Researcher biography

Dr Mair Underwood is an anthropologist who specialises in human bodies and their modification, particularly in online communities. Recently she has conducted online ethnographic research in enhanced bodybuilding communities. Underwood is interested in the social lives of image and performance enhancing drugs, and explores these drug communities as not only risk environments, but also enabling environments and sites for harm reduction. 

Underwood ensures that her research informs policy and practice by presenting to various audiences. In 2021 Underwood spoke on image and performance enhancing drug harm reduction from the bodybuilder perspective for the Penington Institute, a public health research and drug policy organization.

In a 2021 paper for fitness industry website ThinkSteroids, Underwood wrote about muscle dysmorphia (a preoccupation with not being ‘muscular enough), comparing bodybuilder discussions of the condition online with the medical literature. “Bodybuilding was described as encouraging people to identify with their body too much, and as encouraging people to compare themselves to other bodybuilders, thus warping their perception of what their body should look like, and how it compares to other people’s bodies,” she says. “As bodybuilders tend to follow other bodybuilders on social media it means that they are focusing on what confirms their idea that they are small.”

At the 2017 Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs (APSAD) conference, Underwood spoke on performance and image enhancing drug harm minimization, science and ‘broscience’. 

Underwood is particularly interested in the rise of the weaponisation of bodies through social media. In an article for The Conversation, Underwood describes how “a “revenge body” is an improved body (reduced fat and/or increased muscle) built in order to demonstrate to someone who hurt you how well you are doing without them”. She tracks the movement of the “revenge body” from the celebrity domain to everyday life. Underwood details how smartphones, social media and high-speed internet, have allowed anyone and everyone to have a revenge body if they so desire, attributing some of this phenomenon to individuals like Zyzz (Aziz Sergeyevich Shavershian). Zyzz was an Australian bodybuilder of Russian origin, who rose to prominence on YouTube in the mid-2000s, before passing away in 2011. The personality popularised amateur bodybuilding in Australia, building his brand through social media, referenced in Underwood’s work as still being a key figure locally. “These technological advances have allowed us all to have public bodies – not just celebrities,” she says.

Underwood is currently continuing her inquiries into body image in online communities, finalising a project exploring online enhancement drug using communities.

“Western culture increasingly emphasises the body as a project that reflects your worth. The condition of one’s body is often seen as a choice: everyone can have an ideal body if they just put in the work.” - “Your body as a weapon: the rise of the ‘revenge body’ online” (Underwood, 2019)

At the 2020 Anabolic Steroids United Kingdom (ASUK) conference Underwood described how enhanced bodybuilders describe the risks of anabolic-androgenic steroids, and how they reduce the harms of their use.