Are We Sober-Curious or Just Skinny-Curious?
For many reasons, this is great news. While alcohol can be an appreciated relaxant—and desiring a drink or two is certainly understandable—it can also contribute to mood swings, poor social judgment, vomiting, liver issues, cancer, and more. Further, around 20.4 percent of Americans have struggled with alcohol use disorder.
But here’s the thing: The bigger Dry January gets, the more the messages seem to be conflated with diet culture messaging. Even now, post-January, we hear the same keywords—detox, less puffiness, less bloat—the latter two which are steeped in fatphobia. You may have heard friends talk about how they can “finally fit into skinny jeans again” after a month of no drinking (like you might hear someone say after dieting).
If this ever-so-subtle "vibe shift" is giving you pause, we see you. Here, anti-diet registered dietitians share their thoughts on the ways that diet culture is tiptoeing into the sober-curious movement, and how you can celebrate the real joys of going booze-free without letting diet talk enter the chat.
How diet culture infiltrated Dry January
First, when we say Dry January has been co-opted by diet culture, we’re talking about: the promotion of weight loss, the celebration of newly "snatched" cheekbones and jawlines, using words like “detoxing.” This perspective chips away at how sobriety can feel great, and over-emphasizes how it can make you look. Here’s how that commentary relates to diet culture and hurts us in the process.
Assigning morality to foods and drinks (and therefore, to ourselves)
To be clear, drinking alcohol (or not) isn’t inherently “bad," but the moralization and shame surrounding it—as well as the focus on weight loss—are something to keep an eye on. “While limiting alcohol can be beneficial for some, assigning moral values to food and drink can lead to guilt and shame when folks consume ‘bad’ category items,” says Stephanie Kile, MS, a registered dietitian at Equip.
Morality and judgment sneak in and can cause similar problems with alcohol as they do with dieting. For example, you may subconsciously think you’re ‘bad’ if you grab a cocktail, especially because drinking them regularly might affect your weight. Then, the guilt and shame can cause you to isolate yourself or get into a binge-restrict cycle, which are upsetting and common effects of dieting, too.
Ultimately, when considering Dry January, the most important factors to look at are your intentions and mindset. Diet culture can sneakily slip into those, making you feel bad about your appearance. “Dry January, I think, can be lots of things—but if you make it about purity or morality, then you are inviting in judgment—and superiority—as a central premise,” says H Coakley, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Pando Wellness who has extensive experience in individual counseling, eating disorders, food justice, and body image programming. “And certainly that invitation to judgment exacerbates other judgmental biases about food, weight, appearance, and so on.”
Encouraging restriction in multiple parts of your life
There’s a thin line between restriction and diet culture. “It almost feels like a slippery slope of ‘If I can cut out alcohol out of my life, what else can I cut out?’ for some folks, where certain foods can be next for what to restrict,” says Mia Donley, MPH, RD, a registered dietitian at Arise, a digital healthcare company offering eating disorder care and mental health support.
Besides being, well, not fun, restricting yourself across the board can lead to serious health consequences, such as “complicated relationships with food and drinks that can last a lifetime,” Kile says. She adds that 20 percent of dieters develop disordered eating habits, defined as "restrictive eating habits or irregular and inflexible eating patterns.”
Restricting yourself across the board can lead to serious health consequences, such as “complicated relationships with food and drinks that can last a lifetime,” Kile says. She adds that 20 percent of dieters develop disordered eating habits.
“Restriction of anything—even something that can be harmful, like alcohol—can lead to a rigid mindset and restriction of other things,” Kile adds. “All eating disorders are rooted in restriction, which means that dieting is a major risk factor for those who are otherwise vulnerable.”
Focusing on your appearance
Since reducing your booze can affect your weight, the diet culture industry (which is worth $72 billion, BTW) is all over it. “While Dry January can be very helpful for those who are wanting to experiment with sobriety, the draws of potential weight loss, ‘face slimming,’ aesthetics, and complete lifestyle changes can be an alluring and misleading part where diet culture sneaks in,” Donley says.
