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What’s to Hate About Dry January?

Dry January has helped a lot of people reassess their relationship with alcohol. So why do so many people roll their eyes at it?

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Illustration of a person with long white hair looking at a calendar

My first attempt at Drynuary almost left me without friends. Not because my social circle was so fueled by alcohol that my abstaining could ruin relationships, but because after deciding to stop drinking booze for the duration of January, I suddenly couldn’t shut up about it, making everyone miserable. They could enjoy their mimosas during our New Year’s Day brunch, but I somehow felt like my lack of one needed further explanation. Every time I poured myself a drink, or someone offered to get me one, I specified I was doing Drynuary, and would just be having orange juice, thank you.

In the years since 2006, when John Ore quietly coined the term “Drynuary,” the practice has gained popularity, picking up nicknames like Dry January, Dryuary, and Janopause, even becoming a national movement in the U.K. in 2013. But as with anything that goes mainstream, it also has its critics, with writers like the Awl’s Jim Behrle begging people to “shut up” about it. GrubStreet asked that participants “stop bragging,” and argued that it’s about optics rather than “real behavioral correction.” Vice wrote that it wasn’t all that impressive anyway: “Any idiot can stop drinking for four weeks when they can count down the days from 31 to zero.” And as Kate Taylor at Business Insider said, the practice has become insufferable largely because of the publicness of it all. “Dryuary is not for people wishing to better their lives. It’s for people who wish to publicly better their lives, and inadvertently shame those who continue to indulge in the semi-frequent glass of wine.” (That “inadvertently” is doing a lot of work.)

Despite what critics say, our culture is becoming more aligned with people who want to drink less. Low-ABV cocktails are featured on drink menus, nonalcoholic aperitifs are the latest in cool drinks, and you can say “mocktail” without being laughed out of a bar. It’s partially because the legalization and destigmatization of cannabis have opened the door to a different kind of buzz that in many ways is not as harmful as alcohol.

Some argue that decreased alcohol consumption among millennials and Gen Z is an act of generational rebellion. Young people are “looking for ways to find balance amid today’s global uncertainty, and trying to manage high rates of anxiety and other mental health issues,” says Julia Bainbridge, author of a forthcoming book on nonalcoholic cocktails called Good Drinks. In other words, alcohol, itself a depressant, aggravates anxiety and depression during a time when most of us are already dealing with more than we can handle. According to a YouGov poll of 22,760 people, 20 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are participating in Dry January, compared to 14 percent of people overall.

Criticizing anyone’s sobriety, even when it’s limited to a month, is an irresponsible, dick move, and when people criticize Dry January, it’s usually not the concept of sobriety that irks them: As a piece of pop culture, Dry January intersects with a lot of things that put people on the offensive. There’s the rising popularity of “wellness,” a largely undefinable marketing term that suggests we should always be improving and optimizing ourselves for peak performance. There’s social media, which has changed all aspects of our lives, specifically the way we view and shape ourselves for public consumption (if looking skinny and fresh-faced on Instagram is your goal, no longer drinking is certainly one way to get there). And any talk of sobriety naturally evokes alcohol-use disorder. The stakes feel high.

Culture writer Joshua Rivera has nothing against taking a month off, but thinks doing so in January means “making a change in your social behavior when people historically socialize least, and getting the glow-up from doing a difficult thing without any actual difficulty involved.” Which is to say that instead of creating lanes for alcohol-free socializing, Dry January participants are largely choosing not to socialize at all. Eater restaurant editor Hillary Dixler Canavan enjoys taking months off drinking, but feels like there’s too much “cultural and emotional baggage tied to January,” in a way that makes abstaining from alcohol in January feel like a punishment for the “indulgence” of the December holidays. Both Rivera and Dixler Canavan applaud the idea of taking a “dry month,” and agree that we need more gateways to sober social culture, but Dry January might not be it.

“If someone gets defensive about hearing about someone else’s Dry January, it’s because all of us are all sick of being advertised to,” Dixler Canavan said. “And there’s a bit of that to social media.” It’s often hard to discern what is driving our desires and instincts, from our social media persona to turning down a mimosa at brunch. When I was telling anyone who’d listen that I was doing Dry January, it was at least in part in earnest — I wanted tips from others who had tried it, to explain my non-normative behavior, and come up with small talk. But I was also probably searching for validation and attention. As Dixler Canavan puts it, “Are we able to even make healthy choices anymore without the dopamine hit of people telling us what a good job we’re doing?”

Depending on how one uses alcohol, there are questions as to the health and effectiveness of quitting without outside help. According to Salem Hospital, those with alcohol dependency could risk withdrawal, seizures, and death if they participate in Dry January, and abstaining for a month makes it more likely that someone binges on February 1. In 2012, the British Liver Trust said that even for those without dependencies, it can create a “false sense of security,” and warns the practice becomes more about the destination than the journey, the focus on making it the whole 31 days instead of interrogating the ways alcohol fits into our lives. However, by 2015, public health campaigns seemed to turn in favor of the practice; in 2018, the British Liver Trust came out in support of Dry January, having found that those who abstained in January were still drinking less by August. Other studies have countered the longer-standing claims that it provides no long-term benefits.

