Has quitting booze become the new clean eating?

·12-min read
Photo credit: AndreyCherkasov - Getty Images
Photo credit: AndreyCherkasov - Getty Images

As rates of harmful alcohol use rise, more women are considering sobriety – with prominent voices linking teetotalism with women’s empowerment. Could it be that simple? WH reports...


It’s an unremarkable Tuesday evening and, in a shiny high-rise just north of Manchester’s city centre, Pippa* is in a stand-off with a bottle of riesling, via a grocery delivery app on her phone.

There are two routes, as she sees it, for the evening ahead of her. One: soothing playlist, reading the self-development book sitting on her console table, perhaps journalling some thoughts it will prompt. The other? Adele, bath, wine.

‘It’s almost a sense of relief when I finally order the bottle,’ Pippa says. Giving in feels like a free pass; a screw you to her own expectations that demand an optimising evening after a full day. ‘Just by deciding to drink, the grip of my own expectations – to be the perfect employee, daughter, friend, woman – loosen a little,’ the 32-year-old management accountant tells WH.

Pippa’s relationship with alcohol is complicated. She doesn’t consider herself reliant on booze – in fact, she can go days, weeks, months without it – but unscrewing a bottle of white after a challenging day does help take the edge off the burden of responsibility she feels.

As for so many others, it’s become something of a ritual since 2020, when restrictions meant meeting a friend to share a bottle wasn’t an option. But Pippa isn’t naive. From the first sip, she detects notes of self-sabotage, guilt and shame. She has career goals to meet, declining collagen, depressive tendencies, a family history of breast cancer and soon-to-be-waning fertility levels. She’s acutely aware that a nightly glass isn’t doing her any favours where any of the above are concerned.

Shots retired

Pippa (while often not literally) is in good company. Where drinking freely may have once been considered socially as liberating, prominent voices are now using feminist and empowerment language to argue that alcohol is, in many senses, holding women back.

And the argument is landing with their audience. Google searches for ‘quit drinking’ reached an all-time high in February 2022; sobriety coaching platform Tempest – founded by feminist writer Holly Whitaker – reported a 400% spike in membership in 2020.

That women’s glasses – whether they’re filled with Nyetimber or Nosecco – are more charged than ever is a direct result of a pandemic that drove millions to self-medicate with alcohol.

By the end of October 2021, over a fifth of UK adults were drinking to harmful levels, according to government research, driven by people consuming more in their own homes. Research published in the journal Addictive Behaviors noted that women were more likely than men to drink to cope with the stress of the pandemic.

Running in tandem with, or perhaps as a direct result of, the increase in consumption is a growing conversation about the harm caused by choosing to booze. Headlines cement alcohol as an (avoidable) risk for myriad health concerns, from exacerbating symptoms of mental illness and skin inflammation to increased risk of chronic disease and reduced fertility.

Meanwhile, in the media, maladaptive relationships with booze have become fan fodder; Miranda in And Just Like That... or Chrissy Teigen’s real-life sobriety journey. It increasingly feels like having an empowered relationship with alcohol is beyond the average woman – but is it?

Glass ceiling

First, some historical context. Booze was viewed as a vice for ordinary women and men ever since the introduction of gin – and ensuing moral panic about the working class’s taste for it – in the 1700s. But in the 1800s, fuelled by Victorian ideals of chaste, subservient womanhood, drinking alcohol became increasingly seen as ‘unladylike’. Some women, fed up with their husbands drinking away the household budget, also campaigned for abstinence by the middle of century.

Then came the 1920s, when many young women began drinking as an act of rebellion, alongside their short hair and short(er) skirts. The 1970s saw alcohol companies enthusiastically targeting women with messaging linking alcohol with attractiveness. Dr Amanda Atkinson of Liverpool John Moores University, whose research covers gendered drinking cultures, found that, from the 1990s, there has been a purposeful ‘pinkwashing’ of alcohol products as brands seek to tap into the increasingly affluent female market.

‘Women are sold this idea that alcohol is there to be used to deal with all the responsibility piled on us – like motherhood, work and looking a certain way,’ Whitaker – who’s moved on from Tempest to create sobriety podcast Quitted – tells WH.