Morality and appearance are often linked, too, especially in our society. “Anyone outside of the cis-het, able, white, thin ideal is repeatedly made to feel invisible, ugly, dangerous, and/or strange—with emphasis on how they look being a main method of that marginalization,” Coakley says. “So an emphasis on Dry January as a way to ‘look better’ is really about saying ‘If you do this, you won’t lose any social currency’...and that’s a tune diet culture has been singing for 400 years.”
Don’t get us wrong: It’s understandable that losing social currency is terrifying. At the same time, there’s value in learning that people appreciate you for who you are, not what you look like.
Overlooking the true point
Lastly, when we see Dry January as another opportunity to lose weight, we’re undermining how powerful sobriety can be. Dry January can be a time to remind yourself what alcohol might take away from your life, such as good sleep, friendships, and feeling more energetic. “When you shift the focus to the way sobriety impacts your body or weight, you miss these benefits, and turn what could be a helpful exercise into a potentially harmful one,” Kile says.
Dry January can be a time to remind yourself what alcohol might take away from your life, such as good sleep, friendships, and feeling more energetic. “When you shift the focus to the way sobriety impacts your body or weight, you miss these benefits, and turn what could be a helpful exercise into a potentially harmful one,” Kile says.
Benefits of Dry January that aren’t about your weight or appearance
Speaking of the ways sobriety can improve your life, what exact benefits are we looking at?
“I found that using substances, even once or twice a week, clouded my ability to be present to what I felt—both the good and the bad,” Coakley shares. “It also hindered me from being present with those I love.” They also list all the reflecting you can do while sober. For example, consider how drinking hurts your life, if it’s actually helping in the ways you want it to, and what aspects of your life change.
“I found that using substances, even once or twice a week, clouded my ability to be present to what I felt—both the good and the bad,” Coakley shares. “It also hindered me from being present with those I love.”
Additionally, Donley notes pros such as finding community, experiencing more regular hunger and fullness cues, better sleep, improved concentration, and extra room in your budget.
Kile mentions a 2018 study in BMJ Open that suggests even a month off from alcohol can decrease your blood pressure and reduce cancer-related growth factors, to start. (Again: Why can’t we just focus on all of these wonderful benefits without making it about weight loss?)
Tips for trying to drink less without letting diet culture mess with your efforts
At the end of the day, Dry January is about being mindful of your intentions—and not just at the beginning. Maybe you want fewer mood swings, more fulfilling experiences, or to save money. “Whatever it may be, I would highly recommend approaching the challenge without weight loss or body image-focused intentions,” Kile urges. “By building an awareness of how diet culture is present in your own life, you can label it, and this simple act can strip diet culture thoughts of some of their power.”
Don’t forget to give yourself grace and be understanding throughout this. Relearning health and weight stigma takes time. “If it feels like it’s for diet culture or weight loss reasons, give yourself space to explore that and give yourself some compassion,” Donley says. “None of us are immune from those pressures.” She encourages finding like-minded individuals, anti-diet dietitians, and therapists for support.
The bottom line re: restriction of any kind
Restricting something for appearance-related reasons is a slippery slope. “Restricting triggers the brain to overanalyze, fall into obsessive thought patterns, and drives cravings of that now forbidden item, which can cascade into other areas of life and restricting other foods or activities,” Kile explains.
To be clear, we aren’t talking about addiction here, though. Dry January (and the general practice of completely quitting alcohol cold turkey) is best for people who are “gray area drinkers,” aka those who might not feel great about their alcohol use, but aren’t physically addicted. People whose bodies are addicted may experience heart issues, high blood pressure, hallucinations, and more due to stopping cold turkey, and should consider working with a medical professional.
Otherwise, what we’re saying here holds true. “While an abstinence model can be helpful for those in substance abuse recovery, we don’t necessarily see that always translating to restricting things like drinking food, or even binge eating behaviors,” Donley says. “Diet culture wiggles its way into restriction using a multitude of tools, like external validation, ‘willpower’ and control, as well as fear and shame. Restricting something without examining your relationship to it is one way that diet culture likes to co-opt.”
Ultimately, while switching out your cocktail for water does help your liver functioning—which literally means boosting your body's mode of detoxification—we (as a society) need to tread lightly around our wording and reasons for not drinking. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, any form of restriction is prone to getting co-opted by diet culture.
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