Originally published in The Guardian

Louise Delage was briefly Instagram famous in 2016 – forever ago in internet years, so you may need a quick refresher on who she was.

Delage was a young, beautiful, Parisian Instagram it-girl with more than 100,000 followers at her peak, continually posting photos of herself at rooftop parties or aboard yachts in late summer, hair tousled, and always, always, with a drink in hand.

She was also not real – at least, not exactly.

“Delage”, played by an actor, was a fictionalized social media star created by the French addiction support agency Addict’Aide in a campaign to raise awareness of alcohol addiction and how deceptively glamorous it can look, especially when filtered through social media. Delage may have been a fabrication, but the fact that the campaign was so successful (it won 17 Lions at Cannes in 2017) had much to do with just how closely she resembled the real influencers whose cocktail-filled lives many follow and covet.

Most trends turn over quickly, but drinking – from mimosas at brunch to post-work beers – has always been portrayed as the ultimate way to have a good time . Conversely, not drinking seems somewhat suspect; abstaining is often interpreted as a tacit indication that you struggle with alcoholism, itself historically stigmatized and kept private, or that you’re just a virtue-signaling teetotaler who doesn’t know how to have fun.

Yet recently, a shift has begun. Enter the “sober curious”: those who drink less or not at all,and broadcast their abstinence with pride as a part of their social media personas.

Ruby Warrington, 43, is a British writer and founder of alcohol-free event series Club Söda NYC. She is also the leading voice of the sober curious movement, whose rationale is that most everyone could benefit from stepping back to honestly appraise their relationship with booze.
Warrington suggests bringing a “questioning mindset to every drinking situation, rather than go along with the dominant drinking culture”. She wants to nudge people to critically evaluate the subconscious ways in which drinking is socially expected of us, regardless of whether our behavior seems overtly “problematic”.

“There’s this idea that you’re either a problem drinker or an alcoholic, or a normal drinker who has no issues with alcohol. More and more we’re seeing there are shades of grey when it comes to dependence on alcohol,” says Warrington.

The idea that problematic drinking can be assessed on a curve is more than an observation, it’s medical science. Alcohol use disorder encompasses a spectrum ranging from mild to severe, explains Dr George Koob, director of the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“Abstaining from alcohol is a good way of assessing whether you have a problem with alcohol in the first place,” adds Koob. “If you feel better when you’re not drinking, the Oracle of Delphi is telling you something.”

In her recent book, Sober Curious, Warrington says reduced alcohol intake“is the next logical step in the wellness revolution”, underscoring the absurdity of a day filled with yoga and greens being followed by a night of pummeling one’s liver at the bar. The sober events Club Söda NYC hosts, such as a “Kundalini Disco” or panel discussion on “psychedelics and sobriety”, are also firmly aligned with new age and wellness trends.

And people on Instagram, such as the London-based “mindset coach” Africa Brooke and “stylishly sober” fashion blogger Katie Brunsdon, increasingly champion alcohol-free living, their feeds conveying the message that it’s hip not to drink.

While having a cool life may once have meant getting in at 5am and sleeping with your makeup on, today’s luxury looks more like having a chic “spirit-free” beverage, leaving the party at its peak, completing your nighttime skincare routine in full, and getting a good sleep so you’re ready for a productive morning.

And yet, to consider sobriety a trend akin to the paleo diet is reductive, glossing over the underlying reasons many develop unhealthy relationships with alcohol in the first place – such as trauma, issues with anxiety and depression, or simply because alcohol is highly addictive and a go-to social lubricant. Abstaining from drinking may be trendy for some, but for the one in eight Americans who have alcoholism, it can mean life or death.

Warrington agrees. “Talking about sobriety as a trend is not OK. The point of sober curious is to differentiate between those of us who have the privilege to be sober curious and perhaps dabble [in alcohol] here and there, and those for whom drinking and alcohol is a mortal danger.”
So how do the sober serious feel about the sober curious? And is the recasting of abstinence as aspirational at all helpful to those in recovery?

Laura McKowen, 41, a blogger who began sharing her experiences of recovering from alcohol abuse on Instagram in 2014, says: “It is a beautiful thing that this conversation about sobriety has become big and that people are talking about it on social media.”

Yet given the intensity of her own struggle to get sober, McKowen can’t help but feel skeptical of influencer accounts that make quitting alcohol “seem like an Instagram filter”.

“For me, sobriety was the most difficult thing I have ever gone through and still is,” adds McKowen. She worries that sobriety influencers, if they’re not careful, can give people “this perception, especially if they’re early on and they’re struggling, that they should feel better and they should look better. And that’s a problem.”

Sophie, 33, who prefers to withhold her last name for privacy as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, is one of several people behind sobriety Instagram meme account @fucking_sober, known for its dark humor centered on alcohol abuse recovery.

Aside from a “fevered couple months” when she first stopped drinking, Sophie never took comfort in overtly positive, wellness-oriented messaging around sobriety. Rather, it was being able to acknowledge and laugh at “the fears some of us have about being sober, that our life’s going to be boring, that we’ve joined a cult”, that she gravitated towards, “because it’s just such a relief to be able to laugh about the darkest times in our lives”.

People on social media who focus on the sunniness of sobriety may not resonate with those recovering from alcohol abuse, but their message that life is enjoyable without drinking could be contributing to younger generations’ disinclination to begin drinking at all.

“We have data showing a straight line decline of underage drinking in the United States over the last 10 years, and if the sober curious movement is contributing to that, that’s fantastic,” says Dr Koob. “But you don’t want to be treating serious alcohol use disorder with that.”

Dr Carrie Wilkens, co-founder and director of the Center for Motivation and Change in New York, which specializes in motivational and cognitive-behavioral treatments for alcohol use disorders, agrees. “I think anything that makes it easier for people to talk about changing their relationship with alcohol is great,” she says.

“The CMC started 15 years ago saying that people didn’t need to use labels, didn’t need to call themselves an alcoholic just to decide to change, that they didn’t need to go to AA, that there’s lots of ways to be sober, so the fact that’s now in social media that you can make behavioral changes for all sorts of reasons and ways, I think that’s fantastic,” she says. “If [sobriety] turns into a trend where people are more sober than not, our health costs in this country will also go down dramatically, so that will be a good thing,” she adds.

Sober influencers and projects like sober curious will never be alternatives to seeking medical help for addiction. But they can encourage critical thinking from the casual drinker, asking us to consider, and maybe even dismantle, the societal expectations and calcified habits that lead us to reach for a drink whenever the opportunity presents itself. Cheers to that.

© Adrienne Matei 2017