Com­pet­i­tive sobri­ety: the new drunk

As people trade booze-filled nights for earlier bedtimes and “alcohol free” spirits, we question this sobering exchange of intoxication for wellness.

When I was in high school, we would have an annu­al booze-filled par­ty. One where peo­ple would win awards for the R-rat­ed superla­tives that wouldn’t make it into any year­book. One of the most cov­et­ed awards was giv­en to the drunk­est per­son in the grade, usu­al­ly a guy, who would be nick­named their generation’s Frank the Tank, an homage to Will Ferrell’s drunk alter ego in Todd Phillips’ 2003 Old School. Frank the Tank, both in the film and in my school, was some­thing of a local hero. This per­son was the drunk­est, which usu­al­ly meant they were the most enter­tain­ing, the de fac­to most pop­u­lar. If a Frank was at your par­ty, it was a good party.

Over a decade lat­er, it seems the Frank the Tanks live main­ly in the vaults of pas­sive-aggres­sive On this Day” Face­book reminders, beer guts tight­ened with hours of Soul­Cy­cle class­es and wheat­grass juices. 

To see your generation’s drunk as an ear­ly-to-bed, ear­ly-to-rise human is to feel the time pass; the acknowl­edg­ment that com­pe­ti­tions over how many shots you could neck back have turned into how many hours you can work out with­out faint­ing. The par­ty has shift­ed from night to day, pop­u­lar­i­ty stan­dards replaced from who the biggest par­ty ani­mal is to who can wake up ear­li­est to attend a fit­ness class before the sun ris­es, fol­lowed by metic­u­lous­ly shared Insta­gram Sto­ries of oat milk smooth­ies. Where­as Frank used to bring kegs to the func­tion, nowa­days they want to know if what­ev­er it is they’re about to drink is… veg­an? Organic?

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With the rise of social media, we’ve all become a bit more sub­dued when it comes to pub­lic intox­i­ca­tion. After all, we are record­ing a large part of our lives for future friends, employ­ers, lovers, and fam­i­ly mem­bers to assess us. 

While mess­ing up is part of grow­ing up, the stakes have nev­er been high­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly for younger millennials/​older mem­bers of Gen Z (those cur­rent­ly 18 to 24 years old) who have grown up record­ing every step of the way with­out ful­ly under­stand­ing the future repercussions.

Daisy Walk­er, a writer, researcher, and cul­tur­al strate­gist, spe­cialis­es in emerg­ing trends and behav­iours across gen­er­a­tions with a focus on alco­hol and enter­tain­ment. Walk­er just helped amass glob­al data about the afore­men­tioned next gen­er­a­tion of drinkers, find­ing social media and oth­er fac­tors were behind this over­all dip in alco­hol consumption. 

Younger gen­er­a­tions are real­ly wor­ried about how they’re per­ceived online and pub­licly, so the idea of being drunk in pub­lic in front of peo­ple you don’t know is real­ly dan­ger­ous,” Walk­er tells me. There’s a social safe­ty aspect to it, where they don’t want to dam­age their rep­u­ta­tion by being seen as drunk, and there’s also a phys­i­cal safe­ty aspect to it as well, which I think we see from a post-#MeToo era – peo­ple are more con­scious and talk a lot more about phys­i­cal safety.”

Our pub­lic per­sonas are our busi­ness cards, and liv­ing in a world where the line between pub­lic and pri­vate is blurred and where can­cel cul­ture abides, it seems like we have social­ly wis­ened up to our behav­iours – replac­ing pho­tos of keg stands with self­ies drink­ing green juice and videos of trashed rants with yoga time lapses.

