A gold medal-winning strongwoman who set new heights for female power lifters believes there is a hypocrisy that lies at the heart of how society views steroids.
Kara Swankie competed professionally for five years and swept the boards at the 2017 Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships.
As well as having an athlete’s perspective on steroid use, the 24-year-old – who broke three world records before taking a break from sport last year – also founded and owned the Dundee Strength Unit and enforced a strict no-drugs policy.
But despite competing in tested federations – powerlifters can also take part in contests where they are not subject to checks – Kara says she does not have any moral aversion to athletes using image-enhancing drugs, or Ipeds.
She said: “I’m not really against people taking steroids, I think people take them for various reasons and as long as it’s controlled I think it’s potentially a better thing to take than drink and other drugs.
“I mean it does a lot less damage to your body than smoking does.
“To me if someone has a very anti-steroids attitude but still takes drugs, smokes, drinks alcohol, that isn’t any better.
“And I think as a society, and I’m sure lots of people will disagree with this, but they’re all just as bad as one another – yet it’s still acceptable to go down the pub every Friday and Saturday night and binge drink beyond belief.”
However she does firmly believe that, alongside a misplaced view of the dangers of the drugs, there is also a worrying lack of knowledge among some people that do decide to take them.
“I do see why people decide taking steroids is the answer to their problems, and actually it’s one of these things if it’s not doing any harm to them and their managing their diet then it’s almost their business,” she added.
“I think social media has had a huge impact, when I was competing I was very active online and absolutely saw on a daily basis where people would post pictures that they look as if they’ve just stepped off the stage as a body builder and acting like that’s the way they walk around.
“But actually that’s totally not healthy and it’s a really terrifying world as a female, particularly if you’re sitting there looking at people who appear to be flawless, and that’s a really unhealthy lifestyle they’re leading.
“And the use of steroids among females to look like that is really high.
“Things they’ll not class as steroids, just a wee tablet here and there, it’s still something you’re putting in your body that shouldn’t be there.
“I think the likes of Love Island and social media influencers totally belittle the amount of work that goes into that, even stretching to the world of bodybuilding. It’s not just a case of popping a couple of tablets and thinking you’ll drop 10% body fat.
“There’s definitely a misconception around there and that’s why I go back to my original point that I’m not against steroids because the majority of people who do take them work really hard, arguably harder, than other people – it’s not this magic pill that all of a sudden you’ll have a six-pack and big shoulders.”
And, despite being confident in her image, and encouraging other females to be the same, she admits that she herself has not been immune to feeling pressured by unrealistic body images.
She added: “I do on a bad day pick up my phone and see somebody who looks incredible and why don’t I look like that and then reality kicks in and I remember it’s because they’ve got x,y and z in place. But that’s a really difficult thing to do unless you’re realy quite a strong person in yourself.
“There is a responsibility – we’re creating thousands of reality TV stars on a yearly basis, there has to be something where the media and companies that make these programmes hsould take some ownership of this and set some context for these images.”
‘Being a female who lifts is a very lonely world’
Kara first got into lifting weights to help strengthen her arm to prevent her arm becoming deformed due to a condition she was born with.
But she very quickly became “addicted” and in the years after would be hugely successful, before she decided to take a break to focus on her other career.
Despite her success, she says powerlifting is still perceived to be a man’s world and the misconceptions that go along with that.
She said: “Being a female who lifts is a very lonely world. I’ve taken a step back from competing right now but in the gym that I go to I’ve got friends who go ‘Kara, you’re just really intimidating, you don’t look like you’re approachable, you look like you’re going to be this tough, scary person’.
“Every time I tell someone what my background is they say you don’t look like a powerlifter – well, what’s a power lifter supposed to look like? It’s definitely getting better but probably every couple of weeks if I’m picking a weight up or putting one away, if it’s not someone who knows my background, they’ll say ‘do you need a wee hand?’. No, I could probably help you.
“And it’s not from a place of badness that the person is speaking, it’s just how peoples’ perceptions are. And people definitely have this attitude that if you’re a girl that lifts weights you will look bad.”
And, despite what outsiders might think about the pursuit, Kara says lifting is not about looks, good or bad.
She said: “I lift weights nothing to do with the looks and aesthetics it’s not my goal at all.
“And actually my push around people, particularly females, getting into powerlifting as a sport is so they can feel quite confident and powerful to do something that doesn’t involve how they look.”
Though she does not object to people taking steroids as a performance-enhancer she advocates that people should work to their own natural limits as much as they can, especially if they are not competing.
She added: “I lead a very healthy lifestyle full stop and I just think if you’re not going to put yourself in that environment where you need to level the playing field then why put anything unnecessary into your body.
“If you’re doing it just for fun, getting into lifting as a hobby, then just do it. But ultimately it is a personal choice, lots of people have their own reasons.”