Why do women drink? Cheers to ‘interventions’ for solving that

Of all the ways mid-life women police ourselves – and we are champions at it – monitoring how we treat our bodies must come near the top.

We know to remain "relevant" we should struggle to achieve a silhouette more like a J.Bish or a J.Lo than a Lizzo: we're down with bouncy body-acceptance also but realistic enough to know that when we hit a certain age, if we're not Melissa McCarthy, it doesn't apply to us.

Women drink as an act of self-care, according to one expert.

We are highly probably overly-informed about what it takes to foster middle-aged wellbeing. We measure our sleep, our steps and our fluid intake. We schlep nice water bottles even to short meetings.

We post about how apps like Couch to 5K are giving us the jog-staying power we never knew we had – we've downloaded this en masse not only for tight calves but so the exertion gives our hearts the vital-after-40 workout that Pilates and yoga may not.

So health-invested are we that we're buying shelf loads of books our predecessors would have thought relevant solely to med students. Surely we single-handedly made titles such as Gut: The inside story of our body's most under-rated organ or I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life the best-sellers they are.

We pay more than you'd spend on good coffee for 250ml of the ultimate Emperor's New Clothes of refreshing drinks: slimy kombucha. Because, hey, your microbiome's worth it.

Yet despite all this painful diligence, researchers tell us we have a large and dangerous blind spot. We run and we sleep and we intermittent-fast, but also, like no women before us, we are very fond of a drink.

Public health attention has been drawn to this for more than a decade (aka right through most of our late thirties and forties). The link between too much alcohol and an increased incidence of breast and many other cancers in women, plus an uptick in female stroke and heart issues, has been emphasised loudly and often.

Yet due to an apparently mysterious constellation of factors, we're willing to ignore it.

This week the latest study of the fact women are catching up to men on drinking was released by Australian and Danish researchers. They asked mid-life (and older) women who drink at "risky" levels (more than 10 standard drinks a week) why they continued to do it despite alcohol guidelines.

"You really need to understand why people adopt a particular health behaviour if you’re going to develop interventions that resonate with that group," said Dr Julie Dare from Edith Cowen University. "This trend has been active for a while and it’s not just in Australia, it’s been happening in Denmark, in the US, in the UK, so it’s a western phenomenon."

The women said drinking was "the norm" and "just something we do" (showing they are also the world's greatest plain-speaking pragmatists).

The "overwhelming" view was that acceptable drinking was not about how many you had but how messy you got – women agreed it's not OK to appear out of control or drunk – again, no surprise as we know what is expected in terms of appearances.

And therein, surely, lies the guts of the real answer to the not-that-mysterious question, "Wow, why do you think more women drink, and at 'risky levels' too?"

We are, after all, not the only group policing us. Our demographic has been and is the guinea pig in the grand First World experiment of "How many types of pressure can a person take on for decades, gracefully, with their health intact".

These naughty drinkers have shouldered greater expectations than any before on how hard they work and how soon they go back to it after having kids, how much debt they shoulder, how great their home-life is supposed to appear, how present they are supposed to seem for those around them, how high-achieving are their kids (and themselves) and how sparkly and "balanced" it all should seem. Oh, and how tiny their butt is – until about three years ago, when a high-achieving bottom suddenly involved massive squats.

These naughty drinkers have shouldered greater expectations than any before on how hard they work and how soon they go back.

Peak mid-life womaning now involves being age-defying and glass ceiling-breaking, kitchen rules-ing, borderline homeschools-ing (schools, please, for the love of all that is good, take back teaching of times tables and spelling … mindfulness period can wait), as well as being heavily engaged in the life of the kinder or school or sports club, plus your community.

Filling this daunting outline in a way that is considered "well" means never switching off as a professional or parent, or ceasing to aspire to greater levels of proficiency in all of the above. You should know exactly who needs what, what's happening when and how to make it smooth, how close you are to meeting all your own (and the kids') deadlines and having the bills paid, while looking hot for your (indeterminate) age and being demonstrably grateful.

It's no coincidence the ever-present wine meme ("Wine is to women what duct tape is to men, it fixes everything"… excuse me, women love duct tape too) rose to prominence at the same time as Gen X women, with their have it all/do it all conundrum, started cresting the wave of working motherhood and ever-expanding mental loads.

Why do women drink when we know we shouldn't? I don't advocate self-harm, but clearly it's because two wines switches off the list and helps us laugh at the fact that while we're super lucky, we're in a web of expectations that never seems to end.

As Jane Martin, alcohol and policy manager at Cancer Council Victoria, told the ABC last year, it is "quite concerning" that for women, drinking "is associated with taking care of yourself and in a lot of ways being kind to yourself."

Over to you, excellent boffins to come up with "interventions" to counter the widespread taste for that.

Wendy Tuohy is a senior writer.

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