When it comes to women and drinking, sometimes a glass of wine isn’t just a glass of wine, says journalist and author Ann Dowsett Johnston.
“Wine has become the code for ‘I deserve it, parenting is hard, I need to decompress,'” says the Toronto-based author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol.
That’s also led to the concerning rise of the culture of “wine moms,” Johnston says, with wines featuring names like “Girl’s Night Out” or wine glasses with “Mom Juice” written on them.
“You see mommy wine festivals … you see moms and yoga and wine [events], you see painting and wine, you see mani-pedis and wine.… I would argue that most women see wine as a food group and as a decompression tool,” she said.
“There’s an enormous sense of self-medication.… The fastest thing you can do at the cutting board is open a bottle of wine, pour yourself a glass. It’s faster than going to your doctor to say ‘I’m suffering from burnout,’ it’s faster than going to a yoga class and relaxing in a different way.”
It was more than 10 years ago when Johnston finally realized that she herself had a drinking problem.
“I got into trouble with alcohol in my 50s when I was over-performing at a job and used alcohol for self-medication,” she said.
Even though Johnston knew she was getting into trouble with her drinking, “it took two family members and a sweetheart who confronted me, and luckily I took a sledgehammer and went to rehab and I’m in my 10th year of sobriety,” she said in an interview with CBC’s Information Radio.
Johnston’s experience not only led her to rehab and sobriety, it also gave her insight into the connections between women and alcohol, which she discusses in Drink.
Men still consume more alcohol than women, according to the Liquor and Gaming Authority of Manitoba, but Johnston said there has been a recent rise in how much women are drinking.
“Women are drinking far more than they used to.… In Canada, we’ve seen a statistically sturdy increase” in women’s drinking since the early 2000s, said Johnston.
‘Mom can’t cope unless she’s drunk’
She believes that one of the biggest contributing factors to the rise of drinking among women has been marketing.
There’s been a “pinking” of the market since the mid-1990s, Johnston said, with the invention of “alcopop,” drinks like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice that are typically marketed to women — “what I like to call ‘chick beer’ or ‘cocktails with training wheels,’ an attempt to get the female gender to keep up with men.”
But that kind of marketing hasn’t focused only on fruity-tasting drinks for women, said Sheri Fandrey, who heads up the Addictions Foundation Manitoba’s knowledge exchange services. Many other products besides alcohol are marketed to women by using their own insecurities, she said.
‘[Children] are picking up on the fact that their parents, especially their moms, have to be anaesthetized to deal with them, and I think that sends a subtle but dangerous message to our young people.’– Sheri Fandrey, Addictions Foundation Manitoba
“We’re being influenced and manipulated in such subtle ways that we see it more as fun and a joke, and don’t realize that it is actually shifting people’s behaviour,” she said.
But there are some unintended consequences that come with marketing wine to mothers, says Fandrey — while the marketing might be intended for them, the parents aren’t the only people who see it.
Children also see and hear those messages, and get the impression that their mothers have to drink to deal with them, she says.
“[Children] are picking up on the fact that their parents, especially their moms, have to be anaesthetized to deal with them, and I think that sends a subtle but dangerous message to our young people — ‘Mom can’t cope unless she’s drunk,'” Fandrey said.
“It’s giving adults the sense that we can’t possibly cope with the stress and certainly can’t cope with child-related stress without alcohol, and for the kids, they’re picking up on it,” says Fandrey.
Using alcohol as a nightly coping mechanism is not the only drinking habit that is on the rise, she says — there’s also been a rise in risky drinking behaviour, like binge drinking.
“It used to be the realm of men to get stupid drunk and to do really foolish things under the influence,” but now women are starting to engage in that kind of dangerous drinking, Fandrey said.
Heavy or binge drinking is defined as having several drinks in one sitting: five or more drinks for a male, and four or more for a female, at least once a month in the past year.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2013, nearly 25 per cent of Canadians males and 13 per cent of females over age 12 reported heavy drinking.
Fandrey believes this type of drinking is still a way to cope with a stressful life, but with a “save it for the weekend” mentality.
‘If you want to know if you’re getting into trouble, ask yourself … are you drinking to numb? To numb feelings, to numb stress, to numb depression or anxiety?’– Ann Dowsett Johnston
“When people tell me what their reasons are for using substances like alcohol, you know, it makes sense in the short term for someone who’s feeling anxious and stressed to have that slight sense of numbness. There is a short term anti-anxiety effect from alcohol,” she said.
In the long term, though, alcohol contributes to depression, she said.
“It all seems OK, and there seems to be benefits and you don’t really look beyond that into what it might add up to in the weeks and months and years.”
There are very real dangers to physical health as well, says Johnston.
“We pay a lot of attention to the opioid crisis in Canada, and so we should, but the truth of the matter is more people are dying of alcohol every year than any drug overdose.”
Johnston also says not everyone who has a drinking problem will be able to see it.
“If you want to know if you’re getting into trouble, ask yourself two things: are you drinking to numb? To numb feelings, to numb stress, to numb depression or anxiety?” she said.
“And secondly, if you kept a drinking diary and said ‘tonight I’m only going to have one or I’m going to have zero,’ could you keep your promise? If you can’t you should really talk to your doctor and have a hard look at your drinking.”