I don’t want to be ‘sober curious’

By Niamh Flanagan

TikTok has changed the way our generation thinks about alcohol, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

I’m sat on a sweaty Megabus on the way to Edinburgh after an eight-hour shift, intending on catching a few evening shows with my friends who have been there, day-drinking in the sun since 1pm. There’s a muted throbbing in my temples and a dryness to my mouth, and weighty pit of anxiety in my stomach that won’t go away no matter how much I shuffle about in my luridly patterned seat; the remnants of what had been a more taxing hangover first thing upon waking. My head rests against the window, bumping against it periodically as the bus twists and turns through the convoluted lanes and streets of Edinburgh city centre, and I scroll aimlessly through TikTok to pass the time. There’s a running theme to my For You page, which I understand is algorithmically designed to show you more of the type of content that you engage positively with, and therefore are perceived to enjoy, and it’s “day-in-the-life” style wellness content. Video after video depicts daintily proportioned, smooth-skinned young women as they narrate their morning routines in hushed tones, jumping fresh faced out of perfectly made beds to prepare granola and fruit for breakfast, consulting Instagram-worthy daily planners replete with annotations such as “work-out”, “meditate”, and “meal-prep”.

The “clean girl” epidemic sweeping social media is clearly fascinating to me. On no level does it resonate with the person I am or the manner in which I live my life but, on some level, I obviously find it compelling – hence its ubiquitous presence on my social media feeds, and by extension my subconscious. The latest component requirement of being a “clean-girl”, in addition to the obvious fundamentals of slicked-back hair, no-makeup makeup and a wardrobe full of eye-wateringly expensive athletic wear, is seemingly abstinence from alcohol. From Love Island stars to former YouTube “it-girls” of the 2010s, a deluge of glamorous female influencers seem to be falling in line to espouse the wonders of going alcohol free. It’ll improve your friendships, your mental health, your work performance, your skin will magically clear, you’ll lose weight, need I go on?

If I sound slightly cynical it’s because I probably am. I struggle with the “sober-curious” trend because it feels so wedded to the superficiality that I believe characterises the “clean-girl” influencer culture that is endemic at present. Fundamentally, I think what it advocates is for us to live our lives for the benefit of an invisible, non-existent (dare I say it almost definitely male) voyeur. Don’t fall asleep in your makeup, or leave your dirty washing on your floor, or forget to brush your hair for three days straight, or stay in bed till noon with a hangover, because then you won’t be clean and perfect and pristine. Essentially, don’t live too hard, in case the aesthetic slips. But for who are we maintaining this façade? The “sober-curious” movement feels like an extension of this – spend your twenties being sober, neat, tidy, and attractive, and don’t drink because you’ll get sloppy, make mistakes and gain weight (God forbid!). The undeniably gendered nature of these socio-cultural aspirational trends compounds my disdain for the whole thing. I don’t feel that on any level my male peers are targeted by the same encouragement to abstain from drinking – even though the purported aims of following the “clean-girl” / “sober-curious” movement – self-betterment and maintaining good health and wellbeing – should ostensibly apply to both genders equally.

But if I’m being completely honest, at least part of my disdain for the self-proclaimed clean girls and their sobriety derives from discomfort. There’s a cognitive dissonance that occurs because I know that the picture-perfect edited reels that proliferate on my For You page are contrived, and inauthentic, but I for some reason cannot stop watching them. I think I simultaneously hold these influencers in contempt but also want to be more like them. Maybe it makes me slightly uncomfortable because I know there’s some truth to what they’re saying. Maybe it makes me slightly uncomfortable because I know that all critical analysis of the gendered nature of sober curiosity and clean girl-ism aside, I do like a drink just that little bit too much. I think in dismissing these alcohol-free lifestyles as superficial I’m potentially trying to avoid confronting or thinking about my own relationship to alcohol in any great depth.  

My teen years were spent in cycles of binge drinking, as was quite normal where I grew up – for the most part I didn’t drink, and then once a fortnight there might be a party, or we’d attempt to sneak out underage, I’d usually drink too much and vomit the next day and that would be that. It was fun and messy and how we learnt the extent of our limits. Adulthood has brought with it a more complex relationship to alcohol, and to be truthful it’s not one that I always feel I’m fully in control of. When I drink these days I rarely make life-ruiningly bad choices, I’m never the person at the centre of the “you’ll never guess what so-and-so did last night” rumour mill the morning after, I don’t get up on tables to dance or text my exes outrageous things – all things considered I’m fairly boring. Maybe it’s because I’m actually a fairly reasonable drunk (this is of course in my own estimation but I hope it’s something my friends would also attest to) that I have historically, and sometimes continue to, underestimate the extent of my drinking habits, and subsequently fail to recognise when it starts to become detrimental to my physical and mental wellbeing. 

There have been considerable stretches of time in my adult life – usually during periods of particular stress – where I have drunk alcohol every day – sometimes to excess, sometimes just a glass or two of wine at the end of a long day. Regardless, during these periods I’ve woken up each morning with some degree of a hangover – sometimes debilitating – more often less so, which made it easier to dismiss the idea that my behaviour was problematic. But, like clockwork, each time I’d usher the hangover out by picking up another drink. The use of past tense here isn’t to indicate that this is a pattern of behaviour that I’ve entirely consigned to my past. My reliance on alcohol as a coping mechanism continues to fluctuate – and it’s become something that I fixate on quite regularly: is it normal? Is it ok? Do I have an actual problem? Back to the bus on the way to Edinburgh with my lingering hangover – where I promised myself that night that I’d spend the evening sober, so as to avoid waking up with yet another hangover, and to give myself the opportunity the following morning to sort out, with a fresh head, all the things that were causing me stress. I jumped off the bus and hurried off to the bar my friends were gathered at, and it was only halfway through my first pint that I realised I’d broken the one rule I’d set myself for the evening without even realising it – like ordering the drink had been some reflex beyond my control. 

I guess what I’m trying to articulate here is that I, as a young woman, find my relationship to alcohol quite difficult to regulate, and more fundamentally to understand. I suspect I’m not alone in that. Part of me thinks that our generational obsession with perfecting the art of self-care, achieved through abstinence of fun things such as alcohol and carbohydrates, that demands we become clean girls who prefer early mornings at the gym to late nights at bars, represents an inauthenticity triggered by the advent of social media. This has in turn facilitated an unhealthy neuroticism and obsession with scrutinising our own behaviours. Did my mother and her friends spend quite as much time worrying about the hedonism of their youthful days without the barrage of wellness messaging today’s generation has to contend with? Doubtful. But another part of me also knows that my propensity to drink has caused avoidable problems in my life, and that my tendency to reach for it when things feel overwhelming is undeniably unhealthy. My fascination with clean-girl-ism and their picture perfect lifestyles I think is somewhat aspirational – when my room resembles a war-torn country because I haven’t done washing for weeks, never mind a food shop, because I spend my mornings before work hungover and unmotivated – watching these clean, sober women skip around their perfectly kept homes and eat their lovingly prepared meals makes me feel somewhat at peace – despite knowing that the snippet I watch is heavily curated and not an actual insight into another real, human, life. We need to be able to have better, more productive conversations about our alcohol use as young people, one that requires nuance that goes far beyond the hashtag #sobercurious on TikTok.


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