WASHINGTON - Steroid use is a problem for women as well as male athletes, the chairman of a House panel said yesterday.
And it's not just athletes who are using, but also young girls "looking for a way to get thinner, to reduce body fat - to conform to an idea of beauty they feel pressured to emulate," House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis said yesterday during a hearing.
Studies have shown that "growing numbers of young girls" are beginning to use steroids, said Davis, a Virginia Republican.
One study, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and distributed at the hearing, found that 7.3 percent of ninth-grade girls reported steroid use in an anonymous 2003 questionnaire - the most recent such survey for which results are available.
"How did this happen?" asked Penn State University steroid expert Charles Yesalis, one of a half-dozen witnesses at the nearly three-hour hearing. "As athletic opportunities and associated rewards expanded for girls during the past decades, so did the temptation to use anabolic steroids. In addition, a semi-muscular athletic physique has come into vogue."
Hearing participants disagreed on how widespread the problem is.
Harvard psychiatry professor Harris G. Pope said teen girls' steroid use "is probably greatly exaggerated" by anonymous surveys that girls take in school.
But Yesalis said that if surveys showing increased use in recent years are correct, "We could have as many as 300,000 to 400,000 high school-aged girls in this country who have cycled on anabolic steroids."
The CDC survey, which sampled 15,214 students in grades nine through 12, reported 5.3 percent of the females and 6.8 percent of males used steroids. In 1991, 2.7 percent of high school students used steroids, according to the CDC.
The House panel, which earlier held hearings on steroid use by big league baseball, football and basketball players, was told that girls have varying motivations for steroid use.
Oregon Health & Science University medical professor Diane L. Elliot testified that "there appear to be two groups of young women anabolic steroid users."
One group, Elliot said, seems to use the drugs to feel less vulnerable. "Many carry guns and have missed school because they felt unsafe," Elliot said.
A much larger second group, she said, is composed of girls with eating disorders: "The sequence may be that girls have low self-esteem, feel depressed and engage in disordered eating, then progress to alcohol and other drug use."
Side effects of women's steroid use include voice deepening and facial hair. Steroids generally have been linked to various ailments, including liver and heart problems, and depression.
Former world champion sprinter Kelli White and Mari Holden, a medal-winning Olympic cyclist, testified to the panel.