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'Cheers,' fears and tears

CBC documentary shines a sobering light on binge-drinking among young women

White Pine Pictures</p><p>In women, binge-drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in about two hours.</p><p>

White Pine Pictures

In women, binge-drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in about two hours.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/2/2016 (945 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TAYLOR, a 21-year-old biology major, is filling a Gatorade bottle with white wine from a box. She and her friend Molly, a 21-year-old psychology major, are about to head out to a pre-drinking party. Their goal? To get smashed.

These are two of the young women we meet in the forthcoming documentary Girls’ Night Out, which premières Thursday night on CBC. Inspired by Ann Dowsett Johnson’s landmark book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, Gemini-winning director (and former Olympic athlete) Phyllis Ellis examines one alarming relationship in particular: that between young women and binge-drinking.

The statistics are, well, sobering. According to the American Public Health Association, the rate of binge-drinking among women has increased more than seven times that of men in the past decade. Alcohol is the leading cause of death of women between 18 and 24. Nearly 14 million American women binge three times a month. One in four Canadian women between the age of 20 and 34 binge-drink at least once a month.

But Ellis, 56, who has a 22-year-old daughter of her own, didn’t want to make a fear-mongering, finger-wagging documentary aimed to shame and blame young women. Rather, she allows her four 21-year-old subjects to share their perspectives, insights and stories. We also hear from survivors of binge culture, such as Sarah Hepola, 41, author of the bestselling book Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank To Forget, and Jen McNeely, 36, founder of the website She Does the City.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/2/2016 (945 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TAYLOR, a 21-year-old biology major, is filling a Gatorade bottle with white wine from a box. She and her friend Molly, a 21-year-old psychology major, are about to head out to a pre-drinking party. Their goal? To get smashed.

These are two of the young women we meet in the forthcoming documentary Girls’ Night Out, which premières Thursday night on CBC. Inspired by Ann Dowsett Johnson’s landmark book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, Gemini-winning director (and former Olympic athlete) Phyllis Ellis examines one alarming relationship in particular: that between young women and binge-drinking.

The statistics are, well, sobering. According to the American Public Health Association, the rate of binge-drinking among women has increased more than seven times that of men in the past decade. Alcohol is the leading cause of death of women between 18 and 24. Nearly 14 million American women binge three times a month. One in four Canadian women between the age of 20 and 34 binge-drink at least once a month.

But Ellis, 56, who has a 22-year-old daughter of her own, didn’t want to make a fear-mongering, finger-wagging documentary aimed to shame and blame young women. Rather, she allows her four 21-year-old subjects to share their perspectives, insights and stories. We also hear from survivors of binge culture, such as Sarah Hepola, 41, author of the bestselling book Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank To Forget, and Jen McNeely, 36, founder of the website She Does the City.

John Tran / White Pine Pictures</p><p>Girlfriends toast the night ahead with “pre-drinks” before the bar.</p><p>

John Tran / White Pine Pictures

Girlfriends toast the night ahead with “pre-drinks” before the bar.

"That was our commitment: to just listen," Ellis says over the phone from Toronto. "Those young women who are in the culture and those women who are on the other side — it’s their point of view. My commitment to the film was to tell the (story) from their point of view, not manipulate or control it."

Indeed, Girls’ Night Out names the problem, but it focuses on the "whys" behind it. In our culture, drinking is glamorized, certainly, via popular culture and marketing, with wine and cocktail brands such as Girls' Night Out and Skinnygirl directly targeting women.

"We’re not told it’s gross, like smoking," Ellis says. "Alcohol is glamorized and how you have fun — and even how you lose weight, now. The message is: you’re not going to have an ultimate experience in life unless you include alcohol."

And it’s not just glamorized. It’s normalized. Binge-drinking is a ubiquitous and tacitly accepted activity. It’s a way to relax, it’s a way to celebrate. Stressed? Have a drink. Happy? Have a drink. Pre-drinking — or pre-gaming, if you’re from the Prairies — is just something people do. Memes joking about women and wine consumption proliferate on Facebook; beautifully filtered shots of cocktails populate Instagram.

The reasons young women binge-drink are myriad. One is the basic human desire to fit in. "I think everybody looks for a tribe — everyone wants to belong," Hepola says in the documentary. "Connections, intimacy, love and friendship. Your inhibitions would drop, and you would tell them the truth about your life and then they would tell you the truth and you would be bonded by that. What a beautiful ritual that was."

White Pine Pictures</p><p>Nearly 14 million women in America binge-drink three times per month.</p><p>

White Pine Pictures

Nearly 14 million women in America binge-drink three times per month.

Young women are also under and incredible amount of pressure — to be beautiful, to be fun, to be thin, to be successful. Women are sold the lie that alcohol makes us all of those things. Alcohol dulls the edges; it buffs away insecurities.

But the costs of binge-drinking are immense. Beyond the obvious risks of alcohol poisoning and injury, binge-drinking also puts women at greater risk for breast cancer and stroke.

Alcohol is also the most widely used date-rape drug, involved in nine out of 10 campus rapes. The conversation around drinking and its relationship to sexual assault is a vital one, and yet, it’s one that’s too often rooted in unproductive victim-blaming. Culturally, we’re still quicker to shame young women for getting to too drunk and "putting themselves in harm’s way" than we are to shame the young men who take advantage of drunk women. In Girls’ Night Out, young women lead nuanced conversations about everything from consent and victim-blaming to alcohol’s role in hook-up culture and how it relates to self-esteem.

Ellis hopes that the documentary opens up a dialogue. "As a society, as parents, as a community, as women — we have to stop and have this conversation, period. The abuse of alcohol was the window into this bigger conversation. If we’re afraid to say it, then nothing will change. If we’re afraid to call it out, this will only get worse and more girls will die. We have to be able to talk about this in a very real way."

To that end, the broadcast première of Girls’ Night Out will launch a national #RethinkTheDrink campaign and Talkback Tour, which will visit universities across the country. University students will also be encouraged to write letters to their 18-year-old selves as part of an online campaign called Dear 18-Year-Old Me.

John Tran / White Pine Pictures</p><p>A typical girls’ night out of binging starts with ‘pre-drinking’ and dancing.</p></p></p><p>

John Tran / White Pine Pictures

A typical girls’ night out of binging starts with ‘pre-drinking’ and dancing.

Because that’s the thing — most young Canadian women have stories. In that spirit, here’s one of mine: when I was 20, I drank too much too quickly at a pool party. On the way home, woozy in the backseat, I suddenly and urgently needed to throw up — but my valiant effort to stick my head out the window was thwarted by an automated child-lock system that prevented the window from rolling down all the way. I ended up vomiting down the side of my best friend’s (moving) vehicle. It was 2:30 p.m.

I’m putting this mortifying moment in the newspaper because I’ve been there, too. I have participated in that culture. I used to think that story was hilarious. Now, at (almost) 31, I find it embarrassing.

Perhaps there’s another way we, as women, can forge those beautiful bonds Hepola talked about.

As Ellis says: "The more honest we are about these stories, the more community we can build."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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History

Updated on Tuesday, February 23, 2016 at 7:33 AM CST: Rearranges photos

9:45 AM: Typo fixed.

10:51 AM: Clarification added

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