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?
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.
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.
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.