Why She Drinks: Women and Alcohol Abuse

Women’s growing predilection for wine has a darker side—and the only way to deal with it is to acknowledge the profound differences between how women and men abuse alcohol.

wineA few summers ago, I stuffed my car full of the last flattened cardboard boxes from a cross-country move and headed to the recycling depot of my suburban New Jersey town. I pulled up behind a queue of slender women at the wheels of shiny SUVs. Their eyes concealed by giant sunglasses, they hopped from their seats to their open trunks and, one by one, reached for the bags that are the totems of upper-middle-class life: silver ones from Nordstrom, plain ones from Whole Foods. Out poured wine bottles, clanking into the rusted recycling truck.

In Portland, Ore., where I lived for six years, I would watch most Sunday nights as a neighbor deposited two giant Merlot bottles in my recycling bin. Her house was a block away, and she had her own bin—but apparently mine seemed like a more discreet place to stash her empties. In New York’s Westchester County, where I had lived previously, women would pass around a flask at dreary school functions. Alcohol and motherhood were intertwined, so much so that after I had my third daughter in the anxious autumn after 9/11, I received bottle after bottle of wine as baby gifts.

The growing female predilection for wine seems at first glance like a harmless indulgence for harried mothers who deserve a break. There are T-shirts with a spilled wineglass that say, “Not so loud, I had book club last night.” Nearly 650,000 women follow “Moms Who Need Wine” on Facebook , and another 131,000 women are fans of the group called “OMG, I So Need a Glass of Wine or I’m Gonna Sell My Kids.” The drinking mom has become a cultural trope, from highbrow to pop: Jonathan Franzen’s Patty Berglund wanders through the first half of “Freedom” with a ruddy complexion he calls the “Chardonnay Splotch.” Wine is so linked to the women of “Real Housewives” that several cast members have introduced their own brands. That’s no accident: According to the Wine Institute, an industry trade group, women buy the lion’s share of the nearly 800 million gallons of wine sold in the U.S. annually—and they are its primary drinkers.

Indeed, more women are drinking now than at any time in recent history, according to health surveys. In the nine years between 1998 and 2007, the number of women arrested for drunken driving rose 30%, while male arrests dropped more than 7%. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of young women who showed up in emergency rooms for being dangerously intoxicated rose by 52%. The rate for young men, though higher, rose just 9%.

These numbers are not driven solely by young women living it up on spring break. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of binge drinking—that is, having four or more drinks for women or five or more for men within two hours—revealed a surprising statistic. While the greatest number, 24%, of binge-drinking women are college-age, 10% of women between 45 and 64 said they binge drink—and so did 3% of women older than 65. The college-age binge drinkers and the senior binge drinkers overdid it with a similar frequency, about three times a month.

Author: Gabrielle Glaser


February 20, 2015

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