Toronto
7 min

Genie in a bottle

How far will gay men go for a perfect body?

SCULPTED. Gay men want different bodies than do their straight counterparts. Credit: David Hawe

Kerry walked around his apartment for hours talking with friends on the phone before he was able to inject himself the first time.



“I didn’t like injecting myself,” the 38-year-old admits. “I didn’t like putting a needle into my body. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a nurse. I did not enjoy doing that part of it.”



But Kerry (who didn’t want his last name used) had levelled off in his workout and wasn’t getting the results he wanted. No slouch in the gym, Kerry works out five days a week, one hour a day on a different muscle group and a half-hour on cardio.



So he decided last year to try a round of a testosterone-based steroid, Sinaplix, to help boost his results. He began to inject himself every other day with the drug he’d bought on the black market, through a friend who works out at a “straight” gym where steroids are in obvious use.



More and more, gay men are looking for chemical help to keep pace with the standard that has been set for the body beautiful in the gay community. Their workout aids range from products as simple as drinkable protein supplements to contraband injection steroids. Whatever they’re using, it’s a balance between their health and their goals for their own beauty.



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“The gay body aesthetic is very well known. It’s developed from the underwear models and such,” says Patrick Crowe, 33, an avid participant of the workout regimen himself. Crowe works out at the West End YMCA and notices the divide between straight and gay men.



“One gets a sense that they’re training a little differently. To generalize horrifically – but it’s true – the gay guys are usually sculpting and the straight guys tend to be bulking up. We’re always talking about the way these guys are lifting these massive weights and how they’re still fat.”



It comes down to the fundamentally different way gay men see their own bodies. While straight men are building bodies for power and competition, gay men are weightlifting for a whole different arena: the dancefloor of clubs such as Five and Fly where a sexual attractive body will bring them rewards. In this sense, their bodybuilding has more in common with straight women’s dieting, and puts a particularly non-butch spin on the very masculine sport.



This affects their choice of workout aids – most gay supplement users will opt for ones designed for cutting and defining muscles with a minimum amount of bulking.



Matt Siefert, 28 and an equally committed gym enthusiast, started working out when he found that he didn’t fit so neatly into the twink category any longer. He’s used the commercially-available supplement Creatine, but found no benefits. He still uses protein shakes and occasionally uses natural “uppers” like Ephedra and Ripped Fuel before a night out dancing.



He says that results aren’t his primary reason for working out anymore, yet admits he does like the benefits.



“It’s nice to look nice, obviously. I like it when people look at me,” he says. “I’m not very good at approaching people but luckily, I don’t have to…. People will come up and talk to me.”



Siefert admits that bodybuilding is essentially an unnatural thing to do. “You damage your muscle tissue, so it grows back stronger because it obviously doesn’t want to be damaged. That’s what bodybuilders do. They tear down the muscles again and again.”



Considering the demands of the activity, supplements can seem like a natural step. Even casual bodybuilders will use whey protein, available in many health and dietary supplement stores, to give the body the materials, usually proteins, needed to do the repairs.



As for ‘roids, Health Canada estimates about 83,000 Canadians between 11 and 18 use illegally-obtained steroids, synthetic versions of the male hormone testosterone. They can increase muscle size and strength in conjunction with workouts, but they’re not without risks.



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Motivations for using supplements vary dramatically.



Crowe says taking supplements helps him stay focussed and motivated. He’s tried just about everything, including over-the-counter supplements like chromium and Mejong (metabolism boosters that serve as fat reducers), diuretics (to drain surplus water), HMB and Creatine (to extend the length of the workout). And also under-the-counter products like Elcarnatine (a banned amino acid isolate used to extend workout capacity).



“The seriousness I put into my workout makes an impact. It’s quite noticeable,” Crowe says. “I think they help you very subtly. The fact that you’re using them can be a good psychological meter that you’re on target.”



Far from miracle products that will give the lazy a full set of pecs, most supplements, steroids especially, mean people have to work harder to shape that extra body mass potential.



“I don’t think I could have taken this step without the steroid,” says Kerry. “I work 40 hours a week. My personal time is important to me. If I could spend 20 to 30 hours a week in the gym, maybe I could do it.”



Before he took the plunge, Kerry did a lot of research.



“I went on the Internet. I spoke to people that had been on [steroid] cycles,” he says. “I had my doctor involved in the process. We did full blood work before, during and after to see the levels of testosterone in my body and to make sure I wasn’t doing any liver damage. I had an open discussion with my doctor about possible side effects as well as having those discussions with professional bodybuilders and a number of people I had known who had been on cycles. It was well thought through. I was aware of the consequences.”



