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Author Gabrielle Glaser says women in their 40s and 50s drink to de-stress, whether from taking on too many roles or losing an essential one. (Picasa)
Author Gabrielle Glaser says women in their 40s and 50s drink to de-stress, whether from taking on too many roles or losing an essential one. (Picasa)

Unravelling to unwind: Why middle-aged women are drinking more Add to ...

Most Sunday nights, Gabrielle Glaser watched as a neighbour crept onto her property, depositing two sizable bottles drained of Chilean merlot into Glaser’s recycling bin. “That felt really personal,” says Glaser, who never let on that she knew.

The neighbour was one in a growing cohort of middle-aged women increasingly taking to the bottle, an emerging demographic Glaser surveys in her new book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink – and How They Can Regain Control.

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Researchers and pollsters are seeing a pattern: As men’s alcohol consumption plateaus in North America, women’s rises. But well beyond the binge-drinking sorority sister, more women in their 40s and beyond are drinking to get drunk, more than at any time in recent history. A 2010 Gallup poll reported that nearly two-thirds of American women now drink “regularly,” a number higher than at any time in the past 25 years.

Women are doing it because they can, Glaser argues. They’re also grossly overextended with duelling roles of breadwinner, mother and manager of the household. Enter wine, a culturally sanctioned de-stresser.

And while some treat women who can drink like the boys as another sign of parity, there are differences in how the sexes approach alcohol. Glaser cites research that found men crave alcohol when they’re shown images of booze, but women covet it when they see photos of a messy kitchen or a screaming infant. And unlike men sidling up to the bar, women over 30 are more likely to drink alone at home where there is less oversight – a point that can become problematic.

“We haven’t been paying attention to the disparity of consequences,” Glaser writes. “Women get drunk faster, and they suffer health problems from excess drinking faster, too.” The conversation around women and alcohol has shifted far past glib Mommy Needs a Drinky-Poo paeans to booze: Her Best-Kept Secret comes on the heels of this spring’s Drunk Mom, the gutsy and divisive memoir from Toronto author Jowita Bydlowska, and ahead of Canadian journalist Ann Dowsett Johnston’s Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, out this fall. Glaser spoke with The Globe and Mail from New Jersey.

Is drinking simply another “male” trait women are taking on along with everything else?

That’s certainly what epidemiologists say about the ways that young women are drinking. With women in their 40s and 50s, it’s a response to stress. There’s an awful lot of balls that we’re trying to keep up in the air right now. At the same time, I talked to women who started drinking heavily in their late 40s and early 50s at the loss of a parent or during a divorce or when their last child moved out to go away to school. On the one hand, taking on more life roles is stressful, but losing one of those roles is really stressful.

What drives a man to the bar? Not stress? It’s more of a cultural thing with men. In our day and age, women are drinking far more in isolation – every one of my female sources drank alone. These are people who are very functional. They’re going to work, their lives are in order. Maybe they’ve had bad fights or embarrassing e-mails or texts but they haven’t had severe consequences yet as a result of their alcohol [consumption]. Certainly I did interview women who were in serious trouble: One was a prosecutor, another a state attorney, a Canadian counter-intelligence agent, a couple of engineers and several women in the tech world. It started as an after-work ritual.

How often is it solo, and how much of it is commiseration among women?

For young women there’s very much a social aspect to it. It begins socially in university, at their first job, with fun and games at bars and pubs. Then it continues. What many of my sources told me is that when they started with a bottle of wine shared with other women in the afternoon, they’d tell themselves, ‘Ok, that’s it for me.’ But when you have a glass or two of wine you become disinhibited and it becomes very easy to tell yourself, ‘I’ll just have one more.’ The pattern that many women reported to me was that they would continue to drink once they got home and put away another bottle. It started out as fun and commiserating but it ended up as something more anaesthetizing.

What about this concept of wine as reward?

There’s a lot of dissatisfaction in women’s lives today: the kids, the career, the marriage, the aging parents, the worries about their own aging – ‘I’m old, I’m not going to look like I did when I was 35, so I might just as well have another glass of wine.’ The reward for that resignation is this endorphin rush from the wine. There are so many jokes about it: ‘Wine o’clock.’ ‘Don’t bother me, I had book club last night.’ It’s in the culture as a trope for a reason.

Women are biologically more vulnerable to alcohol’s toxic effects than men. What is a “controlled sipping point” for them?

The guidelines are stricter in Anglo Saxon countries and it has to do with our cultural binge patterns. Anglo Saxon countries drink differently than Mediterranean countries where wine is consumed with the meal. France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, all the wine producing countries recommend at least double what the Americans do. The Canadian guidelines for women are among the most sensible: no more than two glasses on any day and you should take two days off, which helps break the habit-forming potential. Is it absolutely necessary that you do this for your lifelong health? The science is pretty new on that. But the worldwide mortality bell curve shows mortality for women starts to decline between two and three glasses a day, lifelong consumption. Above three for women is definitely getting into danger territory.

Are you getting resistance about your cry for caution from women who see drinking as their reward?

The number of women who have called me a killjoy and said, “I enjoy my wine,” “I deserve this” – that’s something people say a lot. A lot of women feel entitled to it. It seems a small pleasure like a manicure but it becomes much more routine.

Women drink more now because they can, and yet a woman drinking alone at the bar still unsettles some people.

A double standard still exists. Look at the celebrity culture we have around drunken starlets. Cory Monteith? Poor guy, he was addicted to heroin and alcohol. Lindsay Lohan? Whitney Houston? Amy Winehouse? They’re train wrecks.

At the end of the book, you question whether we’ll see an Old Girls Club rising from women’s increasingly boozy years in college.

[Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg is urging women to do that but is it happening yet? Are women helping each other in that way, and is it a result of bacchanals? I don’t know. I missed the Girls Gone Wild beerfests by 20 years, but I have a hard time imagining it is such a form of liberation for women it could cement future professional mentoring roles.

You point out that while women drink more now than at any time in recent history, colonial women drank modern ones under the table.

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Americans were pretty blotto. There’s a fantastic book called The Alcoholic Republic based on tavern records that tracked who drank what, and they were co-ed. The other clue are the diaries of what women made in their own homes: hard cider, beer and fermented beverages out of almost every fruit imaginable. These products were 4 or 5 per cent alcohol. It was the safest thing to drink, and life was pretty miserable. Martha Washington lost a husband and all of her kids died. What was that like, to bury all your children? I’m sure it was wrenching. I can’t imagine that they weren’t drinking to medicate their own grief and anxiety. I also scoured the diaries of women on the Westward Trail. They were anxious, depressed as hell and out of their minds with fear that their children were going to die of cholera. Some couldn’t wait to get to the whisky at the end of the day.

What are women drinking today, other than wine?

Wine became the go-to beverage for women of the Baby Boomer generation. It marked something very different from their parents’ old-fashioned cocktails. The liquor industry is now taking a page out of the wine industry’s playbook, marketing extremely aggressively to young women. The trend is that young women are drinking sweet hard alcohol, not wine. In the United States, they’re marketing by zip code depending on the ethnicity of the girls. If they’re Caribbean girls, they’ll market coconut and pineapple [coolers], which are sweet malt beverages, basically Jolly Ranchers or popsicles in a bottle. If they are white girls, they market raspberry and grape. Smirnoff Sorbet? What is that? That’s absolutely trying to reach women in their 30s and younger. At a liquor store in New Jersey, I couldn’t believe all the pink marketing. It looked like the Kardashians had gotten control of half the store.

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