The use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) like anabolic steroids and human growth hormones to achieve aesthetics is nothing new. However, the level of glorification of PED use in recent years is unprecedented. In the past, PED use was stigmatized; few would acknowledge cheating to achieve aesthetics, opting instead to “claim natty,” falsely claiming to build aesthetics naturally despite all evidence to the contrary.

The de-stigmatization of PED use has resulted in open normalization and even promotion of cheating to achieve aesthetics. The prevailing thought is that if so many people are using PEDs, we all might as well use them. The long-term health effect of achieving short-term aesthetics seems to be willfully ignored by PED users who know the pros and the cons. That begs the question: Is the perceived value of human life declining?

In January, an alarming article was written by Asia Grace for the New York Post titled “Gen Z paralyzed with fear of turning 30, becoming ‘unattractive hags’: ‘Life might as well end at 22.’” Although the sampled population in the article consisted primarily of women, men today seem to be experiencing the same “paralyzing fear” of being anything less than the most roided-out jock in the gym, behaving as though “life might as well end” if they are not.

PEDs — or, as the fitness community terms, “gear” — have become popular muscle-building products for bulking. The side-effects of PEDs can range from mild acne and hair loss to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hormonal imbalances, compromised liver function, and heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.

Educating the fitness community on the severity of side-effects could help address this public health crisis, but almost every publication and social media post explicitly speaks to these side-effects and many in the fitness community continue to use these products. Not allowing side-effects to dissuade the use of PEDs is almost worn as a badge of honor, as if to say, “Look at what I’m willing to sacrifice to achieve this aesthetic.”

Sacrificing long-term health to achieve short-term aesthetics is glorified, akin to fitness martyrdom. The list of recent bodybuilders to die of PED use is extensive. 

—George Peterson died at the age of 37 due to sudden cardiac dysrhythmia following years of PED use. 

—Dallas McCarver suffered severe cardiomegaly following his PED use, causing his heart to grow to three times the normal human size. He was 26, a father and a newlywed.

—Ben Harnett died at 37 following his PED use. 

—Rich Piana was 46 when he passed, acknowledging 27 years of PED use. 

—A former poster boy of amateur bodybuilding, Zyzz, was 22 when he died.

Bodybuilding legend Ronnie Coleman has come forth with his PED use, advising the fitness community’s next generation on the pros and cons. Coleman is a particularly polarizing figure in the fitness community as a man who has held the spotlight for three decades, from a spitting image of Atlas himself to now needing help walking up three steps.

Bodybuilder Sam Sulek has “claimed natty” throughout his young career despite few in the fitness community believing him. Sulek is a top bodybuilding influencer on TikTok, and his claims of building aesthetics naturally despite evidence to the contrary may be the only thing preventing his young followers from opting into PED use. Impressionable teenage boys have embraced the concept of “looksmaxxing,” an evidence-based approach to enhancing one’s looks through flattering haircuts, chewing gum and mewing for sharper jawlines.

Sulek’s acknowledgment of PED use may push them to do the same.

Society’s propensity for vanity is nothing new; we’ve always wanted to be perceived as better than we are. However, the glorification of PED use seems to be at peak levels. It seems many will stop at nothing to achieve short-term aesthetics, even at the expense of long-term health … or life itself.