Odd Woman Out

Aymann Ismail talks to a female Air Force officer about what happens when she no longer wants to drink like “one of the guys.”

Photo illustration of a hand holding a bottle of liquor toward an open trash can.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail talks to Claire, a female Air Force officer who quit drinking but worries about its impact on her social and professional lives, which in the military can be showing you can hold your alcohol. Aymann and Claire discuss why male-dominated spaces often valorize heavy drinking—and what happens if you break that code. This transcript of their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: Tell me about the moment that you decided that you didn’t want to drink. What’s your reasons for that?

Claire: Initially it started as a health fitness goal, I suppose. But what really made me quit is I realized that I was looking more forward to the alcohol at events and the drinking, and drinking with people specifically, than I was the event itself. Or I would go to concerts or events or museums and we would drink a lot, and I’d wake up the next morning and realize that I kind of missed what I was supposed to be there for because we were having so much fun drinking and paying attention to that.

I think the big thing for me, the day I decided, OK, something’s really gotta change, is when there was sort of a going-away party for me as I was getting ready to move. I was going to catch a flight the next day to go take care of some stuff before I completely moved, and my friends convinced me to stay out so late, and I was very, very intoxicated and I almost missed my flight. I woke up with 45 minutes to spare before my flight took off, and I still hadn’t packed or anything yet either. And so I was rushing through the airport, crazy, probably still a little drunk, a little hungover, just that awful stage, and I was on the airplane in that tiny little bathroom throwing up, telling myself like, Hell no! I can’t do this anymore.

Aymann: That sucks.

Claire: It did. I did make the flight, though. There was a happy ending for that, and on that flight I was like, all right, I’m done drinking. I gotta quit. And then as soon as I showed up to my friend’s house, he was like, “Hey, I got your favorite beer. It’s in the fridge.” And yeah, fast-forward a few more months and then I stopped drinking.

Aymann: He got you with the favorite beer.

Claire: I know.

Aymann: How do you get along with people in your unit or people outside of that?

Claire: You know, going out to eat, going to movies, kind of spending time, that helps. But it wasn’t really till I stopped drinking that I realized how much of a main course the drinks are.

Aymann: Yeah. What’s difficult about socializing with them without drinking?

Claire: It hasn’t been too difficult yet because I’m still in the same place as I was when I was drinking. They’ve known me in both scenarios. I already kind of broke those walls down and got my in. But oftentimes, that’s kind of how you do the icebreakers, or that’s how you bond after a hard day or something. We’ll all just go out and get a drink or something.

I’m just worried about when I have to move to a new unit, to a new base, how to break those walls down. Because everyone gets a little social anxiety, so it’s just easier to bond over the prescribed, like, “Oh, let’s just go out for a drink, fill in the blank right there.” So I’m more worried about when I move and change units in a new place where I know absolutely no one as opposed to here, where I already knew people after I decided to stop drinking.

Aymann: What are you afraid of? What could go wrong?

Claire: I don’t think anything bad can come from not drinking. However, I think it’s going to put me outside of my comfort zone when it comes to how I manage my social life and expectations of other people. And it’s going to make me kind of reevaluate what I actually enjoy, what I actually want to do, how I interact with other people. Like if they’re drinking, you know, is it going to actually bother me? Do I want to put myself in that situation? It’s going to cause me to reevaluate some things that I’m used to, and it’s going to be in an environment that I have never been in with people I don’t know. While it’s kind of exciting, it’s definitely going to be tricky, I think.

Aymann: Do you feel any kind of pressure to be one of the guys?

Claire: Absolutely. Yeah. Something I’ve noticed is how guys treat other girls that are very girly and really feminine and stuff like that. It’s like they kind of go stupid and they forget how to talk to girls, and they forget that that’s a co-worker and one of their sisters in arms, so to speak. And girls kind of have to be extra tough and extra thick-skinned to make sure that they have that respect.

Aymann: So I wonder how much of that influences your choices. Does this factor into whether or not you wanted to quit drinking?

Claire: Kind of. What the guys do socially isn’t really held against them professionally as it is with women. Now, that’s not completely true if a guy does something terrible. Obviously, that’s going to be brought up. But just typically with the behavior, especially if there’s drinking involved, the guys can go out and party and act like total morons and be ridiculous. But if a girl does that, that’s going to carry over into the next workday, where that’s what they’re going to remember about her.

Now, it is important to have that trust and that vulnerability with your guys and stuff, but it’s a double standard that you see in a lot of areas of work and life, where what the female does is just completely held under the microscope and heightened, whereas whatever the guy does isn’t as questioned.

Aymann: It sounds like, if anything, the fact that you are a woman meant to you that you couldn’t drink as socially as some of the other guys in your company.

Claire: It’s a weird fine line between having to be able to outdrink them all and win their respect in that sense, but still be able to lock it up. It’s like we have to be 200 percent in every single aspect that we present ourselves as, whereas they can get by with a measly 50 percent or 75 percent.

But I think something that really does impact it too is that the guys get very bro-y and vulnerable when they’re drinking, which is something that I think men still have a lot of trouble with—opening up and being vulnerable—and they can do that if they’ve been drinking. That’s a great excuse. I don’t know, for women, I think we’re just sort of used to being a little vulnerable with ourselves, but we can’t really do that with the guys until we really, really trust them and they trust us.

To hear the entire episode, subscribe to Man Up on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Look for the episode “What You Lose When You Don’t Drink.”