Here’s a challenge: Scroll through your Facebook or Instagram feed and count the references to alcohol. Maybe it’s an invite to a yoga and wine class. Maybe it’s a reference to drinking over the current state of political affairs. Maybe it’s another story from a publication touting the benefits of tequila, or a social media influencer holding a glistening glass in the middle of a dreamy vacation spot. Alcohol is everywhere.
Problem drinking is on the rise at a dangerous clip, but we continue to create and consume media that celebrate the alcohol-as-lifestyle narrative like nothing is wrong. A study published last year in JAMA Psychiatry shows that problem drinking increased by nearly 50 percent in the U.S. between 2002 and 2013. Among women, alcohol abuse and dependence increased by 83.7 percent; among African-Americans, 92.8 percent; and among the poor, it rose by 65.9 percent.
But mommy needs more wine. That’s what the meme/dishtowel/headlines imply, right?
Before you look away and think this a statement against alcohol; it’s not. We have the agency to decide what we put into our bodies. Instead, it’s a challenge to consider how we create, engage with, and share stories related to alcohol within the greater cultural context. That context includes a nation grappling with a public health crisis of addiction (and not just to opioids).
My goal is to challenge us all—media and consumer (though the line is now blurred)—to be more thoughtful in how we tell stories and create spaces that acknowledge not everyone can or chooses to drink.
I quit drinking nearly two years ago because it was ruining my life. With this perspective I’ve become acutely aware of the pervasiveness of the alcohol-as-lifestyle narrative. As a former magazine editor, I used to tell those stories myself. I assumed everyone who drank was normal, and a small group of people who could not were abnormal. They were alcoholics. They were “other.”
Having worked in media for 20 years, I understand the things we do for eyeballs and advertisers. Stories about ways to sneak wine into a handbag or beer yoga get a response. Images of beautiful people enjoying a beautiful drink signify aspiration and freedom. But there is another world, one in which people do not drink. Some are fighting for their lives. Others are opting out because they don’t like the way it makes them feel or act. Sobriety of late has been publicized as a trend, but it’s really a revolution to reclaim our lives.
There are millions of us who do not drink, and many more on the edge, wondering, “Do I have a problem?” What if we acknowledged this, not just in the recovery and sobriety communities, but in media? What if content creators—editors, writers, photographers, social media influencers—were better educated to understand the depth and breadth of the impact of alcohol, and approached our storytelling with sensitivity and thought?
This year I’m collecting examples, good and bad, of stories that depict our alcogenic culture. My goal is to use these examples for discussion and collaboration with content creators about a better way to tell stories. Stories that don’t just glorify what comes from a bottle. Stories that are inclusive and reflective of a narrative that doesn’t always include a bottle.
Erin Shaw Street is a writer, editor and content strategist based in Birmingham, Ala. She writes about travel/culture, health/wellness, and sobriety/recovery. Her Tell Better Stories project examines the alcohol-as-lifestyle narrative in media and marketing. Learn more at erinshawstreet.com and on Instagram @TellBetterStories2018.