Girls and steroids

June 21, 2005

THANKS TO Title IX and other equal-opportunity efforts, more young women are participating in sports - honing their athletic, leadership, team-building and other skills. That's the good news. The bad news is that, increasingly, girls seem to be coming under pressure - often self-imposed - to use steroids, just like their male counterparts.

A state-by-state survey sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 5.3 percent of female students in grades nine through 12 reported using illegal steroids in a study of risky youth behavior conducted in 2003, the most recent available data. At the time of the previous survey in 2001, 3.9 percent of high-school-age girls reported using steroids. Among male students, 6.8 percent reported in 2003 that they had used steroids at least once, up from 6 percent in 2001.

Some academic researchers have suggested that the expansion of athletic programs and scholarships for young women is pushing them to become bigger and stronger. But researchers have also found that many young women who don't participate in sports use steroids as a way to reduce body fat. For young women with eating disorders, steroids can become another risky substance that they might abuse, similar to diuretics, laxatives and amphetamines. Studies suggest that youngsters get their supply from relatives and friends, local gyms and the Internet as well as from coaches and parents.

How widespread is the problem of steroid use among girls? At a congressional hearing last week, researchers disagreed, with one Harvard psychiatry professor suggesting that anonymous surveys probably "exaggerated" steroid use by young girls. But another expert from Penn State University said that based on the survey, there could be as many as 300,000 to 400,000 high-school-age girls using anabolic steroids.

Whatever the actual number, the trend seems to be going in the wrong direction. Girls - and boys - should know that any achievement is more satisfying and meaningful when accomplished without performance-enhancing drugs.

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