Girls and Steroids: Anything to Be Thin

Dionne Passacantando desperately wanted to be thin.

In 2003, Passacantando was a petite and popular high school student in Allen, Texas. But the 17-year-old cheerleader and senior class vice president said she felt pressured to slim down, to have that "Shape magazine, six-pack" look.

So, she took what seemed to be an easy route to a better body: she began using anabolic steroids. "It seemed like the ultimate answer," she said, adding that the drugs — bought, she said, through a friend on the school football team — were "ridiculously easy to find."


But within five weeks, she'd gained around 8 pounds, and her voice deepened. She felt "out of control," mired in depression, with thoughts of suicide.

"It definitely made me feel alone," she said of the drugs. "It pushed me to a state of depression that harming myself was definitely not out of the question."

Watch Dionne's story today on "Good Morning America."

Passacantando is not alone. Illegal steroids are mostly used by men in their late teens and 20s, and the extent of steroid abuse among teenage girls is not clear. But, stories such as Passacantando's, and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicate that performance-enhancing drugs have crept into the nation's high schools — where they are being used by both boys and girls.

Former Sen. George Mitchell, in his report on steroid use in Major League Baseball, warned that hundreds of thousands of high schoolers are illegally using performance-enhancing drugs. "Every American, not just baseball fans, ought to be shocked into action by that disturbing truth," the report said

And it's not just boys that are abusing the drugs. An Oregon Health and Science University report, based on data collected in 2003 by the CDC, found that about 5.3 percent of high school-age girls admitted to using steroids. By 2005, that number dropped to 3.2 percent, according to the CDC.

Unlike most men, who tend to take steroids to improve their physical performance, Passacantando chose to use the drugs as a "vanity kind of thing," driven by her desire to slim down to a size zero. She'd skipped meals or forced herself to throw up, in the past, and had heard that steroids, which increase muscle mass and decrease body fat, would help tone her body.

Passacantando said that steroids were not uncommon at her high school, among athletes and others. She told ABC News that she asked a player to help her get the drugs.

Forty-eight hours and $250 later, she had the steroids in her hands, she said.

It was easy to conceal from her family, she said. She locked herself in the bathroom every other day and injected herself in the buttocks. Within an hour, she said, she felt a "jolt," a burst of energy.

But, she soon learned the drugs had a dark side. Steroids can cause side effects, including facial hair growth and hair loss in teenage girls. The drugs can also stunt a person's growth, and have been associated with liver problems and cardiovascular disease, said Dr. Linn Goldberg, head of health promotion and sports medicine at Oregon Health and Science, and one of the authors of the university's report on steroid use among teenage girls.

Girls who use steroids tend to fall into two categories, Goldberg said. Many, like Passacantando, tend to be overachievers, more concerned with their looks and social status, than with their performance on the lacrosse field, said Goldberg. In fact, according to Goldberg's study, female steroid users are less likely than their peers to participate in team sports.

"It's very different than the use of another drug. It's really a pro-social drug," he said. "You will look better, you may perform better, and so, it's not one to drop out or get high, or do anything like that. It's to look better and achieve more."

Other female steroid users have already shown other kinds of high risk behavior, such using alcohol and drugs, and having sex early, according to Goldberg's study.

Dr. Harrison Pope, director of McLean Hospital's biological psychiatry laboratory, which specializes in steroid abuse research, said the CDC's statistics overestimate the number of girls using steroids. Pope co-authored a study, published last year, that said girls surveyed by the CDC probably confused illegal steroids with other types of legal drugs.

Pope called steroid use among girls an "illusory" problem.

But, for Passacantando, the problem was real. She said she had no idea about the dangers of steroid abuse. "The only thing that I had ever heard was that steroids could cause 'roid rage," she said.

But, after five weeks of injecting herself with the drugs, she became short-tempered and angry. She gained 8 pounds of muscle, fought with her family, and felt unable to cope with everyday stresses. "I didn't feel like myself," she said.

After one fight, she ran to the bathroom and swallowed a handful of over the counter medicine. "I was angry and ... just kind of towards a breaking point," she said.

A few days later, she drank too much and had a public "meltdown" in front of her friends. "I lost all control," she said. "I was about to hit rock bottom."

She drove herself to the hospital where she confessed her drug use.

Passacantando now says she believes that she was able to take the drugs undetected because most people don't think of steroids as a problem of teenage girls. "I don't think a lot of people had really heard of girls using it, especially for cosmetic reasons," she said.

Goldberg said girls tend to be more secretive than boys about their drug use. "That's the difference between girls and boys, and how they use drugs, so it wouldn't be odd for a young woman to be using anabolic steroids and be very secretive," he said.

Passacantando said she wants other teens to understand the side effects of the drugs. "If someone would have said, 'there's really a good chance you could become unbelievably depressed,'" she said, "maybe I would have thought twice about it."