More than ever before, female protagonists in movies and popular television shows are shown celebrating using alcohol. Whether this is Chelsea Handler and vodka (in fact, Belvedere Vodka sponsored her comedy tour), Bridget Jones with her glasses of wine and the female cast of Sex and the City drinking cosmopolitans as though they were drinking water, it is often represented as a ‘hilarious’ situation or at worst, as a regretful hangover. However, whether it is life imitating art or vice versa, more and more women throughout the country are drinking to excess than ever before.
What is Motivating Women to Drink?
According to Ann Dowsett Johnston, a woman who herself struggled with alcoholism before and has since written a book about her struggles, the increase in alcoholism and binge drinking amongst women is because women feel entitled to do so. According to Johnston, women believe that they have the ‘right to drink to excess’. She relates this to the feminist movement that has demonstrated that women are able to do everything as well as men can. She believes that this also leads to the ‘right to have a drink at the end of the day’.
However, she also believes that the issue is rooted deeper than that. She believes that professional mothers return home from work and are expecting to complete their ‘second shift’. This means that they are expected to have dinner on the table, help with homework, have the house presentable and still manage to remain sane. According to Johnston, the alcohol helped her unwind after a long day.
Different Reasons to Drink
According to Johnston’s research, the reason that men and women drink may also be different. While men drink to be social, women may do so to numb problems with depression, anxiety, to escape feelings of loneliness and numb other problems. While women do drink in social settings, Johnston believes that this is one of the major differences.
An Industry that Needs to Grow
Of course, the liquor industry is more than happy to offer women the option to drink. With highly feminized wine options such as ‘Happy Bitch’, ‘Girl’s Night Out’, and ‘MommyJuice,’ it should be clear that these are not aimed at a male demographic. Berry- and mango-flavored vodka options are clearly not targeting the male demographic either.
The Parallel with Virginia Slims
Johnson draws attention to the Virginia Slims tobacco parallel. The makers of Virginia Slims understood that it needed to expand its business, especially considering that they already reached near market saturation for their male demographic. Instead of trying to get non-male smokers to try tobacco, they instead focused on young professional women.
When the company introduced this brand of cigarettes in 1968, it used the slogan “You’ve come a long way baby”, directly targeting feelings of women’s empowerment, emancipation and freedom. It led to the creation of a niche market that directly targets women. These new cigarettes were much narrower than the traditional cigarettes, giving them a more “elegant” appearance and giving the optical illusion that the user is not smoking as much (despite the fact that these cigarettes were far longer).
That is the same thing that is happening today. Liquor companies understood that they were not engaging an entire gender, which led to the introduction of sweet, pre-packaged drinks that seemed less intimidating than Johnnie Walker and did not have anything to do with beer.
Why Gender Quality is not a Factor Here
One of the reasons that so many Western women are developing problems with alcohol at an alarming rate is because, while gender equality in terms of voting rights and equal pay is one thing, the biology of the body is something different. While researchers are not able to narrow down exactly what the deciding factors are, a woman’s body is unable to handle alcohol as well as a man’s body is. While there are many possible options for this, (some believe that estrogen interacts with alcohol differently, while others believe that our different stomach enzymes have something to do with it) researchers are unable to narrow down the exact problem.
While few people would argue that women deserve the same rights as men do, from a biological standpoint, a woman’s body contains less water per pound of bodyweight. While women are certainly free to drink as much as they want, this means that after consuming three or four drinks, the blood alcohol level for women will be far higher than it is for men.
Drinking May Turn Problematic at Lower Levels
Combine the sense of equality with the social acceptance of alcohol consumption and the fact that women’s bodies do not process alcohol the same way that men’s bodies do, leads to a greater risk of problems related to drinking for women. For women this might mean specific problems related to alcoholic consumption such as liver disease, heart disease, alcoholism and breast cancer. Because of the lowered tolerance, women are likely to develop alcoholism at higher rates than men do.
It is Clear that Women are Catching Up
The truth is that while women have a right to drink, drinking to excess, even binge drink as much as they want, the statistics are already showing that this is going to be a serious problem in a few years. The United Kingdom recently rang the alarm when women in their early 20s were dying because of alcohol-related illnesses. Until recently, most experts had the idea that this might only influence men in their 60’s and 70’s. While equality is a noble cause, it is certainly not something to strive for when it comes to alcohol-related problems.
Unless state and local governments actively target women (just as the liquor industry is doing) to provide information on possible side effects to drinking in excess, chances are that these problems are only going to increase in the near future.