Q&A With Ann Dowsett Johnston: The Woman Who Lit A Spark In The Conversation About Women and Alcohol
It feels like the world is beginning to wake up to issues surrounding women and alcohol. In the past few weeks several major media outlets have done stories about the health ramifications of drinking, about moms and alcohol, and the impact of marketing and media on our drinking patterns. This is a very good thing.
It’s also something that Ann Dowsett Johnston has been writing about for a long, long time.
Her book, “Drink, The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol” was named one of the top 10 books of 2013 by the Washington Post. Five years ago. Ann, a respected Canadian journalist and sober woman, has spent years writing, speaking, and leading discussions about public policy around women and alcohol.
I believe the recent uptick in discussions around women and alcohol can be directly traced back to Ann’s pioneering work in this space. I can say my work is. Ann’s book was the first eye opener to me that a) women were specifically being targeted by the alcohol industry and b) a journalist could get sober and use her professional and personal experiences to create meaningful dialogue.
Ann brings a depth of experience to the conversation about women and alcohol that few have. She’s an award-winning worked journalist with 40 years experience, the lion’s share at Maclean’s, a Canadian title similar to Time or Newsweek. So she knows a thing or two about media, messaging, and how editorial decisions are made. Prior to publishing “Drink,” she won a prestigious one-year fellowship to look at women’s drinking around the word. The result: a 14-part series examining women and alcohol for The Toronto Star. She is the co-founder and chair of Canada’s National Roundtable on Girls, Women and Alcohol. She’s also traversed the recovery world personally; this year she will mark 10 years of continuous sobriety.
I recently interviewed Ann to talk about conversations taking place around women and alcohol. She’s getting ready to start courses for her Masters in Social Work at the illustrious Smith College. We talked about that, her advocacy, and much more.
When we spoke, Ann had just returned from speaking at The Alcohol Policy 18 Conference in Washington D.C., where she spoke about the mommy drinking culture. Our call was the week after the Mother Jones “Did Drinking Give Me Breast Cancer” story appeared online, and the week before Megyn Kelley did a segment examining moms and alcohol. All of the topics examined in both are those that Ann has been examining for the past eight years.
Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
So much has changed since the publication of “Drink,” and also so little. On one hand, alcohol related messaging is still so pervasive, but there’s also a flood of voices who are questioning that. Do you sometimes think, “Well nothing is new here?”
“Yes. We are really pitching motherhood as something to be survived and that we need ‘mother’s little helper.’ That is not new. We need to take a long lens and look back to women’s drinking. In ‘Drink’ I wrote about my mother’s drinking in the 1960s. She was what I call a ‘Betty Ford drinker,’ mixing large amounts of alcohol with Valium, which they called ‘mothers little helper.’ She was a severe alcoholic. This is still happening to women, but it just doesn’t look like Valium and liquor; it looks like moms and wines. When I look at what’s happening now I think ‘Have we come so far? We haven’t. [Read Ann’s piece: “Alcohol Fueled and Failed My Family”.]
The truth is that since then we have lived through a major social revolution involving women entering the workforce, without setting up systems to support us, including affordable childcare. And we’re so absorbed in the notion that alcohol is how we relax, how we deal with these pressures. Women continue to be targeted with messages around alcohol, and with the message that it’s essential for a ‘successful’ life.” We go toe-to-toe with men in postsecondary. We go toe-to-toe in the workplace. And now we are going toe-to-toe with alcohol.
How has the shifting media landscape and the proliferation of social media impacted attitudes and behavior around women’s alcohol consumption?
“The message is profound and 24-7: ‘I drink, and I’m happy.’ We used to turn to corporations and advertisers to sell this message but not anymore. Instead we have constant self-promotion that says ‘I’m having a good time!’ Companies don’t even need to make ads to sell alcohol.”
Ann says that the normalization of binge drinking has also been amplified throughout pop culture with movies like “Bridesmaids” and “Trainwreck,” and with shows like “Scandal,” which depicted women drinking to excess as normal. “The message is that if you aren’t drinking, you aren’t having fun.”
