Updated: Sep 9, 2021
Our society offers alcohol as an antidote for women who suffer from depression, anxiety, and boredom--a piece from The New York Times explains how this came to be, as well as why this presents a serious problem.
Note: This post comments on Mara Altman's piece “Happy? Sad? Stressed? How Drinking Became the Answer to Everything” published in The New York Times' "In Her Words" newsletter. Read it here
Almost a decade ago, the phrase “bad mom” emerged as a somewhat comic trope for a certain motherhood demographic: suburban, largely White, stay-at-home moms who rebelled against the 1950s devotional wife/mother prototype by not only airing their dissatisfactions with kids and housework but achieving some sense of escape by unapologetically embracing alcohol. Daily cocktails were--and continue to be-- d’jour, a daily ritual shared with other exhausted moms who need a break from their families. Books flooded the market, with titles like Reasons Mommy Drinks: Includes 100 Cocktail Recipes to Enjoy in Your Zero Free Time, the comic book If You Give A Mommy a Glass of Wine, and the more recent The Bad Mothers’ Book Club: This Book Club Only Reads Wine Labels. The 2016 film Bad Moms, starring Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn, further popularized this moniker and its favorite pastime.
Interestingly, the current trend has shifted somewhat to coloring books for disenchanted moms to express themselves: Mommy Drinks Because You Cry: A Sarcastic Coloring Book; Mama Needs a Mother F*cking Nap: A Swearing Coloring Book for Mom; 50 Shades of Bullsh*t: Dark Edition: Swear Word Coloring Book. This latest alternative outlet may coincide with a more ‘sobering’ (apologies) push-back to all of that “MommyJuice” consumption. More research has emerged on women’s physical and mental health issues linked to daily drinking, and Mara Altman’s recent New York Times “In Her Words” column targets the intense marketing campaigns that cater to this particular female demographic. Altman introduces us to Emily Lynn Paulson, a mother of five who founded the Sober Mom Squad after she began to recognize just how much she was downing alcohol to get through the day:
“‘If you’re stressed, have a drink; if you’re nervous, have a drink; if you want fun, have a drink; if you’re grieving, have a drink,’”… “It’s a catch all for everything.’”
Her online network helps other women, especially mothers, to consider adopting or sampling an “alcohol-free lifestyle.” Its message aims to provide a different kind of female community: “We talk about the hard shit. We create community in the lonely pockets of motherhood. We don’t shy away from the hard topics, and we nod our heads in solidarity.” Paulson is one of several featured figures who attribute this “normalization” to the booze industry, greenlighting women’s urge to dissociate from endless childcare and domestic duties by enjoying a bottle of wine or the harder stuff. What it fails to disclose is alcohol’s carcinogenic properties that disproportionately impact women’s bodies, along with other severe diseases.
Altman sketches out a quick history of advertising geared towards addicting women to a variety of substances in the name of female “liberation”: most notably cigarettes, in the late ‘20s and the ‘60s, and alcohol. Professor David Jernigan (Boston University School of Public Health) is an expert on this issue who notes, just as smoking was “‘sold as empowerment’” via the Virginia Slims brand, alcohol has similarly been a vehicle to promote women’s freedom and even “sophistication.” The production of expanded products aimed at high school-aged girls (such as “alcopops”) created a key demographic cohort and cultivated a continuing devotion/addiction to their evolving line of ‘feminine’ drinks. Altman aptly concludes, “[t]he industry held on to those female consumers … by evolving with them as they became mothers,’” appealing to their more adult needs such as “‘Mommy’s Little Helper’” (i.e. cocktail in an insulated cup)--a startling revival of the early 1960s tranquilizers, of the same slangy name, to keep mothers calm/sedated. Professor Linda Tuncay Zayer of Loyola University Chicago weighs in as well on the most recent advertisements circulating during the pandemic. Altman writes, “Dr. Zayer noted Anheuser-Busch using themes of female empowerment by tapping Halsey for its “‘Be A King’” campaign. There’s also Kate Hudson’s new vodka brand, King St., that Dr. Zayer said uses a mix of the feminine aesthetic, star power and female entrepreneurship to sell its brand.” Altman relays that “alcohol was thrust into the limelight as the silver bullet for emotional management. As stress increased, so did the wine memes.” Zayer adds, “‘The wine-guzzling mom has become an acceptable form of self-care.’”
The ostensible camaraderie amongst mom drinking buddies certainly appears to heighten the appeal, but Carol Emslie, a substance abuse researcher at Glasgow Caledonian University, is challenging that assumption with her social media campaign #Don’tPinkMyDrink--a reference to the industry’s fraudulent stereotypical feminization of its ‘girlie’ products.  The related website states, “At a time when the gap between alcohol consumption of men and women in the UK is narrowing and alcohol-specific deaths among females in 2017 reached the highest rate since 2001, alongside unrelenting promotion of Prosecco, pink gin and skinny lager, we need to question the idea that every day or excessive drinking is normal and desirable.” The site encourages women to “call out” these harmful tactics on Twitter and to consider healthier options for staying well.
Lastly, Altman’s piece addresses the emerging quasi-feminist backlash against women’s right to party. Emslie’s research shows “women in their 30s and 40s often use alcohol as a ‘time out,’ a demarcation point between work and home life as well as a way to transport themselves to a time before career pressures and household responsibilities. ‘They drink … to show their identity beyond what is associated with being a woman in midlife.’” Nothing wrong with embracing one’s numerous identities, right? Altman also describes a “hostile” response to a 2016 C.D.C. publicity campaign that warned women-as-potential-mothers to curtail drinking: “‘How dare you tell us what to do with our bodies!’” It’s understandable that women from baby boomers to Gen-Z would chafe at such bodily restrictions. Yet the looming health and death risks for women are verifiable:
From 1999 to 2017, alcohol-related deaths among women jumped by 85 percent while alcohol use disorder — the inability to control drinking despite adverse consequences — rose by nearly 84 percent between 2002 and 2013. Liver disease is also rising among young women.
To my mind, what is most infuriating is that many women who are mothers continue to suffer from depression, anxiety, boredom as principal caretakers of children. And what our society provides as an antidote is not flexible child care for stay-at-home as well as working moms--along with support for child care workers themselves--but profitable addictive substances produced over generations that momentarily soothe their pain yet potentially create threatening medical conditions. The alcohol industry blatantly masks this latter feature for its own financial gain, though Altman quotes one self-righteous senior VP representing the Distilled Spirits Council, who argues “‘To suggest that women should be shielded from advertisements about legal products available in the marketplace because they are incapable of seeing an ad and behaving responsibly is patronizing and antiquated.’” When will we honestly and productively confront female caregivers’ actual mental and physical health issues that stem from much more systemic inequalities?
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