She resented it, then she rejected it. ‘When I decided to quit drinking, it was really simple: “I don’t want this life,”’ she recalls. ‘I no longer consented to the idea that I was supposed to go out on a Saturday night with my friends and get trashed. It’s hard to go against what the majority are doing – but it is also the way to freedom. The way out is to recognise the way that you’re caught up in it, and to limit what you take in – you’re essentially killing yourself to try to be what you’ve been told you’re supposed to be.’

Whitaker created Tempest two years after getting sober, after realising traditional organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous were more tailored towards men, and wrote Quit Like A Woman: The Radical Choice To Not Drink In A Culture Obsessed With Alcohol (£9.99, Bloomsbury). First published in 2019, it presents sobriety through the lens of celebration rather than punishment and gained cult status after inspiring both Teigen and AJLT’s Miranda to quit drinking.

Drink aware

There’s certainly no hiding from the health fallout of alcohol, which affects every organ in the body. It’s linked to more than 200 diseases, thousands of injuries and causes three million deaths a year globally. In January, a study confirmed alcohol to be a direct cause of cancer.

As the gender gap in drinking has closed over the decades, it’s become increasingly clear that women suffer the physiological consequences of drinking at a lower consumption, and more quickly, than men. For example, just four years of problem drinking has been shown to damage the serotonin system in women’s brains, preventing the release of serotonin and harming the brain regions involved in judgement, self-control and emotional regulation. For men, it takes eight years longer to see the same effect.

‘We know that women who drink excessively may have a hormonal imbalance, which is shown as a disruption of the normal menstrual cycle and irregular ovulation, leading them to struggle to conceive and suffer an increased risk of miscarriage,’ explains Professor Luciano Nardo, a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology and founder of NOW-fertility. It’s for this reason that draft World Health Organization guidance, published in June 2021, advised women of childbearing age to limit their drinking if they plan to conceive in the future. Not, as was reported and vehemently challenged, to avoid alcohol completely.

Sober furious

Is Whitaker correct to position total sobriety as the smart woman’s option? It’s hard to argue with the research, which shows cutting out booze has proven benefits for sleep, energy, weight, immunity and stress. And yet, human history suggests that you won’t not do something simply because its effects aren’t good for you. While Whitaker’s empowering message has caught the imagination of thousands, the idea that teetotalism is the best,
or only, option available isn’t helpful for everyone.

Emily* breezed through Dry January 2022 (her own 34th birthday celebrations included) feeling energised, ambitious and sharing her intention to swear off booze for the foreseeable.

‘But when I had an hour to kill before going to a friend’s house for dinner one Friday, I found myself in a fancy wine bar and broke my sober spell with an expensive glass of red. I bought a bottle, took it to my friend’s house and saw off most of it myself,’ she tells WH. ‘The next morning, I woke up in a shame spiral, berating myself for being so weak-willed. All I’d done was enjoy a few drinks with friends on a Friday. But I couldn’t get past the idea that I’d failed to meet a standard I’d set for myself, even if that standard was unsustainable.’

She’s been thinking about drinking a lot since. ‘It’s made me realise that quitting drinking – for all the wins – has just become yet another stick to beat myself with.’ And she’s unequivocal that the stick is bigger because she’s a woman. ‘Men aren’t being told – or telling themselves – to quit drinking with the same intensity, volume or judgement,’ she adds.

Personal trainer Nancy Best also has questions about the impact of the sobriety trend, after witnessing the increasing frequency with which her clients have been asking her about the impact of alcohol on their training goals. ‘Obviously, limiting alcohol is good,’ she says, ‘but I fear the binary way in which we’re now talking about “good” and “bad” drinking, and becoming obsessive about alcohol intake, is running into “clean eating” territory,’ she says, referring to the trajectory of the now roundly cancelled trend from aspirational to being linked with orthorexia. ‘What happened to a healthy middle ground?’

