Lady Liquor: Competitive drinking, in college and after
In college, I lived in a co-op on-campus, owned by the university and so-called because rather than rely on the custodial service that cleaned the other campus buildings, we divvied cleaning tasks among ourselves. It was cheaper to live there than in the dorms or off campus. There were several on our campus, and I lived in no fewer than three. There were not the hippie havens they sound like, though the one I lived in for two years in a row had a hackey sack circle going out front pretty much 24/7. That house—the only coed house in Oregon State's co-op system—was far more like a coed fraternity.
None of us would have admitted that at the time, of course. All of considered ourselves a little too cool, a little too lefty, and a little too mellow to participate in the, pshhhh, Greek system.
But who were we kidding? We liked our jungle juice. And our Jell-O shots. And, uh, the occasional Mike's Hard Lemonade. Once a quarter, after finals were over, a few brave souls would gather and participate in something called Century Club: Drink one ounce of beer per minute, for 100 minutes in a row. I never participated, since I rarely drank at the time, and knew that something like Century Club would demolish my hard-earned rep as a cold, aloof little badass (though it's doubtful anybody believed in that rep but me, anyway). My memory says only one woman in the house did participate, and that she “won” (I sent her the obligatory fact-checking Facebook message, and she has no idea either way), though the reward in question was somewhat...questionable. Not being dead? Not barfing your guts up in the courtyard? (Barfing was, like, a disqualifier.) Either way, the vast majority of those who joined the competition—and those who made it into the club—were men.
Which makes sense: college students in general are cautioned against drinking heavily (all the new students at my university were strongly encouraged to attend a talk called “Beer, Booze and Books” about the science and perils of drinking), but there are plenty more anti-drinking messages directed specifically at college women than at college men. Some of the reasons made sense (most women have smaller livers than most men), some were just stupid (alcohol has soooo many calories! Don't gain the freshman fifteen!) and some were, well, problematic (we were told to watch our drinks as if the threat of date rape was an inevitable part of college life; while these days there are posters and PSAs urging men to respect consent and not to rape, there weren't any hanging up in common areas on our campus). Women drank to be fun; men drank to compete, to perform masculinity. A woman who tried to match her male companions' tolerance, and succeeded, was cool and impressive.
As I coursed through my 20s, my tolerance increased enough that people described me the way they'd described my harder-drinking female friends from college: cool and funny and drink-for-drink tough. I drank with mostly guys and I could usually match their output. Until, it turned out, I couldn't. My once-iron stomach weakened and I became really susceptible to nausea. Hangovers, which I never experienced before I turned 25 or so, became miserable, daylong events for which everything had to be put on hold. And anyway: Wasn't drinking just supposed to be fun? Why treat it like a competition, knowing full well there was no real payoff for winning? I've spent the last couple of years relearning all the polite, cautious drinking habits I exercised in college, and I'm happier for it. I can taste what I drink, and I spend less money.
And yet: Sometimes, when I'm drinking with male friends, I catch myself trying to compete, trying to match them drink for drink or even outpace them. Even though nobody is keeping score or doling out awards just because you're standing up at the end of the night, not even in the form of high-fives or backhanded compliments about how you're not like other girls. After a while, standing up at the end of the night becomes its own reward. And being like the other girls—exactly like the other girls—is better than all right.
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