‘I Have a Healthy Relationship With Alcohol’: Australian Midlife Women, Alcohol Consumption and Social Class
Alcohol consumption by Australian women during their midlife has been increasing. Health promotion efforts to reduce alcohol consumption in order to reduce alcohol-related disease risk compete with the social contexts and value of alcohol in women’s lives.
This paper draws on 50 qualitative interviews with midlife women (45–64 years of age) from different social classes living in South Australia in order to gain an understanding of how and why women might justify their relationships with alcohol.
Social class shaped and characterized the different types of relationships with alcohol available to women, structuring their logic for consuming alcohol and their ability to consider reducing (or ‘breaking up with’) alcohol. This study identified more agentic relationships with alcohol in the narratives of affluent women. This study identified a tendency for less control over alcohol-related decisions in the narratives of women with less privileged life chances, suggesting greater challenges in changing alcohol use patterns.
If classed differences are not attended to in health promotion efforts, this might mitigate the effectiveness of alcohol risk messaging to women.
Researchers interviewed 50 middle-aged women (45–64 years of age) from different social classes in South Australia in this study. They found that while all the women had some relationship with alcohol it changed depending on their social class.
The problem that public health must tackle is the circumstances that shape women’s lives and lead to using alcohol. Public health messaging targeting women need to be more nuanced and take into consideration women’s level of disadvantage and what support they can access. A message that works for a middle-class woman will likely not work for a working-class woman.
- Among the reasons women used alcohol reducing loneliness and isolation was perceived by all women. Women have many responsibilities and say they feel invisible and unacknowledged for everything they do.
- However certain reasons for alcohol use differed between middle-class women and working-class women.
- The most privileged women used alcohol to celebrate and enjoy themselves within their social networks.
- Most middle-class women used alcohol to relax, for empowerment, and as a reward.
- However less privileged women used alcohol to make their difficult lives more livable.
- Working class women reported using alcohol to cope with difficult and sometimes intolerable lives.
Women found it hard to curb their alcohol consumption as well. While middle-class women wanted to change their alcohol use and sometimes regretted their use and took steps to cut it down, working-class women felt they could not cut down on alcohol since it was one of their only ways of coping with life’s difficulties.
The findings in this study show that one size fits all public health messaging that asks women to stop using alcohol because it is harmful is not effective.
Public health must address the structural reasons of why women use alcohol: Seeking connection among the middle-class and tackling hardship and isolation for the working class.
There needs to be more attention to the general lack of support for women in their midlife, specifically for less privileged women who does not have the resources to access the support and care they need.
Obtaining the support needed to reduce alcohol use among women will use up a lot of resources and would take away what working-class women see as a coping mechanism.
Public health must rise up to the challenge of making sober curiosity or reducing alcohol use a reasonable, affordable, and feasible option for all women.