BOOK REVIEW: Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker

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4/5 stars

January is a time when lots of us are looking to change–and maybe it’s amplified after 2020 and many of us are rethinking our habits after a year in lockdown. In the UK, Dry January is always a big marketing push, with big brands climbing over each other to make alcohol-free versions of their most famous products. With a big push from Chrissy Teigen, this book has been getting a lot of buzz lately.

Whitaker specifically examines the ways that alcohol has been marketed to women, and how ‘Big Alcohol’ has become as toxic an influence as Big Tobacco. Unlike our thinking on nearly all other drugs, alcohol use is seen as a rite of passage, the key to liberation, and a badge of honour. It’s nearly impossible to think of having a milestone event–a wedding, a birthday party, a housewarming, heck, even a funeral–without serving alcohol.

And for women, that alcohol culture has only grown. If you want to be ‘one of the boys’, you drink whiskey and craft beer, no book club or girls night would be complete without bellinis and fancy gin cocktails, and wine will brand itself as ‘mommy juice’. We struggle to conceive of drinking problems as anything other than extreme media representations–rock bottom and days-long benders in the vein of BoJack Horseman and Don Draper–but if your friend told you she was giving up, say, fentanyl, would you disinvite her from your hen do for ‘being no fun’?

Whitaker has found an interesting balance of personal memoir and a scientific and social examination of alcohol abuse, recounting her own experience of giving up drinking and examining the science behind bad habits. Easily some of the strongest sections of the book are those that look at how alcohol marketing has evolved, following the lead of how Big Tobacco changed their strategies over the years. The ‘Drink Responsibly’ slogan was conceived by think tanks working for big alcohol conglomerates and studies determined that young children can identify alcohol brands and mascots, much like how tobacco advertising was dominated by Joe Camel and smoking doctors. Alcohol was sold to women as liberation and freedom–effectively an update of the Virginia Slims “you’ve come a long way, baby” tagline, but now it’s for White Claw and low-carb beers. And the danger is real, with alcohol-related deaths and diseases on the rise for women around the world. Alcohol companies are also learning to bring their marketing into the Global South, where regulations are more lax and infrastructure to support addicts and their recovery is scant.

And speaking of recovery, it’s woefully behind on the times. The 12-Step Program (Alcoholics Anonymous and its related groups) hasn’t updated its materials much since its founding in the 1930s, and it’s so unchallenged that med school students typically attend meetings as part of their training. Whitaker attended AA for a while, but found that slogans about the ego and Higher Powers were written more with white men (the only demographic who could originally join AA) in mind. And the rehab industrial complex that has grown out of AA makes more money off repeat visitors than actually helping people overcome their addictions–a cycle with deadly consequences.

These were the sections I found particularly interesting, and made me think more about alcohol and how it’s marketed to me–while it didn’t convince me to give up alcohol, it did have me think more critically about how capitalism has seeped into every aspect of our lives. The health advice sections were a bit more of a struggle to get through. I’d describe Whitaker as a firm adherent of ‘California woo-woo’, and the back half of the book is more of a self-help manual advocating for finding sobriety (or overcoming any bad habit) through meditation, hot lemon water, essential oils… I have to admit, this is where I started zoning out. Whitaker is at least open about the fact that these worked for her and might not work for everyone, but having seen how the pseudoscience behind these sorts of strategies can take people down the anti-science wormhole (vegan Instagram can be a scary place, folks), it was strange to read Whitaker presenting real data about how alcohol affects our health while in the same breath talking about overcoming depression with Kudalini yoga.

I didn’t come to this book looking to quit alcohol, so if that’s your goal, I can’t say if it will work. If anything, I might be more willing to try some alcohol-free options whenever I can actually return to a pub. But Whitaker’s work did have me thinking more about creating routines to conquer bad habits and develop healthier ones in their place, which can be valuable to us all.

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