Boosting Bodily Capital: Maintaining Masculinity, Aesthetic Pleasure and ...


Anabolic-androgenic steroid consumption is considered a significant public health issue in a number of countries but particularly in the northeast of England. Informed by ongoing ethnographic work on steroid use, this paper aims to explore two particular dimensions of bodily capital within the overarching context of hyper-masculinity. Towards this end we focus on aesthetic pleasure as the ‘boosted’ body becomes a site of contemporary consumption before taking a look at the instrumental utility derived from a sufficiently primed and tuned body. Accordingly, and with a view towards the changing currency of bodily capital, we explore the contemporary importance attached to both attaining and maintaining both elements of a ‘boosted’ bodily capital. The significant role steroids play in facilitating this is then discussed; yet rather than locating its consumption in the realm of ‘deviancy’, we view it as a means of hyper-conforming to neoliberalism’s cultural norms and values. By drawing upon a range of perspectives, we hope to offer up new insights into the demand for steroids apropos the pursuit for an aesthetically pleasing and instrumentally effective body.

Key Words: Steroids; bodily capital; masculinities; consumer culture; aesthetic pleasure


Recent research suggests that there is a vast and rapidly expanding global online market for lifestyle drugs which are consumed largely for cosmetic reasons rather than for health-related matters (Hall and Antonopoulos 2016). A number of European states in particular, predominantly those with subsidised healthcare systems, have been identified as exhibiting larger illicit markets in such lifestyle drugs than for those of a lifesaving nature. Focussing upon the UK context the same research found that anabolic-androgenic steroids (hereafter, steroids), a prominent lifestyle drug, are among “the principal categories of medicine being falsified and sold via illicit suppliers” (Hall and Antonopoulos 2016:28). Steroids are synthetic substances that augment male sex hormones and affect a number of physiological systems (Amsterdam et al 2010; Kraska et al 2010; Kanayama et al 2010). More specifically, they simultaneously stimulate skeletal muscle growth and the development of masculinising properties associated with male sexual characteristics; the former being the anabolic effect and the latter the androgenic effects (Amsterdam et al 2010; Kanayama et al 2010; Walker and Joubert 2011).

Whilst precise measurements of prevalence are notoriously difficult to secure, there is certainly mounting evidence to suggest that the market for steroids is burgeoning (Ravn and Coffey 2016). In the UK, steroids are among the products that prompt the largest consumer demand from illegitimate online websites (Antonopoulos and Hall 2016). Moreover, beyond the immediate context, Kanayama et al (2006:697) note that “illicit anabolic-androgenic steroid use is a public health problem in many countries”. Accordingly, a noticeable scholarly interest in steroids has developed. Numerous studies have explored the physical, psychological, sociological and, more recently, criminological dimensions of steroid use (Amsterdam et al 2010; Kanayama et al 2010; Murray et al 2016; Walker and Joubert 2011; Ravn and Coffey 2016; Hall and Antonopoulos 2016; Monaghan 2002; van de Ven and Koenraadt 2017). Others still have sought to shed light on the specificities of the illicit trade in steroids (Kraska et al 2010; Antonopoulos and Hall 2016). Collectively, this body of work has provided significant insight into the various effects and potential harms of both occasional and regular use of steroids, the general characteristics and motivation of users, and the increasingly complex nature of its production and distribution.

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