Walker’s research sup­ports the data that has been report­ed in the past year, all lead­ing to a sim­i­lar con­sen­sus: peo­ple are drink­ing less. This cul­tur­al lifestyle change has become so preva­lent that not only did liquor and beer sales take a dip in places like the UK and the US in 2018, but alter­na­tive bev­er­ages (made sans alco­hol with plant-based ingre­di­ents and nutri­ents that, when ingest­ed, cre­ate a nat­ur­al and tem­po­rary bliss) and social­ly sober spaces are sprout­ing up in cities like New York, Los Ange­les, Lon­don, and Dublin. These spaces pro­vide the same inti­ma­cy found at a bar (dim lights, upbeat music, spaces where danc­ing is encour­aged and meet­ing strangers is still acces­si­ble) – with­out the intox­i­cat­ed behaviour.

Brands like Three Spir­it and Kin Euphorics are pro­vid­ing inter­est­ing alter­na­tives [to beer and hard liquor],” explains Walk­er. Before these new bev­er­age alter­na­tives to alco­hol, it was like you either drank [liquor] or you’d have to drink some revolt­ing cola,” Walk­ers adds. Basi­cal­ly – there were no real options […] Things like Three Spir­its have an impact on you and an impact on how you feel, and it’s got the chem­i­cals to back it up, so it’s some­where in between hav­ing the alter­ing effect of alco­hol, but with­out every­thing else that goes with alcohol.”

There are plen­ty of rea­sons why peo­ple are adopt­ing health­i­er lifestyles uncov­ered by Walker’s research. And we hypoth­e­sised many more when talk­ing: anx­i­ety over finan­cial mar­kets and socio-polit­i­cal cli­mates, exis­ten­tial dread about the future of our plan­et because of cli­mate change, opt­ing for activ­i­ties with peo­ple you feel con­nect­ed to rather than choos­ing a night­club where you could over­spend, over­drink, and have very lit­tle con­ver­sa­tion over the boom­ing music.

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When talk­ing to two friends who have recent­ly adopt­ed health­i­er prac­tices in what they eat, drink, and how often they go out, the rea­son­ing was sim­i­lar. Noth­ing feels as good as wak­ing up well-rest­ed,” said Daniel Ruben­stein, 29. Each year, hang­overs make me feel a lit­tle bit worse, and a night of drink­ing comes at the cost of enjoy­ing the next day. That trade-off isn’t worth it to me anymore.” 

Eri­ca Scon­zo, 25, touts sim­i­lar rea­sons, although high­light­ing mod­er­a­tion and mind­ful­ness as the rea­sons behind these choices.

Being very con­scious of what I’m putting into my body has made the biggest dif­fer­ence in how I feel,” she says. I still drink alco­hol from time to time but I don’t do it out of habit now; I do it with intent, and find myself drink­ing a lot less […] because of this aware­ness my mind is sharp­er and clear­er, my ener­gy has increased, my mood is more sta­ble and I expe­ri­ence con­sid­er­ably less anxiety.” 

Both Dan and Eri­ca recent­ly moved from New York to Los Ange­les, where well­ness is con­sid­er­ably more cul­tur­al­ly ingrained; how­ev­er, they see this change hap­pen­ing on either coast. When I ask Eri­ca why she thinks this is, she attrib­uted it to a wide­spread men­tal health cri­sis due to the world we live in. Peo­ple are stressed out, anx­ious, and depressed now more than ever. I believe we are start­ing to realise that alco­hol is a sub­stance that momen­tar­i­ly numbs us, but ends up exac­er­bat­ing these unwant­ed emo­tions. We are start­ing to learn how nice self-care, well­ness and health feel and are replac­ing old habits with new prac­tices that serve us on a greater level.”

But low­er rates of alco­hol con­sump­tion among mil­len­ni­als doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean young Amer­i­cans are more sober. Walk­er attrib­ut­es legal­i­sa­tion of cannabis and mag­ic mush­rooms in cer­tain places as big fac­tors as to why peo­ple are drink­ing less: there are more options. The stig­ma sur­round­ing cannabis is sub­stan­tial­ly low­er than it ever was and con­ver­sa­tions abound as to the ther­a­peu­tic ele­ments to micro­dos­ing – whether that’s with weed, mush­rooms, or acid.

