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Gender Bender

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The bottom line, unfortunately, is don’t start drinking for your health—especially, it turns out, if you’re a woman. “There are huge differences in the way our bodies metabolize alcohol,” says Foster. “Women have less body water and more body fat than men. The water dilutes the alcohol in the bloodstream. The fat retains it. So with equal amounts of consumption, a woman will have more alcohol in her bloodstream, and it will stay in her body longer, even if she is the same size as the guy. Height and weight matter, but these effects transcend.”

The trouble with this is not that women get drunk off less alcohol—which we already knew; it’s that women get addicted with lower levels of consumption and they get addicted faster. One study found that teenage girls whose mothers drank during pregnancy were six times more likely to drink, though there seemed to be no such effect on boys; in another, girls with a family history of alcoholism produced more saliva when exposed to alcohol, indicating increased craving. This matters, since women develop alcohol-related diseases more quickly than men. In July, a study released by the American Heart Association reported that men who drink four or more alcoholic beverages a day may in fact lower their risk of dying from heart disease, but that women who drink the same amount quadruple their risk. Heavy drinkers of both genders raise their risk of death by stroke, but women raise theirs almost twice as much (92 percent versus 48 percent).

For most health concerns, though, there is happily no conclusive evidence that moderate drinking, defined as one or fewer drinks a day (two or fewer for men), poses a serious threat. The only two known areas where that is not the case, however, are both squarely in female terrain. Most women of childbearing years know that alcohol tends to undermine fertility and can damage a fetus before a woman finds out she’s pregnant. But few women are aware of the direct link to breast cancer—the one disease where the risk goes up with any amount of alcohol consumption. Some researchers believe that a woman who has four drinks a day would increase her nongenetic chance of developing breast cancer by 32 percent.

Still, I have to admit that the prospect of a life without any alcohol seems pretty dull. For a woman who chooses to drink, Foster recommends that she try not to exceed the federally recommended maximum of one drink a day—half of that recommended for a man. But the problem with moderate drinking is its darn moderation: True, you don’t get hangovers; but you also don’t get those wild, improbable nights that instill drinking—and life—with the aura of endless, bubbly possibility.

“Do you drink?” I finally ask Foster hopefully.

“I do, yes,” she replies. “But not every day. Feminism doesn’t change biology.”


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