Twenty-first birthdays: the expectation of inebriation

Edgar Walters

I turn 21 today. Considering that it might be the last birthday entitling me to some new legal standing — before I become eligible for Social Security benefits, that is — I was unlikely to forget my special day. But just to be sure, UT sent me two “Happy Birthday Longhorn!” emails, one of which was two weeks premature.

The emails link to a 25-second YouTube video encouraging me to “bust [my] 21st birthday move,” featuring a handful of people inexplicably dancing against the nauseating backdrop of those bare, beige walls one sees in every West Campus apartment. Other friends with recent twenty-first birthdays described receiving slightly different variations of the twenty-first birthday clip from UT, but I received the dancing video both times. I suspect it has something to do with my tendency to receive mistaken medical diagnoses from concerned onlookers as a result of “busting moves” in public, but I’m trying not to take it personally.

One mystifying aspect of the video, which is part of the Know Your Line campaign developed by the University Health Services’ Health Promotion Resource Center, is that it doesn’t actually address the dancing elephant in the room: high-risk drinking. Fortunately, it’s not indicative of unwillingness on the part of the campaign to discuss the issue openly.

In fact, the Know Your Line campaign’s frankness is one of its most appealing qualities. Susan Hochman, manager of the Health Promotion Resource Center and the chair of the UT Wellness Network, says that one of her most important objectives is encouraging more responsible drinking. “Not saying don’t go out and drink, but if you do, know where your line is. The line is, of course, different for everyone.” One aspect of Hochman’s job is addressing celebrations associated with heavy-episodic drinking, like twenty-first birthdays.

For the majority of UT students — those who sit comfortably on the drinking spectrum somewhere in between teetotalers and blackout bros — the campaign reassures and reminds that the University is addressing the realities of alcohol. UT is aware that its students (underage or not) have ready access to alcohol, and that they like to consume it. The campaign is backed by significant data about UT students’ drinking habits, collected in three different surveys. Students on this campus are drinking, and no one’s pretending they aren’t. So what’s special about 21?

As someone who has spent time in countries where I could legally purchase alcohol even five years ago, today’s date lacks much of its significance as a “first step” toward something, aside from invalidating what used to be my best excuse for circumventing the BYOB rule at parties. Many other UT students will have purchased alcohol before they turn 21, either because of similar international experience to mine or a fake ID. It seems unlikely that the opportunity to purchase alcohol is the real enticement behind the celebratory heavy-episodic drinking that UHS has observed among UT students.

Still, there’s clearly some great significance attached to the twenty-first birthday that contributes to our cultural expectations for it. Depending on how cool your boss or professor is, advance warning is often enough to merit an excused absence on your special day, or at least the morning after. It’s also a universally accepted excuse among group project members, as I recently discovered.

In the U.S., a twenty-first birthday marks the much-anticipated end of more than two decades of hearing a loudly stated and often repeated rule: You can’t have this widely enjoyed substance. No wonder one’s twenty-first birthday enjoys legendary status. If nothing else, your special day presents the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to head to Trudy’s, order a Mexican martini, and upload an Instagrammed photo with an ironic caption about your “first taste of alcohol.”

The significance may be particularly emphasized at UT because of its reputation as a party school. Despite evidence indicating that the reputation may be increasingly out of touch with reality — UT just dropped out of the Princeton Review’s top ten party schools for the first time in five years — the cultural expectation of a thirsty twenty-first often extends off campus to high school friends, many of whom want to be regaled with stories from their friend who goes to “that crazy state school.”

The Know Your Line campaign reassures students that it’s okay to resist those expectations. If you don’t want to drink, don’t; if you do want to drink, know your line and approach it responsibly.

Or, if you’re like me and ready to celebrate but have a twenty-first birthday on the Wednesday of a busy week, save yourself the weekday “planning-induced” headache and wait until the weekend to find your happy line, where the naysayers become irrelevant and you can bust that move without inhibition.

Walters is a Plan II junior from Houston.