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Pre-teen Protein: Bulking Up as an Adolescent

The New York Times recently published an article entitled "Muscular Body Image Lures Boys Into Gym, and Obsession"  which discusses young boys' and teens' involvement with steroids, protein supplements, and obsessive weight lifting practices, a trend that has been revealed to be remarkably widespread. Author Douglas Quenqa wrote, "Whether it is long hours in the gym, allowances blown on expensive supplements or even risky experiments with illegal steroids, the price American boys are willing to pay for the perfect body appears to be on the rise." It's alarming to think that boys as young as 13 years old are waking early to go to the gym and lift before school and are idealizing a muscled and pumped-up image for their pubescent bodies. Quenqa shares that such a specific body image is not only unrealistic for many but also detrimental. Since protein pills and powders are not under the jurisdiction of the FDA as supplements, proper use can be ambiguous-- and overuse is very dangerous; illegal steroids can stunt growth, induce early hair loss, cause violent mood swings and delusions, and harbor disease through the sharing of needles. The consequences are significant, and to me would seem basic enough to prove preventative. Similar spinoff articles were found in Men's Fitness and like publications, with little expository journalism but written as a warning to industry enthusiasts to advise their sons, younger brothers, and nephews of such negative ramifications.

The psychological obsession component of this particular issue is one I find deeply troubling. The introduction of Quenqa's article reads, "It is not just girls these days who are consumed by an unattainable body image." While it has been widely accepted for many years as a stereotype that females obsess about their bodies, it seems that the roots of the issues for both genders, particularly in terms of teenagers, emanates from a desire to be older, faster, and a media that perpetuates that standard. There are 14 -year old couture models walking runways for adult collections, and body building competitions surfacing at the middle and high school level. In favor of such extremes, it seems that a highly-technologized youth culture has given way to greater access to the means of achieving a paired down or pumped up physique, and that all your friends and more can witness you doing it. Young adults lifting now not only have the access to the equipment itself, but to an iPhone camera, an Instagram or Twitter account, and an arsenal full of simultaneously self-motivational and depressing hashtags to pull focus.

In the wake of the recent revilement of Lance Armstrong's 7 Tour de France titles, I would have thought that the longitudinal consequences of steroid use and certain body enhancement techniques would be clear in such a fall from the top. Quenqa's article was written after this momentous reclamation, and even so stating "the constant association of steroids with elite athletes like Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds perpetuates the notion that they can be managed successfully." I would hardly call losing 7 titles "[managing] successfully," and further I find it impossible, and did even before Lance lost his yellow ribbons, to separate the fact that the individuals to which we are relating these young adults are professional athletes who are at least 15 years senior to many of the boys mentioned in the article.

As a genetic beanpole, the female side of the body image conundrum has been ubiquitous in my own life. Sophomore year of high school,  I remember my track coach telling the team during our season's first practice  that Tuesdays would be spent in the weight rooms with one of the boy's football coaches, a terrifying barrel of a man who taught government classes. The thought of spending time in the mirror-lined cell with athletes twice my width was daunting. As a sprinter, my 'weight plan' was designed to strengthen my fast twitch muscles and give me power coming out of the blocks. The result was a duet with a senior football defensemen, doing power cleans: he with over 200 lbs, and me with the 85 lb bar. Perhaps it was my coach saying I looked 'feeble,' but lifting didn't feel empowering to me, so I was surprised at how many of my classmates did lift. However, it was rare that I saw any of my 15-year old classmates with protein shakes or steroids (perhaps we were more of the Powerade generation), but I could have been ignorant. It's very possible steroids was an undercurrent to which I was unaware. For me, running track and dancing was becoming near debilitative to my musculature, and I felt as though I needed strength. As a senior, my swim-team friends convinced me to take Weight-Lifting for my final physical education credit. At that time, the only way I felt secure about 'lifting' was that I was preparing for an activity, or in my case now as a dancer, a lifestyle that required serious strength. And, around me it seemed as though everyone was preparing for something, whether it was football, swimming, baseball, soccer, track, you name it.

Upon reading these articles, I was struck by the nature of many of the young boys mentioned, lifting simply for the sake of mass. Their standards for their bodies doesn't seem to be based on making a certain weight class or being able to throw better passes. The obsession lies within the image, and a measure of skill that is only vilified by the physical manifestation of tone and curve. To me, the real issue has nothing to do with teaching young adults to intelligently build muscle and develop a healthy relationship with working out, but rather that the process is only in favor of an ultimate yield, one that is not only problematic but unrealistic to expect of such young individuals. Quenqa's NYTimes article generated a fair share of commentary, ranging from incensed readers who felt as though he demonized what is, at base, an effort to be healthy as opposed to not, and did little research about the actual subculture. Others, like me, were struck by the pre-ambulatory understanding of weight lifting, and its potential detriment to young, developing muscles. While positives and negatives can be drawn from both conclusions, the truth is really in the fact that in the present culture of extremes the necessity for education and balance is integral.

Additional Sources: Men's Fitness