Kerry is not typical in the completeness of his precautions. Because of the illicit nature of steroids (and because even commercially available supplements are considered marginal in the health care system), many users find it difficult to be honest with their doctors. Kerry’s doctor advised against steroid use but was still willing to counsel him through it.



“Most of the people that I talked to, I believe, were not doing it as safely as I was. I think people were looking for instant gratification,” he says.



Health Canada says because steroids are a controlled substance in this country, the product available is often counterfeit and unclean. Steroids can cause breast enlargement and sterility, and can stunt a young man’s growth. They can increase aggression – known as ‘roid rage – and cause paranoia.



Michelle Bodner, a naturopath with Supplements Plus on Church St, says many people in the community are fixed on results and taking needless risks with supplements. There’s a perception that over-the-counter “natural” products are safe. While they’re often safer than those on the black market, that doesn’t mean they’re risk-free.



“Ephedra is very popular,” says Bodner. “It increases the heart rate. It dilates the bronchials. It can give you more focus and more energy. It’s basically like taking an upper. It’s herbal speed. People like to use it before a work out – you can work out a lot harder and a lot longer.”



Bodner says there are risks, though. It can cause a heart attack in people with heart problems, and cause thyroid and blood pressure problems. That doesn’t turn many people off.



“In terms of Ephedra, everybody who buys it, we tell them it’s dangerous if you have any heart problems,” says Bodner. “People don’t seem to care. Nobody’s put it back and said, ‘Okay, then I won’t take it.'”



Creatine, the second most common bodybuilding supplement after whey protein, can cause serious dehydration as it drags a lot of the body’s water into skeletal muscles and “puffs” them up.



Unbiased information is hard to get. Most websites are selling a product, and the marginal nature of the industry means the research often isn’t thorough.



For most bodybuilders, though, it’s the results that count. Kerry had a very positive first round of six weeks on Sinaplix – though he had a drop in sex drive and a low mood after he came off it.



“I got a lot of the results I was looking for. My body fat decreased almost immediately,” Kerry says. “I was a lot hornier through the entire process. I hadn’t even thought of that side of it. My body mass increased almost immediately. I could lift weights I hadn’t even tried. When I was doing aerobic type exercises – riding or rowing – my energy levels were extremely high. Almost immediately, within the first couple of weeks, I noticed changes in my arms, my chest and my legs. Everything got bigger and bulkier and more lean.”



With so little mainstream health information available, in the end it can be an act of faith.



“I take the supplements as some kind of insurance,” says Crowe. “I figure you might as well give yourself a fighting chance – or the best chance you can have.”



VANITY PILLS



It’s not only body building supplements that are in wide use within the gay community. In the hunt for the body beautiful many people are relying on the support of vanity drugs to ensure a slim waist, full head of hear and unfailing erection. Be cautious as they come with side effects ranging from innocuous to potentially fatal.



For many of these drugs and supplements, their vanity application is often a side effect of their initial invention. The prostate cancer prevention medication, Propecia, was found to have properties that happily fight hair loss as well. But side benefits often mean negative side effects, as well. Propecia, safe for men taking it for hair loss, is a serious threat to pregnant women.



And it was within the gay community only a few years ago that we first learnt of the incompatibility of Viagra and poppers when several people suffered heart attacks while mixing the drugs.



Long-term effects are also a gamble, as few aids have been in regular use for more then 10 years.



So it’s important to inform yourself like crazy, talk to other people who have used different supplements and steroids and find a doctor who will give advice – even if they don’t approve. It’s also a good idea to take breaks from supplement cycles. Here’s some other things to watch out for.



* Steroids. Use can cause back acne, mood changes and depression afterward. Overuse can cause high blood pressure, shrinking of the testicles, male patterned baldness, unwanted body hair, breast development in men and liver damage.



* HIV and AIDS. Many vanity drugs mix badly with HIV medications such as the combination of Creatine and protease inhibitors. On the other hand, steroids or protein/high carbohydrate supplements might be prescribed for wasting.



* Party drugs. Talk with friends about experiences they’ve had with different mixtures. Try to lay off the party drugs during periods of supplement usage.



* Xenical. Anal leaking is a nasty side effect to this weight-reduction aid, as the fat passes out of your system undigested. Also there’s the possibility of losing all your fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and Betacarotine.



* Creatine. Body mass gain can look better than reality as Creatine packs muscles with water (it wears off quickly). It also allows longer workouts. Threat of dehydration is high, along with stress on liver and kidneys. Some people don’t respond.



* Chromium. Speeds up metabolism to burn off fat. Same dangers as Ephedra for heart, thyroid and kidneys.