Women, alcohol and the 1990’s

The report which was published yesterday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health and which highlighted a worrying trend in women (especially those born in the 1970’s) dying at a younger age as a result of alcohol-related illnesses, did not surprise me in the slightest.

As someone who was born in 1975, I came of age around the time of the explosion in both the wine culture in the UK which began with a vengeance in the early 1990’s, and the phenomenon that was women drinking in similar quantities as men and subsequently adopting more male characteristics – the ‘Ladette Culture’ so famously embodied by Zoe Ball and Sara Cox.


It was absolutely de rigueur as a young woman circa the mid-1990’s to hang out in pubs all weekend, drink pints, play pool and smoke cigarettes, and that lifestyle utterly defined me from about the age of 17 onwards, until I became pregnant at 22. In my early twenties and a new mum, I then fell for the widespread marketing campaign of the wine manufacturers, completely buying into the idea that wine was somehow good for us – just look at all those healthy Mediterraneans guzzling their vino for goodness sake!

I am not attempting to excuse my personal responsibility here for the fact that I went on to develop a major dependency upon alcohol which was to last until my mid-thirties (I will be forever grateful that I managed to put the brakes on then, and my problem did not escalate further), but I do think that the wider cultural influences that were at play during that era of Oasis and Blur, grunge, a mainstreaming of rave culture and Third-wave feminism most popularly exemplified by The Spice Girls and their brand of ‘Girl Power,’ played a part in contributing to the notion that it was ok for women to drink heavily.

My mind-set back in the ‘90’s was characterised by what I recognise now as a false bravado – I presented myself as a hedonist, someone who was always ‘up for it,’ who could drink anyone under the table and beat most blokes on the pool table. It was misguided feminism that propelled me into a lifestyle defined by heavy drinking.

By the time I married and became a mum the habits were deeply engrained, and despite an effort to appear slightly more feminine by swapping the pints of Boddingtons for bottles of Chardonnay, I continued to drink, and always until I was inebriated. Because I was already a heavy drinker by the time I had my first baby, the now widely and effectively marketed wine suited my needs down to the ground – here was a sophisticated grown-up drink that I could consume in large quantities but yet remain firmly anchored in what was considered to be perfectly acceptable social behaviour. Nobody was going to accuse me of having a problem with the booze whilst ever I was drinking expensive bottles of Chablis or Barolo from Waitrose.

I bought into the wine industry’s advertising strategy and felt more than comfortable with being a ‘wine drinker.’

Ultimately, I would not have relied on alcohol in the way that I did if my underlying emotional problems had not existed; my terribly low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness together with the anxiety I experienced in social situations all combined to create the perfect conditions in which a booze dependency might establish itself.

However, if, in the light of the publication of yesterday’s report, people are searching for an explanation as to how this terrible situation has arisen where women are increasingly dying in their thirties and forties from alcohol-related illnesses, I would highlight the cultural background of the 1990’s as a major contributing factor.