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Steroid debates have become their own genre of internet content

The once taboo topic of anabolic steroid use in the fitness and bodybuilding communities has become its own genre of internet content.

“Natty or not” videos, in which people often speculate on who is “natty” (short for natural) and who uses steroids (not), now regularly rack up millions of views on YouTube and TikTok, while hundreds of commentators a day debate on a dedicated subreddit about influencers and celebrities who use steroids to power their physique. Podcaster Joe Rogan recently broached the topic, as did PewDiePie, one of YouTube’s most-followed people.

It’s a move championed by some notable names in bodybuilding who for years have exposed the secrecy around steroid use which they believe has also misled people into having inflated expectations for their own fitness goals. But the videos have also sparked a discussion about whether they are breaking stigma and secrecy or normalizing dangerous substance and unhealthy body norms.

“In a way, it almost puts more people in the sauce,” MK Angeletti, creator of YouTube channel Revival Fitness, said of the “Natty or Not” online content. “The basic 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 that up to 4 million Americans have used some kind of “anabolic androgenic steroid” to help build muscle despite its well-documented adverse health effects, including mental problems and possible liver and kidney damage. And although possessing or selling anabolic steroids without a prescription is illegal, a growing number of fitness influencers are now speaking openly or strongly implying that they are not “chic”.

Meanwhile, the rise of social media and the fitness influencer community has already created well-known body image issues among young people.

“My social media homepages are filled with bodybuilders who look like they’re on steroids but claim to be natural, which makes it very difficult for me to know what’s realistically achievable as a youngster trying to getting into the fitness game,” said Jacob Mathiasmeier, 21, who launched his own fitness page on TikTok this year.

Mathiasmeier said many young people, including teens and tweens, watch TikTok videos of bodybuilders who aren’t upfront about their diet. “How realistic is that for them?” he said.

Bodybuilder Greg Doucette leaves the O2 Wellness Gym in Bedford, N.S., Canada, August 11, 2022.Riley Smith for NBC News

Among the first fitness influencers to openly discuss their own steroid use was Greg Doucette, a world champion powerlifter who later became a bodybuilder and fitness influencer. Doucette said he started talking openly about steroids, including his own use, when he started creating a lot of fitness content four years ago. It was these videos, where 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 being honest,” Doucette said.

As for concerns about whether talking about steroids might normalize their use, Doucette said he felt the idea that people wouldn’t be aware of steroids was short-sighted.

“Do people think an aspiring 16 year old bodybuilder has never heard of a steroid?” he said.

Doucette has been particularly transparent about her regrets about her steroid use on social media.

A broader fitness boom in recent years – spurred in part by the pandemic – has included the rise of many muscle-focused fitness influencers, many of whom now have millions of followers, with hundreds more with smaller followers.

Steroid-focused videos are only a small part of this larger scene, but they can spark some of the most heated debate. A video posted by Doucette in May explaining whether fitness influencer William Li takes steroids has over 670,000 views and over 2,000 comments. Li talked about steroids, saying he doesn’t use them.

A popular version of “natty or not” videos feature people asking people at gyms or fitness conventions if they use steroids. Very often these people will say that they use steroids.

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 openly shares his use of medically prescribed steroids.

Bodybuilder Noel Deyzel posted a video on his Youtube account titled “Why I’m Open About My Steroid Use”. In the video, Deyzel tells his 2 million YouTube subscribers that he made his use clear because he hoped to help a younger generation that lacked guidance, even though he says he was told he would never get sponsors after talking about his use of PED.

Other influencers openly promote steroid use, referring to drugs with a variety of slang and sometimes meticulously tracking their steroid use.

Not everyone is so open. Mike Matthews, CEO of fitness brand Legion, said he believes the problem of “fake nattys” (people who don’t admit to using steroids) creates false expectations and drives people to use them.

“Being prepared for disappointment because their results aren’t as impressive as influencers on PEDs can actually encourage and lead kids to want to use steroids themselves because they mistakenly conclude they have a bad genetics,” Matthews said.