The idea that athletes and bodybuilders use performance-enhancing drugs – or PEDs as they are colloquially known – to physically enhance their bodies isn’t a new revelation. These drugs, which are illegal in most countries or require a prescription where legal, have been around in some shape or form for decades and have become somewhat of an unspoken act among industry ‘professionals’ that require – or desire – to get big and fit, quick.

But no one will really ever tell you whether they’re using PEDs or not, right?

Just last week, social media sensation and “primal living” guru Liver King (aka Brian Johnson), who built a fitness empire worth USD$100M and gained millions of followers promoting the idea of the ancestral lifestyle, was found out via a very juicy email thread that his preposterous physique is actually not natural, nor is it achievable without the use of anabolic steroids; an act he has profusely denied in the past.

“I lied, and I misled a lot of people,” Johnson said to his audience via an apology video. “Yes, I’ve done steroids and, yes, I’m on steroids.”

The confessional video, which has been viewed more than 2.67 million times on YouTube, documents Johnson’s admission to using steroids. While mildly entertaining and none the least shocking, does the revelation perhaps lift the lid off the celebrity world’s best-kept secret?

Liver King

Though the notion of doping might be relatively new to some, it has existed among Hollywood’s elite for years, with PEDs, including human growth hormones (HGH), helping create what seems to be the new male body standard. Mind you, Johnson isn’t alone in the phenomenon, with many famous movie stars, athletes and influencers undoubtedly turning to injectable HGH and other PEDs amid the ever-competitive race of looking great at any age, and at whatever cost.

It’s a dangerous notion to grapple with. Yet, Johnson and other notable male figures don’t seem to factor in the consequences their actions might place on impressionable young men who follow their every move. The idea of promoting a specific training regime, along with eating well, equals getting jacked – when in fact they are on a heavy rotation of using some sort of PEDs – is just fanciful and plain negligent. But these men will continue to capitalise off their fans.

In The Hollywood Reporter‘s 2013 viral story, ‘Hollywood and Steroids: When A-List Actors Go the A-Rod Route‘, celebrity trainer Happy Hill, who’s renowned for prepping actors like Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Phillippe for muscle-led roles, estimated that up to 20 per cent of actors in Hollywood use PEDs to bulk up and define for movie roles.

“HGH is on the scene now more than ever before,” said Hill via The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s hard not to use. Some people, especially the older ones, are looking for that perfect gym body, and they want a shortcut.”

Another celebrity trainer and US Army veteran, stuntman and bodybuilder, Aaron Williamson, also confirmed the prolific use of PEDs among Hollywood’s elite.

“Actors are trying to get on camera and blow everyone away,” Williamson told Vox. “Everyone’s just maxed out, doing everything possible to look superhuman.”

While celebrities have repeatedly denied the use of PEDs for getting jacked for major movie roles, there have been those that have either come clean or have been publicly outed. In 2007, Sylvester Stallone was found to be in possession of 48 vials of HGH when travelling into Australia. Actors Mickey Rourke and Arnold Schwarzenegger both admitted to using PEDs over the years. And just last week, in light of the Brian Johnson steroid scandal, outspoken podcast host Joe Rogan accused Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and other high-profile stars (like Chris Hemsworth) of “not being clean.”

“The Rock should come clean right now,” Rogan joked in a recent show. “There’s not a fucking chance in hell he’s clean, not a chance in hell as big as The Rock is at 50… he is so massive and he’s so different than he was when he was 30.”

Mind you, Rogan has been honest about his own use of steroids over the years and reiterated that, should a celebrity choose to go down the route of PEDs and actively talk about their physique in public, they have to be honest about it; they owe it to their fans.

The point we’re getting at is, for decades, America (specifically Los Angeles) has plastered images of what the “ideal” male body looks like: big, muscular, fit and handsome. That’s your leading Hollywood man right there in a nutshell. And in the last decade, it has only become more prominent. Franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a massive Hollywood money-making machine, have normalised god-like physiques since 2008. It’s changed the way we, men, think about our own bodies and what we think they’re “supposed” to look like. When in reality, has it all been sold as a lie? Undoubtedly steroids and other PEDs have skewed the sense of what’s normal; what’s desirable; and what’s attractive. And whether natural or not, there are plenty of men in this world that are willing to risk their health to achieve this ideal body.

Former Men’s Health Australia editor Scott Henderson, who has worked extensively with leading actors, athletes, trainers and influencers and has aided many discussions around healthy body image, mental health and the overall well-being of men during his tenure as MH editor, reiterates the pressures men face when chasing unrealistic body standards.

“There’s a huge pressure on men to achieve unrealistic body standards – the whole AI trend of this week for example – and when folks like the Liver King suggest it’s due to anything but PEDs… well they’re setting young men up for failure,” says Henderson.

“I’ve pulled cover men before – once with two days before sending to print – because we learnt of their PED usage and couldn’t, in good conscience, present this as a healthy ideal.”

“I think it’s important for young men to know that the bodies they see on screens aren’t obtainable in a natural and healthy way. It’s not only PEDs, but in a lot of action/comic book films, motion capture is used in post-production to enhance musculature – so sometimes, they’re even beyond what PEDs can do.”

Whether we choose to believe it or not, this narrative that Hollywood has set is actually a form of body dysmorphia, and no doubt those that are taking PEDs and claiming otherwise are only adding fuel to the fire. In a story published via Vox, Roberto Olivardia, a psychologist from the Harvard Medical School who specialises in the treatment of body dysmorphia in boys and men, stated that the increased use of steroids and PEDs has ultimately resulted in an increase in muscle dysmorphia, a term used to describe those who believe that their muscles are too small, and as a result, are severely dissatisfied with their physical appearance.

“Doing this work for 21 years, I saw a real shift in my practice when the internet and social media took off,” Olivardia told VOX. “Now young boys are getting information about the substances and have access to imagery — and it’s not only just celebrities now. It’s their peers, and they’re Photoshopping pictures of themselves. It’s definitely increasing.”

While the discussion around body dysmorphia and how it affects young girls and women has been a conversation widely discussed for decades now, there’s been very little discussion around the standards of beauty around the male body. Surely the narrative around seemingly unrealistic body transformations as a by-product of “hard work and determination” needs to end?

“One way forward is honesty, but I think it will be a while before it [PEDs] becomes palatable for the general public,” adds Henderson.

“It probably has to start at the top; Hollywood stars, athletes and influencers coming clean from a position of managing the expectations of young men. Not normalising the use of PEDs, but rather acknowledging that they use them for the purpose of aesthetics. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where attention is currency, both positive and negative, so it’s going to take a conscious effort to make that shift.”

“Unfortunately, the other less likely way forward is that we pull back on these expectations and present men with a variety of images that represent ‘masculinity’.”

At the end of the day, there needs to be a greater discussion around the use of steroids and PEDs for enhancing one’s body and image. It’s something that is prolific amongst many types of leading male figures, from athletes and actors to influencers and bodybuilders, and it’s definitely a conversation we need to normalise. Above all else, studies are still uncertain about the long-term effects of using PEDs, so at the end of the day, what’s really worth it?