You’re very clear in your work that you aren’t anti-drinking. Tell us about that.
“It’s hard to talk about drinking, and not get people defensive. I’m not a prohibitionist. But I am a journalist and the data around alcohol doesn’t lie.” The data around women and drinking is startling, particularly the huge uptick in dependency between 2002 and 2011 as detailed in this JAMA study. (The study shows that abuse and dependency has been on a sharp increase, particularly among women, minorities and older Americans.)
Ann says she often hears from women who accuse her of shifting blame onto them, which is actually the opposite of what she tries to accomplish with her work.
“I believe it’s a right to drink but also a responsibility to ask questions like, ‘Are you drinking within healthy limits? Do you understand the consequences of alcohol? Can you stop if you want to? And perhaps most importantly, why? Why are you drinking? Why is mommy’ little helper coming back? In my case, when I was drinking I was certainly medicating depression. Whether it’s medicating anxiety, or stress or burnout, why are so many of us drinking so much?”
Where do you see messaging around mom wine culture now?
“The mommy drinking culture is the number one issue I see. The rise in this mom culture is happening as we see the data around binge drinking and more alcohol-related ER visits skyrocket.” Ann says she is frequently sent images and products playing off wine-related themes and humor. “Humor is subjective. But when you stack the numbers and stack the data we have now, it’s very clear what’s happening.” It’s the normalization of risky drinking. Mother’s Day s coming up, and our national book chain is selling wine glasses emblazoned with the words “Mom Fuel.” This is not rare.
Is a shift happening in regards to women examining their relationship to alcohol?
“I don’t know. I find that one of the most quizzical things is that there are still many women who wouldn’t dream of eating gluten or missing their yoga class, but are still buying into the deep messages that drinking is part of the ‘good life.’
The population I’m most interested in now is the millennial moms. What we see in this generation is something that Jean Kilbourne points out so well.” (Jean Kilbourne is known for her groundbreaking work on the image of women in advertising and her critical studies of alcohol and tobacco advertising.) They are so influenced by advertising and don’t realize the extent.i It’s the wallpaper in their lives, the surround-sound messaging: alcohol is how we decompress and heck, I deserve it!
What do you see with drinking habits among younger people?
For the first time ever, binge drinking among female teens outpaced that of boys. This is alarming.
Can individuals affect change in regards to how alcohol is portrayed in media and marketing?
“When I wrote ‘Drink,’ I had thought that raising the notion that you’re being targeted by major companies and transnationals would resonate. But I’m used to speaking to rooms and experiencing disbelief. When I speak to other reporters, I hear them say, “But isn’t a glass of wine as good as a square of dark chocolate? You’re saying it’s not good for me?” These are deeply held beliefs.
In general, people don’t want to hear about the connection between drinking and cancer, which is quite large. For instance, 15 percent of breast cancer cases can be attributed to alcohol consumption, and only five percent of people understand that fact. A lot of people do not want to hear the facts.”
Tell us a bit about returning to school to become a social worker.
“I’d actually wanted to become a therapist sometime in my mid-thirties but didn’t because life happened — at the time I was going through a divorce and the timing wasn’t right.
I’ve spent the last eight years of my life focusing on women and alcohol, I believe there’s another way to work the story. Working with women and working inside this at a different level is something that really excites me. I’ve been working really hard as a journalist and also to shift Canadian alcohol policy. Since we’re now taking marijuana legal and have the opioid crisis, it’s very hard to keep people’s eyes on the issues around alcohol. You can’t separate alcohol from mental health issues, from how we deal with stress, and how we deal with burnout. Now I will have more tools to address the big questions around what women are dealing with today.”
Will you continue to focus on women and alcohol?
“Yes, but from a different angle. Basically I’m an activist and an activist on this subject. I will continue to speak, and continue to write. There’s still so much work to be done on the issue of stigma, addiction, recovery. And holding the alcohol industry to account.”
The good news is there is movement growing across North America, a movement of awareness, tackling the issue of risky drinking, trumpeting the reality of recovery. I will continue to use my voice to my best ability—because with a convergence of voices, so much can be won."