I’m Not a Girl
Why do we call women girls? What makes it acceptable?
When someone says, I met a girl at the office today, nobody flinches. But if you said, I met a boy at work, the first reaction would be, What was a kid doing at the office? Because the word boy calls up an image of a child, but apparently the word girl does not.
My first question is why?
Different dictionaries have different definitions of girl and boy. But if you look at the two definitions from Merriam-Webster below, you will see it appears that they carry equal weight. So why doesn’t society treat them equally?
In Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus, you can find one entry that defines a girl as a young unmarried woman. The synonyms listed can accurately portray the connotation of the word girl, or assumptions that can be made even unconsciously.
In the Learner’s Dictionary, the one I usually refer to when teaching children, there is a note that using the word girl to refer to an adult woman is often offensive, especially when it is used that way by a man. The words listed after “see also” can also help to explain why calling women girls in this day and age is problematic.
Dictionary.com was kind enough to point out that girl is “informal: sometimes offensive” and implies it should only be used on people you are familiar with. Definitely not someone you just met. So why do women accept it?
This isn’t just about me being offended by being called a girl. If that were the case, I would change my perspective and move on. This is a bit more complicated because the words we use to describe people actually defines how we act toward them.
Almost two years ago, Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik shared a video about this very topic. She stated,
“When we use words to describe adult women that are typically used to describe children, it changes the way we view women — even unconsciously, so that we don’t equate them with adult men… In fact, it implies that they’re inferior to men.”
I would never have imagined that by 2020 I would still have to confront people about addressing me as a girl. Girl is a diminutive. Girl is not the equivalent of guy. If you want to argue with that, picture this scenario. A baby is born and the proud parents announce, “It’s a guy!” Nope, even if the word guy doesn’t demand the same level of respect as the word man, you cannot compare it to girl.
Words are powerful. For years women have been fighting for equal rights, equal pay, why haven’t we demanded to be called women? Is it that words are too small or insignificant? That we don’t think words matter? Because they DO matter.
They matter enough that we have started saying, people with disabilities and other people first language because research has shown that using disease first language increases the negative stigma. So what would be different about calling women girls?
So who should I call a girl?
In my opinion, a girl is anyone who identifies as female up until about age thirteen. After that, you may refer to her as a teenage girl, then young woman and then around 18 years old, a woman. There is no reason not to.
If it makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself, Why?
Are you female and uncomfortable calling yourself a woman? Why? Could it be just because it sounds funny since we don’t hear it often? Lots of societal pressures make us fear aging or being matronly, so maybe your aversion to calling yourself a woman comes from attaching some undesirable characteristic to the word. If that feels true for you, dig back in your past and figure it out, share it with the world so other women like you can banish those negative connections, and demand to be called women too.
But how will we accomplish this?
Simple, we stop saying it and we call each other out when we hear it. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
In this video I that I’ve already mentioned, Bialik explains some of the ways she points out to people that they should be using the word woman. She is funny and confident so she pulls it off well.
In my case, I am not so confrontational. I tend to act confused, What girl? Oh, you mean woman? If I have had a few drinks or I am in the mood to have fun, I like to pull out, Who me? I’m not a girl. And see where the conversation goes.
Why is it important?
Women want to be treated equally to men. That doesn’t need any further explanation. In Bialik’s words,
“Maybe if we start using language that elevates women and doesn’t equate them with sweet, small, cuddly, tender things, we’ll start treating them as more than that as well.”