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'Natty or not' steroid discussions have become their own internet content genre

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

“Natty or not” videos, in which people often speculate about who is “natty” (shorthand for natural) and who is using steroids (not), now routinely rack up millions of views on YouTube and TikTok, while hundreds of commentators a day debate on a dedicated subreddit which influencers and celebrities are using steroids to fuel their physiques. Podcaster Joe Rogan recently touched on the topic, as has PewDiePie, one of the most-followed people on YouTube.

It’s a movement championed by some notable names in bodybuilding who for years decried the secrecy around steroid use that they say also misled people into having outsized expectations for their own fitness goals. But the videos have also started a discussion over whether they are breaking stigma and secrecy or normalizing a dangerous substance and unhealthy body standards.

“In a way it almost gets more people on the sauce,” M.K. Angeletti, creator of the YouTube channel Revival Fitness, said of “Natty or Not” online content. “The baseline 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 as many as 4 million Americans having used some sort of “anabolic-androgenic steroid” to help build muscle despite their well-documented adverse health effects, including mental issues and possible damage to the liver and kidneys. And while possession or sale of anabolic steroids without a prescription is illegal, a growing number of fitness influencers now either talk openly or strongly imply that they are not “natty,” 

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

“My social media home pages are filled with bodybuilders who look like they are on steroids but claim to be natural, which makes it really difficult for me to know what is realistically achievable as a young person trying to get into the fitness game,” said Jacob Mathiasmeier, 21, who started his own fitness page on TikTok this year.

Mathiasmeier said many young people, including teenagers and preteens, watch TikTok videos of bodybuilders who are not being forthright with their regimen. “How is that realistic for them?” he said.

Bodybuilder Greg Doucette leaves the O2 Wellness Gym in Bedford, NS, Canada, on Aug 11, 2022.Riley Smith for NBC News

Among the earliest fitness influencers to openly discuss their own steroid use was Greg Doucette, a powerlifting world champion who later became a bodybuilder and fitness influencer. Doucette said he started talking openly about steroids, including his own use, when he started to create 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 be honest,” Doucette said.

As for concerns about whether talking about steroids could normalize their use, Doucette said he felt that the notion that people would be unaware of steroids was shortsighted.

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

Doucette has been particularly transparent about his regret over his steroid use on social media. 

A broader fitness boom in recent years — boosted in part by the pandemic — has included the rise of many muscle-focused fitness influencers, many of whom now boast millions of followers, with hundreds of others with smaller followings. 

Steroid-focused videos are only a small part of that broader scene, but they can draw some of the most heated debates. A video posted by Doucette in May discussing whether fitness influencer William Li takes steroids has more than 670,000 views and more than 2,000 comments. Li has addressed steroids, saying he doesn’t use them.

One popular version of “natty or not” videos feature people asking people at gyms or fitness conventions if they use steroids. Quite often, these people will say they do 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 shares openly about his medically prescribed steroid use. 

Bodybuilder Noel Deyzel posted a video to his Youtube account titled, “Why i’m open about my steroid use.” In the video Deyzel tells his 2 million YouTube subscribers he came clean about his use because he hoped to help a young generation that lacked guidance, even though he says he was told he’d never get sponsors after talking about his PED use. 

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

Not everyone is so forthcoming. Mike Matthews, CEO of the fitness brand Legion, said he believes the problem of “fake nattys” (people who do not admit to steroid use) create false expectations and nudge people toward using them.

“Being set up for disappointment because their results are not nearly as impressive as influencers on PEDs can actually encourage and lead kids to want to use steroids themselves because they incorrectly conclude that they have bad genetics,” Matthews said.

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