addiction is a type of dependence. In light of our recent study of the Awlad ‘Ali, the subject of independence versus dependence is significant. With the Awlad ‘Ali, independence is paramount to honor. What would they think of someone who was dependent on a substance like steroids to feel good about himself/herself or to achieve a desired body image? Would that dependence mar his/her honor in the eyes of the Awlad ‘Ali? If you were to add a third facet to your take on cultural evolution, would the addictive aspect of steroids make the society that uses them more or less culturally developed? In my mind, it would make the society less culturally developed because a dependence of any sort weakens a society, especially a dependence that is preventable.
    Overall, I liked this essay. It brought up some really good points and allowed me to think of different aspects of the same phenomenon.

  30. Meg Fleming says:

    Great intro to your essay. Your cultural evolutionist theory was very creative and followed the idea of going along a lineage smoothly. The interpretive theory was analyzed well but maybe using a functionalist perspective could have flowed well with the essay. The statement about the effects being known and people continuing to use them could have been another interesting approach through another lens.

  31. shelly kim says:

    Interesting topic because I’m a person who never work out and never been introduced to conversation relates to this even though I see many people exercise and be serious about their body. good analyze about steroid and cultural evolution theory. But since I’m ignorant of the whole topic, maybe a little more explanation on the main theme might help.

  32. Anastasia M. says:

    This topic is very interesting because it can be approached from a variety of angles in nearly every theory. For example, through the cultural evolution theory, the use of steroids could be viewed as savage. The forcing of foreign objects(hormones) with a variety of possible effects, none of which are certain, into one’s body is an extremely uncivilized act. In interpretive/symbolic theory terms, the use of steroids can be viewed as the United States having unrealistic expectations, through technology and idolization of certain body types, of what the human body should or can look like. This results in the use of steroids to attain the virtually unattainable.

  33. Ariana Ross says:

    Cultural Evolution as a lens through which to look at the issue of steroid use opens the debate up to many different possible motivating forces. In a way, yes, steroid use is an aspect of modern civilized society- it allows the individual to supercharge his body and muscle development, something that is otherwise impossible to do. However, steroid use can also be seen as more of a topic of nature (and therefore savagery) than culture (and therefore civility) in that it places a value on the body rather than the mind. Where culture is associated with matters of the mind and spirit, and therefore heightening ones abilities and values through intellectual endeavors, art etc, nature is associated with matters of the body, its strength, health, and the image which garners the physical respect, attraction and intimidation relevant to its associated value system. I love this issue through the lens of cultural evolution. Interesting debate.

  34. wesley gordon says:

    i loved how you started off this essay, as a person who work out all the time i really gained a lot from this essay and i always knew there was a issue with steriod use but i never looked at it from an anthropological stand point. It was very creative to use cultural evolutionist theory for this essay, i think you should have mentioned the side affects of steriods and the addiction factor, but other than that i think this is a pretty good essay

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