"I took my first drink because my best friend offered it to me. I took it because I was looking for a way to bond with her."
This is how it all began—in eighth grade—for Koren Zailckas, author of Smashed: The Story of a Drunken Girlhood (Viking, 2005). Looking back through years of binge drinking, near-death, and subsequent sobriety at age 23, Zailckas clearly remembers what life was like for her at age 14, “bored and unhappy,” and for other girls who were starting to drink. “Girls in middle school are so insecure about their appearance and looking for acceptance,” she says. “You're trying on so many different roles at that age.” The “drinker/party girl” role can be a particularly irresistible role for girls, one that’s constantly glamorized in media aimed at girls.
Destructive drinking may be the future for many more girls. Girls now surpass boys in alcohol use rates, a federal survey of 70,000 households with 12- to19-year-olds conducted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy reported in 2006. In 2004, an estimated 1.5 million girls began drinking, compared to 1.3 million boys. (Girls surpassed boys in marijuana, cigarette, and prescription drug use as well.) Sixteen percent of 13- to15-year-old girls drink, as do 30% of girls ages 16 to18, reports another survey sponsored by the Century Council, a group of leading alcohol producers.
And while most parents in several surveys say they don’t think their underage child is drinking, one in four parents in an American Medical Association survey say they’ve given their 13- to 18-year-old alcohol. Across the board, more girls than boys report being able to get alcohol illegally.
A girl who drinks is at greater risk than is a boy, and not just because of tarnished reputation, sexual misconduct, unwanted pregnancy, or sexually transmitted disease. The way the female body processes alcohol makes girls more susceptible to alcohol poisoning, hepatitis B, liver and heart disease, says AMA president J. Edward Hill. Drinking can also affect menstrual cycles and fertility.
Why are girls today more interested in alcohol than they used to be? Girls start getting messages that drinking is normal and glamorous at very young ages, says Colby College gender researcher Lyn Mikel Brown, author with Sharon Lamb of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes (St. Martin’s, 2006). Toys like Bratz dolls and My Scene Barbie feature pool- and bar-side drinking scenes; alcohol use suffuses the reality shows popular with girls; and movies and TV programs that preteen girls like such as “Seventh Heaven” and “Gilmore Girls” air with alcohol ads. Companies producing videos and films popular with girls sometimes receive payment for appearances of alcohol products in the shows.
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