Turn on popular television shows, such as ABC’s Scandal or NBC Today Show’s Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, and you’ll see women thoughtfully or, perhaps happily, sipping their cabernet or chardonnay out of long-stemmed crystal glasses. Wine, once thought of as reserved for the highbrow gourmet, is now becoming a common libation, either as Trader Joe’s “two buck Chuck” or in boxed varieties that promise virtually endless refills. Compared to the cosmopolitans that became the trademark symbol of Sex and the City, wine is readily accessible and seemingly harmless. In fact, according to much publicized research, wine (especially red) seems to have a large array of health benefits.
From evidence showing reduced risk of heart disease and breast cancer to improved sexual functioning, memory, and longer life spans, one might argue that women not only do drink wine, but that they should. Not all the data support the benefits of wine, and researchers currently disagree among themselves about the possible benefits vs. risks to women’s health (see the references, below). We also know that some of these benefits also apply to men. Furthermore, women don’t have a hold over the wine market as obviously many men are wine afficianados. What’s changed is the media representation of wine as a woman’s drink, and that cuddling up to spend the evening with a bottle to yourself is a safe and appropriate way to take the edge of the day’s stresses.
Although wine may seem like a less harmful or addictive form of alcohol use than hard liquor, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) warns that it doesn’t take much wine to cross the boundary from moderate to heavy drinking. Only 5 ounces of wine (slightly over ¼ a cup) is the equivalent of a single shot of distilled spirits or 12 ounces of beer. For a woman to be considered a moderate drinker, she can only drink this amount, compared to twice as much (two 5 ounce glasses) for men. The health risks of this level of alcohol use include greater chances of liver damage, heart disease, and- depending on which studies you read- breast cancer. Women who drink wine while pregnant put their unborn child potentially in danger, particularly early in pregnancy.
Although we tend to associated moderate or especially heavy alcohol use with men, women are rapidly reaching parity in their rates of binge drinking. For example, 14% of women engaged in binge drinking 1-11 times in the past year compared to 15% of men. On a typical drinking day, both male and female regular alcohol users had 2 drinks. Men were more likely to go on to consume 3 or more drinks, but remember that men are physiologically capable of taking in more alcohol before suffering ill effects.
Women and men also differ in the pressures placed upon them in the so-called “gray zone” between work and leisure time. The prototypical gray zone occurs when everyone goes out for a drink after office hours. Technically you’re still “at work” because you’re with co-workers, bosses, and supervisees. However, the social norms shift with each round of drinks that comes to the table. You’re somewhat expected to go along with the gang, so the pressure is on to keep pace with your male colleagues. On the other hand, if you’re not careful, the effects of your seemingly innocent glass of wine can cause you to say or do something you’ll regret when you all show up to work the next morning. Norwegian researchers Kristin Buvik and Hildegunn Sagvaag (2012) interviewed 13 female managers about grey zone drinking. The managers represented a range of fields from health care, public administration, media or publishing, and commodity trading. The fact that they were managers placed them, Buvik and Sagvaag reasoned, into a particularly precarious situation. Women are under-represented at this level of employment, and there’s pressure on them to be both professional but also accepted as “one of the guys.”
The women in this study expressed 3 main concerns about their drinking in grey zone situations. First, they were conscious of the need to be in control so that they didn’t slide into unprofessional or perhaps sexualized encounters associated with alcohol use. Second, they were concerned about being stigmatized by their off-hours drinking, a problem not faced by men. Third, those with caregiving responsibilities either for their children or older adult parents worried about spending time away from these necessary life tasks.
From the stress of holiday office parties and happy hours to the question of what types of mental and physical health risks women place themselves at by having a glass or two of seemingly innocuous fruit of the vine, it’s clear that there are numerous angles to the issue of women and wine. Just as women can benefit from questioning media representations of the female body, so too it might be worthwhile to think about whether and how your alcohol use is affected by the image of the svelte and sophisticated women you see on TV and in film.
To sum up, this may be a good time to question your intake of any kind of alcohol, wine or otherwise. Don’t feel you need to be pressured to drink if you don’t want to, nor that you must become a total teetotaler. Make an honest assessment of how much alcohol you’re having on a daily basis, and then decide on the level of alcohol use that you’re comfortable with and is best for your health.