We Need To Talk About The "Wine O'Clock" Meme

Em Unravelling

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It all started when my children were small. “Ooh, I can’t wait for wine o’clock,” my school gate acquaintances would grin, as they juggled book bags and water bottles and the hands of their tiny charges. “There’s half a bottle in the fridge from last night and it’s been calling me all day.”

I always laughed along, but I didn’t really get it. Not then. I’m certainly not a teetotaler, but I always saved my boozy evenings for weekends. The reason for this was entirely prosaic and banal: I always had a long morning commute, and I didn’t want to risk ever being over the drink/drive limit if I’d had a drink the night before.

I knew rationally that a small glass or two wouldn’t push me over, but it just felt safer not to bother at all. So every Friday, freshly showered after my Friday night spin class, I’d have my first gin and tonic of the week and settle into the weekend. It felt like a treat.

I did feel a bit left out, though. I felt firmly on the outside of the cozy, middle-class, messy-mum club. There seemed to be a certain glamour in the daily routine of that large glass of ice-cold sauvignon blanc, sipped casually whilst cooking and bathing the babies. Taking the edge off, before settling down to dinner and another glass of wine. But it just wasn’t something I did.

I could see why other people did, though. Those apparently casual glasses of everyday wine are everywhere. Aren’t they? I gradually realized that in every episode of the gritty police dramas I enjoyed on TV, the harried-but-inevitably-genius female protagonist would always round off her day with — yes — a large glass of wine.

There it would be, front and center of each moody and carefully composed shot of the stressed female detective, or lawyer, or doctor, silhouetted against the light as she worked late into the night on a thorny case (while, of course, her private life dissolved around her).

Seriously. Look out for that glass of white, next time you’re inhaling a BBC box set in one sitting. It’s as cliched as the cider bottle clutched by a homeless man on a bench, or the vodka poured carefully into an Evian bottle by the secretly alcoholic CEO of a fictional company. It’s always there, that ubiquitous glass of evening wine. It’s effectively how we know who a woman is. It’s a signpost to her personality.

But, unlike the homeless man’s cider or the CEO’s vodka, this ever-present nightly wine is not a warning or a cautionary tale. Oh no. It is glamorous. It’s aspirational. It says “I’ve had a hard day, and I deserve this relaxation.” It says “I’ve made it. This wine cost twenty quid a bottle and I earned every penny of those two tenners myself.” It says “I am immensely sophisticated, and although I am hardworking and clever, I owe myself this downtime. Plus also I’m fun, by the way.”

It’s a seductive image, and slowly it worked its way into the fabric of my mind’s eye. By the time 2020 locked us into quarantine I was primed and ready to become a daily consumer of that glorious evening wine. Why not? I’m a professional woman after all, and I’ve learned that it’s what professional women do. And let’s face it, it’s not like I had a commute anymore. Working from home makes drinking so easy.

So, along with every woman my age in my WhatsApp panicky pandemic-chat groups, I signed up to a glossy online wine club and took delivery of their first heavy crate. I filled the kitchen rack and the fridge shelves with wine bottles. And at 6 pm each evening, I’d enjoy the ritual of pouring a glass each for my husband and me. Our relaxed evening would slither, thus, into being.

And suddenly, I got it. Oh, I got it. Nightly wine is…revelatory. It smoothes the edges of the day, making dinner conversation more amusing and adding a touch of genius to the banal sitcoms my kids always choose for after-dinner viewing. In a newly hemmed-in world where we were forbidden to go to the gym or even for an after-dinner walk, evening wine made everything rosy.

So rosy, in fact, that it wasn’t until I saw a lighthearted booze-based quiz in a magazine — the sort of quiz I’d always gloss over, safe in the knowledge that my drinking has always been easily within the limits of “healthy” — that it occurred to me exactly how much alcohol those nightly wines were adding up to.

A lot. A lot, is the answer. Way over the recommended fourteen units a week; I was nudging twenty, maybe twenty-five if I added a couple of refreshing G&Ts on a Friday.

I was aghast. But I’m not a drinker, I thought. I’m just a normal adult human. And besides, I don’t drink every night! Quite often, I don’t drink on….oh. And the penny dropped.

I realized that apart from a Monday when I do a once-weekly intermittent fast day, I’d started pretty much drinking every single day. Without really noticing, I’d gone from “I only drink on a weekend” to “I have a glass of wine every day except Monday.”

The scary thing is that my increased alcohol intake didn’t feel like a leap, or in any way unusual. It felt normal. It felt socially acceptable. It felt somehow more socially acceptable, actually, than pouring a glass of orange juice or making a herb tea at 6 pm, both of which suddenly seemed a bit infantile.

It was just one large glass of wine, sipped appreciatively. It was just the sort of window-dressing you’d expect on a dinner table like mine. My eyes accepted it as totally right and proper. I could not believe how quickly I’d grown accustomed to it as a prop for the evening. Was I — whisper it — reliant on that wine?

The answer, as it turned out, was no. I’m lucky not to have a particularly addictive personality in this regard, so I decided to go back down to drinking only on weekends (or special occasions such as celebratory meals, which are few and far between this year) and that’s what I have done. But I’ve lost a certain amount of innocence about the overriding prevalence of alcohol in the media and how easily that influence can increase consumption, particularly in women.

Whether it’s the subtle product placement in the sort of moody detective series I like to watch, or the more blatant humorous books like “Why Mummy Drinks”; whether it’s targeted advertisements popping up on Facebook for cocktail-making classes on a Sunday morning, or the ubiquity of pink T-shirts with slogans like “Prosecco Queen” on the front — alcohol, and the normalization of drinking alcohol regularly, is being pushed on women all the time.

Of course, it’s pushed on men too. Male-dominated sports are invariably sponsored by beer companies; beer and football go hand in hand. Men are expected to down pints regularly and they bear the brunt of dismissive jeers if they opt for a soft drink in the pub. I know this. But men are subject to far fewer gentle nudges in the direction of regular drinking at home.

Of course, there’s a cultural expectation across the genders that a hard day at work should be followed by a relaxing alcoholic drink. The “drink to unwind” idea is a trope as old as time. But only in more recent years has the giggly idea of “wine o’clock” for women and of pushing that hour back and back — sometimes as far as lunchtime, whoops-a-daisy!— been such a mainstream theme.

The result of this normalization of regular drinking is a generation of women like me, who believe themselves to have a reasonably healthy relationship with alcohol but who consistently consume way over the recommended weekly units. And many of them probably do so (yep, again, like me) without realizing or even thinking about it — because the world we live in tells us that it’s normal. That it’s not only normal but aspirational and desirable.

We can’t avoid the fact that alcohol’s effects are gendered and that as women, we will suffer far more over the long term than men would from regularly consuming too much of it.

What we can avoid, though, is playing to the stereotype that makes daily alcoholic drinks a desirable feature of our day-to-day lives. Recognizing that in this, as in so many areas, we’ve probably been played by our male counterparts is — I’ve found — half the battle.

And besides, a Friday night gin-and-tonic feels like far more of a treat when it hasn’t already happened on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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