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Midwest college students commemorate 21st birthdays with 'shot books'

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 | 1:02 p.m. CST
MU junior Courtney Schmiemeier with her 21st birthday shot book in the lounge of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. Schmiemeier's friends and family created the scrapbook filled with memories of their lives together as a symbol of friendship, not just a night of drinking.

COLUMBIA — From a baby's first steps to high school graduation, scrapbooks provide friends and loved ones a way to preserve cherished memories. In some college towns in the Midwest, scrapbooks are also used to chronicle a far more ominous rite of passage: bar-hopping drinking binges, one alcohol shot at a time.

They're called "shot books" and often are used to commemorate 21st birthdays, with one shot for every year represented.

"It's a real tradition here," said Ken Sher, a Missouri psychological sciences professor who studies alcohol abuse among college students.

Shot books are made by and for women almost exclusively, especially in sororities, according to Sher and other experts. The keepsakes come bedecked with photos, drink names, bar locales and progressively sloppier signatures — visual reminders of a night of excess few could recall on their own.

Those who study the phenomenon say it's primarily a Midwestern ritual, though it has popped up elsewhere. There are online "how-to" guides offering step-by-step instructions, and YouTube videos chronicling such events.

Giselle Paris, 22, a sorority member at Missouri State University in Springfield, called 21st birthday scrapbooks an ingrained part of Greek life on campus at her southwest Missouri school.

"I see it almost every weekend here," she said.

Paris, a senior from Kansas City, described an all-day event on her birthday that began with a "wake-up shot" at 9 a.m. and included regular meals, snacks and even a pre-dinner nap before the binge concluded 15 hours later.

"I'm sure it sounds dangerous," she said. "It's evidence that we condone binge drinking."

At MU, junior Courtney Schmiemeier of St. Louis said her shot book is more about cherished memories than drunken misbehavior. The English major even invited her mother along for the party — and Mom accepted.

"I'm going to be proud of it forever," she said. "It's not so much the drinking. I have pages showing all of my good friends."

Alcohol counselors say the shot books not only encourage risky behavior but also expose bar owners and employees — who are sometimes included in the photos — to legal consequences should the birthday drinker get sick from alcohol poisoning or even die.

"They're putting themselves in such a vulnerable position, liability-wise," said Kim Dude, assistant director of the Wellness Resource Center at Missouri.

"If this person ends up dying of alcohol poisoning, that picture is being taken at your bar. ... Now you have written proof of your role in the ceremony."

According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol-related deaths among U.S. college students rose from 1,440 deaths in 1998 to 1,825 in 2005 — a 27 percent increase. The numbers include traffic-related deaths.

For 21st birthday party drinkers, successfully finishing 21 shots is less important than making the effort, said Clayton Neighbors, a University of Houston psychology professor. His research shows that fewer than 10 percent of those who attempt to reach that threshold actually do.

"Most of them don't make it," he said. "If you get 21 shots down without throwing up, you're going to be in the hospital, or dead."

Video diaries of 21 shots are as accessible as the nearest YouTube link, Neighbors pointed out. Creating permanent reminders of the birthday ritual can only heighten the risk, he said.

"They have a blank scrapbook and think they have to fill it up," he said. "Anytime other people are making a big deal about the celebrant having 21 shots, it creates a lot of pressure."

Paris said the drinking game is about participation, not pressure. Failing to reach 21 shots is no cause for scorn — but for some, she said, that level of excess is merely a starting point.

"I have friends who don't make it to 21, and I have some who've made it to 50," she said.


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