On Instagram, Megan posts selfies while wearing shirts that make reference to something she’s incredibly proud of — her sobriety. The 28-year-old from Texas has been sober for five years, after spending 12 years of her life battling an alcohol addiction. In one photo she is holding up a shirt that says “I’m Never Drinking Again.” In another, she shows off one that reads “Menace to Sobriety,” which she purchased from New Lyfe Clothing, a website that sells recovery-themed clothing items. “I love my life now that I’m sober,” Megan, who goes by the name “inkedfitnessprincess” on Instagram, says. “For me, [wearing the shirts is] showing I’m not ashamed of who I am.”
Along with New Lyfe Clothing, sites like Sober Is Sexy and Recovery Tee Shirts sell tees and tank tops with cute catchphrases, along with other kinds of merch encouraging people in recovery to stay sober. And the trend of sobriety-oriented clothing is growing: As the opioid epidemic ravages the United States — killing 91 people per day — numerous anti-stigma campaigns are launched in the hopes of convincing the public that addiction is not a moral failing. At the same time, shirts that proudly proclaim one’s recovery status or signify its wearer as someone who struggles with addiction are finding footing with the growing numbers of people entering treatment and 12-step programs.
On the surface, they seem inspirational — catchy slogans combined with a sense of pride for overcoming a battle with drug addiction. But as these shirts work to make recovery a source of strength instead of shame, they also indicate larger trends of the epidemic and drug war — especially where race is concerned.
Perhaps the best-known brand of recovery-themed clothing is New Lyfe Clothing, started four years ago by Timothy Stoddart. Stoddart is the man behind Sober Nation, a successful lifestyle website, and he wanted to leverage that audience and success into building an identity around being sober. “I grew up skateboarding and it was an underground, fringe-type culture,” he says. “I was connecting dots between the undergroundness of skating and being in recovery, like you had your own group of people but you didn’t talk about it with anyone else.” Stoddart says he was inspired by the ways that clothing had given skating — and skaters — an identity. “They made brands behind it and you had a ‘look’ — you could be identified as a skater kid. I was like, I bet you can make an identity about being in recovery through fashion.”
Stoddart is in recovery himself, and so he says he had an idea what kinds of messages might resonate with others. “A lot of people who struggle with addiction... want other people to see them in a certain way because they don’t like themselves,” he says. New Lyfe is “the anti that. The message is be free… to be yourself.”
New Lyfe isn’t alone. Sober Is Sexy sells a variety of clothing products with slogans like “The only Coke I do is Diet” and “Heroin killed the radio star.” Their website reads, “Let’s rise up out of the ashes, take the masks off and change the world one t-shirt at a time.” (The company did not respond to request for comment for this article).
Recovery Tee Shirts was started last summer by Joe, who asked his last name be withheld to protect his anonymity in a 12-step fellowship. Joe hopes that his shirts can be “a way to make recovery fun,” he says. “Some have inside jokes that people who are not in recovery might not understand, so I hope [my company] attracts people who are struggling or people who are worried their life won’t be fun anymore” now that they’re sober.
Dismantling some of the stigma that substance users face is important to these brands, and for good reason. The perceived negative association regarding mental illness robs people of rightful employment opportunities and access to independent living and healthcare, says Patrick Corrigan, distinguished professor of psychology at Illinois Institute of Technology and author of 17 books about mental illness. “Interaction and contact is the atomic bomb for dismantling stigma,” Corrigan, says. “If brave people in recovery from substance-use disorder want to wear this and self identify, that is probably the single best way to change stigma in that group.”
But some drug users experience more stigma than others — namely, black and brown people. People of color are more likely to be perceived as having a moral failing, and their addiction is often viewed as a product of their culture and community. They are also likelier to be criminalized for their drug use. While black people and white people report using drugs at comparable rates, black Americans are incarcerated for drug-related offenses at a rate six times higher than their white counterparts, according to the NAACP.
And that’s where some of the most popular designs in these clothing lines become more complicated. A deeper look at these clothing companies reveals something insidious about race, culture, and the way the mainstream has always treated certain kinds of drug users.
Each sells shirts with iconography that is specific to black or hip-hop culture: a T-shirt with a photo of AA founder Bill Wilson wearing a “thug life” bandana over his face like a gang member and a shirt that says “Straight Outta Rehab,” in a play off of N.W.A.’s album “Straight Outta Compton,” sold by Recovery Tee Shirts; a shirt with a photo of AA co-founder Dr. Bob in which he’s wearing gold chains and sunglasses in a reference to Dr. Dre; a shirt featuring a photo of Bill W. next to the words “original gangster” at New Lyfe; a beanie with the words “Sober Gangster” at Sober is Sexy.
The models in most of the product photos on New Lyfe’s and Sober Is Sexy’s sites are white (Recovery Tee Shirts has a fairly diverse set of models), as are the owners of the clothing companies. Not only are the shirts culturally appropriating black culture, they’re encouraging white drug users or former drug users to wear the kind of clothing that black drug users have been criminalized and stereotyped for. The music of N.W.A. was created in a very specific political climate. “Music journalists called it ‘Gangsta Rap,’ after the second single off [N.W.A.’s] 1988 breakthrough album Straight Outta Compton, which was titled ‘Gangsta Gangsta,’” explains Dart Adams, a journalist and rap historian. “Their music gave depictions of life in Compton, California, and South Central Los Angeles, which were under constant police surveillance and police harassment, as the area was ravaged by both the scourge of crack trafficking and abuse and gang warfare, which weren’t brought to the attention of mainstream culture.”
