Health: Teenage girls fall prey to steroids in attempt to win athletics scholarships at US colleges

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The Independent Online
Body-building anabolic steroids can bring nasty side-effects, and male athletes increasingly avoid them. But, as David Usborne discovers, a new segment of society is experimenting with them: girls.

It is a problem traditionally associated with men; the illegal use of anabolic steroids to enhance physical prowess. Now, however, parents in the United States are being told to watch out for girls taking the drugs as well.

A study published this week by Penn State University suggests that while steroid use by young men may have bottomed out over recent years, thanks to tougher laws and stern warnings about the drugs' potential side effects, increasing numbers of teenage girls are falling prey to steroids.

The reasons appear to be varied. For some girls, steroid consumption brings the promise of achieving leaner, meaner bodies without having to resort to starvation, and risking eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. But more important may be the increasing numbers of athletic scholarships on offer to women in America hoping to continue higher education after school. To win such a scholarship, which can be worth thousands of dollars, women must have high-performing bodies.

"There are popular assumptions out there that boys want to build the muscle and therefore take the steroids, and that girls want to get lighter and so have an anorexia problem or an eating disorder," Donna Lopiano, of the Women's Sporting Foundation, told the Associated Press agency. "It's not that simple."

The study showed that among American girls in 12th grade - mostly 17- year-olds - some 2.4 per cent admitted to trying the illegal steroids at some point. Even among 10th graders (15-year-olds), the proportion of girls to have experimented with the drugs had grown to 1.4 per cent last year, compared with 0.8 per cent in a study conducted in 1991.

Chris Yesalis, an author of the report, which has been published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, acknowledges that the number of girls using steroids is still small. But he insists it represents a growing problem.

"Does this concern me as much as tobacco use? Absolutely not. But neither do I think it's appropriate to say in any way, shape or form that it's not a big deal," he said.

The steroids are based on the male hormone testosterone. They can be swallowed or injected. It is often hard for authorities to detect illegal steroid consumption because the hormones are naturally present in the body.

Steroid use can have a range of side effects on anyone who takes them. They include subtle personality changes such as an increased tendency towards violence, aggression and shortness of temper. More gravely, doctors warn of increased blood pressure and possibly fatal damage to the heart and liver.

Girls, meanwhile, should be aware of dangers specific to them, including increased acne, a lowering of the voice, a shrinking of the breasts and enlargement of the clitoris. Some of the symptoms will not go away even when the consumption of steroids is terminated.