Booze control

If your drinking has become habitual, the first step, according to NHS addiction psychiatrist Dr Tracey Myton, is to be honest about whether it’s morphed into dependence. ‘Hallmarks include a strong internal drive to drink, prioritising drinking over other activities, persistent drinking despite harm or negative consequences, experiencing withdrawal symptoms and drinking more to relieve said symptoms,’ she tells WH.

If you recognise signs of dependence within yourself, she advises raising your concerns with your GP – and cautions against an immediate hard stop. Drinking ‘responsibly’ also means living within your weekly 14 unit allowance, the threshold the NHS recommends for limiting alcohol’s health risks. That equates to a bottle and a half of wine or six pints, or eight gin and tonics. ‘If you’re exceeding it, look to cut down; if you’re routinely hitting the maximum unit quota, spread your units throughout the week to minimise risk,’ advises Dr Myton.

And if you invariably drink more following periods of abstinence, such as Dry January or Sober October, avoid. ‘It’s like crash dieting and then putting the weight straight back on,’ she explains. ‘Reducing your drinking all year round might be more effective.’

Of course, building a healthy relationship with alcohol isn’t just a numbers game. Dr Elena Touroni – consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic – encourages self-reflection. ‘If you’re bingeing, you’re likely managing an emotional experience that you’d rather block out or avoid, so spend time getting to the root of what that difficult experience is,’ she says.

Drinking to unwind? She recommends establishing booze-free relaxation rituals (puzzle; 0% Peroni; podcast). If alcohol has evolved from a means of self-indulgence to self-sabotage, Dr Touroni recommends opening up about your concerns to a loved one – or a professional. ‘A complicated relationship with alcohol tends to mean someone has a complicated relationship with themselves.’

Sip on this

At the time of writing, Emily is toying with various ‘rules’ to help her build a better relationship with booze. ‘The best I can come up with is not drinking most of the time, and only drinking when I really want to,’ she tells WH.

Pippa’s cut out both weeknight and at-home drinking; when temptation to offset stress with wine creeps in, trusted friends and next-morning yoga classes (with the threat of no-show fines) keep her accountable. As does ring-fencing her units for fun.

‘I’d never want to be in a place where I couldn’t nip out for a pint or toast someone’s good news,’ she says. ‘Sure, that might not sound like the most wholesome or virtuous motivation. But the more I think about it, women exist on a knife’s edge of acceptability when it comes to drinking alcohol. And I’m trying not to stress myself out about cultivating a “perfect” relationship with booze. Just one that works for me.’

* names have been changed

Five ways to find your healthy balance

Whatever a sustainable relationship with alcohol looks like for you, here are some resources that may help

1) Drinkaware

The premise is simple: log your units and be alerted when your day or weekly totals could be affecting your health. You can monitor trends, set goals and even define locations where you’re at risk of binge drinking, so the app can remind you of your current goals, thus increasing your willpower.
Free; drinkaware.co.uk

2) Sober Girl Society

The online community was founded by 30-year-old Millie Gooch, who decided to go sober after she realised how her boozy Friday nights were robbing her of her weekends. Join the club @sobergirlsociety or pick up her book for practical advice to help you embrace a life less boozy.
The Sober Girl Society Handbook (£14.99, Transworld)

3) Reframe

Whether you’re looking to reduce your drinking or remove it from your life completely, this app employs neuroscience and CBT principles to help you get there. As well as in-app journalling, you get daily tasks to help boost your cognitive health and visuospatial games to play when cravings hit.
From £5.50 per month; reframeapp.com

4) Club Soda

Worried about the effect on your social life? Club Soda signposts to IRL and online events where you can mix with other people choosing the dry(er) life. Bonus: these guys know their stuff when it comes to alcohol-free drinks; expect to upgrade your Beck’s Blue stash. Free to join, but prices for courses and events vary; joinclubsoda.com

5) Tempest

Personalisation is the watchword of this service, which bills itself as: ‘online alcohol treatment that fits into your life’. Once you’ve taken a quiz to work out how alcohol is impeding your life, you can take Tempest’s Foundations course. This combines evidence-based treatment methods, live expert coaching and peer support with a view to laying down a base for an ethanol-free life. From £30 per month; jointempest.com

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