The song “Fuck tha Police” “perfectly encompassed how a great deal of blacks and Latinos in inner-city America felt on a daily basis, but to white America, conservative Christians, law enforcement agencies, and the Republican leadership, N.W.A. became public enemy No. 1,” says Adams. The song’s sentiment is still relevant today, as the war on drugs that began with Richard Nixon, intensified with Ronald Reagan, and became even more rooted in criminalization under Bill Clinton has disproportionately affected communities of color. A Nixon aide recently confirmed that the laws were intended to target black Americans.
The imagery and narrative of drug epidemics throughout the history of this country have always attacked people of color, and they have “been targeted by racialized drug policies for over a century,” says Monique Tula, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. Those affected include groups from the Chinese immigrants characterized as peddling opium dens in the late 1800s to the black men who were cast as demons and devils addicted to cocaine in the ’20s and ’30s to the Mexicans who were associated with marijuana. This is all despite the fact that, for example, some of the first opioid users in this country at the turn of the last century were white women prescribed heroin by their physicians. When the Harrison Act passed in 1914, making it illegal for doctors to prescribe heroin, a whole group of white people was left with opioid addictions, called “high-life drug addicts” at the time by the Washington Post.
The disparities in the way black and white drug users have been treated is incredibly apparent when media and government messaging about the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s is compared to the opioid epidemic of today. When drug addiction was seen as a problem of black communities, it was considered a criminal activity. Users were arrested and locked up at alarming rates, there was public outcry about “crack babies” (a phenomenon that has since been disproved), and people struggling with addiction were shamed and sensationalized on television shows like Cops. Compare that to the messaging about today’s opioid crisis, which affects white Americans in large numbers. Now, addiction is a “disease” and a “public health crisis,” and even police departments are saying we shouldn’t criminalize people for having an addiction, promoting treatment instead of jail.
What does it say about the mainstream recovery movement, then, that shirts that borrow liberally from black culture are so prevalent? Adams explains that the shirts attempt to tap into the “cool factor” or “dangerousness” of blackness as a way to make recovery or AA seem cool as well. But, like white people who listened to gangsta rap in the late 1980s and early 1990s, white people who wear the recovery-themed shirts with this imagery are “reveling in the coolness and danger of gangsta rap without suffering the pain or penalties of it,” explains Adams.
Alcoholics Anonymous itself is overwhelmingly white. In 2014, 89 percent of AA members were white, and just 4 percent were black. Ariana T., an Afro-Latina woman, says she has experienced the erasure of her experiences as a woman of color in the rooms of AA and has distanced herself from the program as a result. Alcoholics Anonymous does have a pamphlet directed at black members. It shares stories from black members about how the program helped them get sober, along with what Ari described as “the equivalent of pointing to your black friend to prove you’re not racist”: a history of blacks in AA that says “as early as 1940,” AA co-founder Wilson “invited two black alcoholics to attend meetings.” The pull quote from the first story from a black person finding sobriety through AA reads, “I can go into any AA meeting, anywhere, and feel at home.” Ari says it’s a nice sentiment, but has not fully lined up with her own experience in the program.
These shirts play on larger cultural patterns of white people co-opting black culture for fun or style, while black people are still criminalized or punished for wearing it, like white people wearing dreadlocks as a fashion statement while black people lose their jobs for doing the same. Just last year, a federal court ruled that employees can be fired for wearing dreadlocks. The Kardashian family has made a living with style stolen from black culture, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner recently came under fire for selling shirts with their faces plastered over images of deceased rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.
Stoddart says that the Bill Wilson “OG” shirt “has always been a bestseller” for New Lyfe Clothing. But both Adams and Ari say the shirts felt like they were created without the input of black or brown people.
Stoddart is not a designer: He hires independent designers to bring his shirt ideas to life. He says he has worked with at least one black designer, but that he did not design his “The Doc Is In” or “Original Gangster” shirts. Stoddart said he “never even thought of” the shirts as potentially being offensive.
Joe designs his own shirts and says he thinks that his Recovery Tee Shirts have the potential to overcome cultural divides and be a unifying force. “I think it’s cool because it’s bridging a gap,” he says. He refers to a line of text in the Big Book, the primary literature of the AA program, that describes members of the fellowship as “people who normally would not mix.”
It is true that the struggle of addiction does not discriminate, and affects people of all races, genders, social statuses, and ages. But it is also true that the consequences for these groups are not comparable. Erasing the stigma of addiction is important, and these shirts can be a big part of that. But it is equally important to be aware of the ways in which oppressive patterns replicate themselves in all areas of culture and society.
Tula thinks it’s great that people want to own the fact that they struggled with addiction and came out on the other side, and that they’re not ashamed of that part of their identity. “But there’s another part that thinks, if you have a black person or brown person who labels themselves in this way,” she says, “wouldn’t that further perpetuate stigma they experience because of their drug use or race already?”