Dry January has a chance at being a positive influence on those seeking social support. But even if it is beneficial, it’s being co-opted by more people and brands with their own agendas.

Author Holly Whitaker describes Tempest, an “Online Sobriety School” she founded, as an “accessible, lower-cost, digital program for anyone struggling with alcohol who did not see AA or inpatient as the right solution for them.” Tempest also created the “January Project,” a free online course similar to Dry January, which encourages participants to look at the benefits of not drinking beyond the wellness buzzwords of clearer skin and weight loss. Whitaker doesn’t seem to mind the talk of being “sober curious” as a trend. “Anything that gives people the time and space to re-examine their alcohol use is a blessing,” she says. “Having folks realize that they don’t need to bottom out or lose everything before they decide to re-evaluate their drinking is critical to the work we do.” Dry January fits exactly into that ethos.

However, on Twitter, writer Mikki Halpin criticized Tempest. While the January Project is free, Tempest’s standard courses, which it describes as “either a complement or supplement to other programs and therapies or as a first step towards healing,” cost $547 (Alcoholics Anonymous, by contrast, is free). Whitaker says Tempest’s courses are meant to provide similar services as rehab centers, especially as plenty of rehab centers have been guilty of mistreatment and scamming. Whitaker says Tempest is also cheaper than most rehabs, though at this time Tempest isn’t covered by health insurance. But Halpin argued that for-profit attempts at sobriety just seek to “monetize vulnerable addicts and alcoholics,” and that while AA isn’t perfect, it shouldn’t cost anyone $547 to participate in “hip sobriety,” Tempest’s previous name.

Such criticism is fair and expected as Dry January becomes increasingly monetized, and part of a growing wellness culture that insists personal betterment is all about personal choice. What was once an impromptu project is now an idea to be sold — the first thing I see when I google “Drynuary” is not resources for those with alcohol use disorder or a forum for the sober curious, but an ad for Curious Elixirs, “booze-free craft cocktails” made with organic juice, herbs, and adaptogens. I received press emails for Dry January centered around bars offering more mocktails for the month, CBD and cannabis products to use for a “high January” instead, or alcohol to try once your Dry January is over. Regardless of how it began, Dry January now isn’t just about abstaining; it’s also about buying things, and buying into a concept. And it’s much easier to resent a product you feel is being forced on you and your wallet.

Bainbridge speaks of the “bio-psycho-social model” of addiction: “It’s a multidimensional phenomenon in which biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors interact to produce illness,” and thus all sides need to be addressed. And part of that is the fact that, despite recent “trends,” drinking alcohol is the adult norm. Even if you have no biological or psychological draw toward alcohol, it takes some willpower to abstain when everyone else you know doesn’t.

There aren’t hard numbers on whether or not participants in Dry January identify as having alcohol use disorder, but being aware of someone else’s struggles, via social media or other routes, ideally breeds empathy. And while it’s easy to be cynical about any performative display of wellness, what Dry January can and does do is make everyone more aware of each other and our challenges, whether it’s the annoyance of regularly being the only sober person at a bar with no nonalcoholic options or the more serious realization that one’s habits could be more detrimental than previously thought.

After a quick call on Twitter, I received overwhelmingly positive responses about the Dry January practice. Most echo what Ore wrote in Slate — people lost weight, saved money, slept well, and got to rethink how and why they consume alcohol. But plenty of respondents spoke about how good it felt to know others were in the same boat. A 27-year-old woman, who doesn’t drink in general, said the popularity of Dry January made it easier for her to go unbothered as a sober person, whereas the rest of the year, she’s bombarded with inappropriate questions about whether or not she’s pregnant or in recovery. Though most people who spoke to me said they didn’t consider themselves at risk for addiction or severe alcohol abuse in their lives, some said Dry January was a good check on milder dependent tendencies, and a way to open up conversation with friends. One individual said they have issues with control, “but knowing I can do a month tells me I can also take off the days in between with ease.” And having a project like Dry January to participate in, rather than just stopping of one’s own accord, makes experimenting with that sort of change easier.

I am giving a version of Dry January a shot this year — still drinking but only on the weekends. I’ve been shy about telling people, not wanting to annoy anyone who thinks my behavior is a referendum on theirs, or to imply that this is a capital-C Challenge. But it has made recognize the prevalence of alcohol at every turn, and highlighted how much we need more convenient ways to socialize sober, while not condemning those who choose to drink. It has made me more aware that this is not actually that big of a deal for me, but also grateful that my choice has social precedence with a name. Though the experiences are different, both people in need of deeper help and those who just don’t want to drink for a bit — or for forever — can find the community they want without shame and scrutiny. Dry January feels like it could be part of that future, if everyone just let it be.

Wenting Li is an illustrator in Toronto who never skips dessert.

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