The Stress of Being Sober at University

It normally starts with the dreaded question, “Why aren’t you drinking?”

You sit there, clinging onto your pint of Pepsi that you hoped nobody would notice. The realities of explaining your personal life choices can be daunting, to say the least.

The struggle comes from a societal pressure to conform–and the burden of socialising is changing the way non-drinkers experience university. This irrational, generational fear of missing out is causing a struggle for those who don’t want to fit societal pressures and norms.

For some, alcohol abstinence is just part of the dreaded anticipation of peer pressure, potential exclusion and social challenges.

It’s no secret that drinking culture has long been associated with 21st century university life, and alcohol is–in some ways—deemed as the university student’s social beverage of choice.

The initiation of Fresher’s Week starts the school year into an alcohol-fuelled string of social events, from post-lecture pub drinks to clubbing events. Here, being a non-drinker can cause anxiety and apprehension.

As someone who chooses not to drink, I often find it’s one of the first things people notice about me during any social event.

Sometimes, I wonder if it’s just me being paranoid. I’ll unintentionally let the fact that I don’t drink slip, as if it’s a dirty little secret—but do people assume I don’t drink because I drive to classes? It’s a difficult situation that heightens my self-confidence, and I’m sure I’m not the only person to have been in this situation.

For those who choose not to drink, the act of declining an alcoholic beverage from their peers can cause an intense fear of being judged for their choice to stay sober. But, according to the Health Survey for England 2016, the biggest drop in adult alcohol consumption has been among young people between the ages of 16 to 24.

It seems that sober-culture is, somewhat, becoming socially common. However, as the number of non-drinking students goes up, the social pressures put on students to drink still prevail.

It’s safe to say that the perceptions surrounding non-drinking and peer pressure can contribute to some forms of negative stigma around alcohol abstinence.

The suggestion of “not being up for a good time” are just some of the behavioural preconceptions of a non-drinker by their drinking classmates. The association between alcohol and socialising a direct effect of this and—as a result—non-drinkers can find themselves isolated from classmates and friends.

Many non-drinkers can relate to being told, “Just one drink, it won’t hurt.” But, for someone who has made an informed personal, religious or health choice, this can be an uncomfortable scenario.

The easy solution would be to take this with a grain of salt, but for some, it can be far more problematic than this. Consequently, university students are still experiencing the same pressures of social drinking—although it’s no longer as rare.

With statistics showing that the proportion of both men and women drinking more than the recommended 14 units of alcohol a week has decreased between 2011 and 2016 (from 34% to 31% of men, and from 18% to 16% of women), there is generally a decrease of alcohol consumption overall.

With that being said, non-drinkers university should feel free to embrace their sobriety, trust their peers and put these societal pressures aside. Today, turning down a drink does not have to be a big deal.

The Bloody Truth Behind Menstruation

Menstruation – It’s painful, bloody, and downright annoying. The unpleasant yet necessary cycle of menstruation affects nearly 50% of the world’s population — yet the topic is incredibly hush-hush and deemed taboo to speak about.

Anyone with a vagina has been there: you need to ask a friend for a sanitary product, but you’re uncomfortable saying the words out loud. But why is this? What is it about periods that make women feel uncomfortable to speak outwardly about them?

Depictions of menstruation in media – including film, advertisements, video games, social media, etc. – have always been particularly problematic. The media’s representation generally does not convey what menstruation is actually like, but rather demonstrates a glorified version that seeks to make audience members more comfortable with a manipulated version of menstruation.

Ads are especially guilty of adopting this sugarcoated image of menstruation. These advertisements are usually selling sanitary products and, in order to boost sales, depict the women on screen as being happy and physically active, conveying the idea that if you buy these tampons, you will also be happy and active!

This image is particularly absurd to most period-having humans; when you’re on your period, all you want to do is curl up in a ball and cry. PMS (premenstrual syndrome) is painful and uncomfortable and ugly–and no matter how effective a tampon is, women on their period typically don’t want to perform a ballet recital or go rock climbing.

Advertisements are also notorious for specifically not showing period blood, despite the fact that their products exist for the sake of combating menstrual bleeding. Rather than the standard colour of blood – red – advertisements use a mysterious blue liquid to represent period blood.

The use of this blue liquid isn’t only found in sanitary product commercials; indeed, it can be seen in advertisements for toothpaste, diapers, paper towels, and more. Why do advertisements do this?

This sterile blue colour is often used in advertisements to denote cleanliness. The blue liquid elicits images of pure, clean water, and directly opposes any unsavoury thoughts of blood or bodily fluids. 

The use of this blue liquid also stems from quite problematic origins, some of which are deeply rooted in cultural norms. This allusion to cleanliness perpetuates the notion that menstruation is unclean and impure, a belief shared by the texts of many cultures and religions. This idea is also often seen in mainstream media and films, such as Carrie (1976), in which Carrie’s mother believes that her period is a symbol of sin.

While menstrual product advertisements do not necessarily mean to imply that periods are impure, companies tend to portray menstruation in a veil of beauty and happiness.

This perpetuates the notion that menstruation should be a clean experience, as a means to combat the inherent impurities of menstrual bleeding. This depiction is particularly effective as advertisements are ubiquitous and accessible, and therefore viewed by larger audiences, which subconsciously perpetuates these ideals without audiences knowing it.

The depiction of menstruation extends past advertisements. Not only is it misrepresented in mainstream media, but it is often actively censored.

A photo that poet and activist Rupi Kaur posted to her Instagram account of her bleeding through her pants was flagged and removed from the Internet. Since the photo technically met the official Instagram guidelines, it was eventually reuploaded; however, Kaur did not go quietly into that good night.

rupikaur-period1-454x341 Photo credit: Rupi Kaur

In response, she wrote, “I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak.  When your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified.”

This, and sanitised media depictions, are just some of the many ways that menstruation is stigmatised and stereotyped and deemed gross or offensive, ultimately making it a taboo subject.

While this information can be disheartening, it is important to remember to celebrate companies that are attempting initiatives to end stigmas surrounding menstruation.

For example, Libresse is an international brand of feminine hygiene products that has recently initiated a campaign called “Blood Normal” that seeks to “banish the blue liquid that conventionally stands in for period blood in ads and instead shows real-life scenarios of young women dealing with their periods.”

The hope is that more mainstream companies will adopt similar ideals, ultimately working to collectively end stigmas surrounding menstruation. In the end, perhaps someday, women may not have to whisper about their periods and treat them like they’re secrets.

Watch the Blood Normal campaign video here.