In fact, while there was once a shame attached to cannabis or shroom con­sump­tion, their report­ed health ben­e­fits and more chill” effects have allowed them be per­ceived as more eth­i­cal than alco­hol – where peo­ple find more harm in the per­cep­tion of being a drunk than they do being harm­less­ly high. But there’s anoth­er side to the pub­lic per­cep­tion coin – curat­ing one­self to not look like a drunk mess has led count­less peo­ple to curate them­selves into the oth­er end of that spec­trum: the hyper-healthy.

We’ve all seen the con­tent from friends and strangers alike: beau­ti­ful food of the vegan/​keto/​paleo kind, screen­shots of dai­ly run­ning stats, gym self­ies, mar­ket­ed well­ness retreats, med­i­ta­tion porn – all of these usu­al­ly in some par­a­disi­a­cal set­ting. Health influ­encers and holis­tic brands have found a sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship that’s enabled them to pro­mote lifestyles through mas­sive consumerism.

There is quite a lot of shame that no one is quite good enough […] there’s always a habit of yours that is dis­gust­ing in some way, there’s always some­thing you should be giv­ing up or kind of restrict­ing. And in some way, that whole area is very unhealthy with the peak that it’s reached” – Daisy Walker

Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle empire that metes out ideas rang­ing from the semi-sane to the full-on insane may be the butt of many jokes, but it is also a brand worth a report­ed $250 mil­lion and one that has inspired count­less copy­cats, includ­ing Kourt­ney Kardashian’s recent launch Poosh (a name that sounds ono­matope­ic for the world’s health­i­est fart). Health, ulti­mate­ly, is sta­tus. Insta­gram, the undy­ing bill­board, sells aspi­ra­tional health bet­ter than any oth­er ad medi­um ever could. And the pur­pose of it all? To sell. Which means you’re already left behind. 

We’ve elim­i­nat­ed Frank the Tanks as a defin­ing fac­tor for a suc­cess­ful par­ty. It’s now embar­rass­ing to have them around. We’ve trad­ed beers for kom­buchas, cig­a­rettes for bliss pens, hard liquor for micro­dos­ing mag­ic mush­rooms, the club for the gym, and see­ing the sun rise for going to sleep at a rea­son­able hour. 

It’s good we’re all try­ing to be health­i­er. Hope­ful­ly, it adds up so that we can turn this world into a health­i­er place too. But there is noth­ing healthy about boast­ing or sham­ing peo­ple for their habits, good or bad. Encour­age­ment is one thing, bul­ly­ing is anoth­er. And although body diver­si­ty is being wide­ly accept­ed and pro­mot­ed (from places like Insta­gram), there are also many who have trad­ed the juris­dic­tion of being skin­ny” as the norm to being healthy” as the norm. To be or look unhealthy is to be out­cast­ed, the fac­tors (finan­cial, phys­i­cal, envi­ron­men­tal) dis­card­ed as excus­es by those with eas­i­er access to health­i­er alternatives.

There’s def­i­nite­ly an aspect of one-upman­ship that hap­pens with well­be­ing and health­i­ness,” says Walk­er. There is quite a lot of shame that no one is quite good enough […] there’s always a habit of yours that is dis­gust­ing in some way, there’s always some­thing you should be giv­ing up or kind of restrict­ing. And in some way, that whole area is very unhealthy with the peak that it’s reached.”

We used to won­der, if a tree falls in a for­est and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If we do some­thing and don’t gram it, did we actu­al­ly do it? Real self-care should be non-per­for­ma­tive. There is noth­ing wrong with lead­ing a health­i­er lifestyle, with want­i­ng to be more sober, more present, more attuned to our emo­tion­al, men­tal, and phys­i­cal selves. But do we have to brag about it at all times? Maybe the point of tak­ing care of our­selves is to get to the point where we don’t need val­i­da­tion from oth­ers about how well we’re doing it.


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