Are you a girl or a woman? And does it matter?

Earlier this week I was challenged for using the word ‘girl’ to refer to a female pedestrian who was clearly over the age of 18. It was something to do with giving directions – won’t bore you with the details – but I referenced this person, whom I’d put in her early twenties, as an indication of distance.

To be corrected got my back up. It seemed petty but I shrugged it off, agreed that ‘yes’, she was a woman, sent my antagonist on a wild goose chase (joke) and continued with my day. That is until later when I thought some more about it. At 37, I am technically a woman but I won’t raise a brow at being referred to as a ‘girl’ or ‘one of the girls’ myself. Perhaps it’s just me savagely clinging to my youth but, collectively, it’s what I call my friends, my sisters, even colleagues for whom the line blurs. With figures of authority or in the working environment I might tread carefully (nothing set my teeth on edge more than the intern who insisted upon ‘babe-ing’ everyone she came in contact with – including the editor), but generally speaking if you girl me up and are someone I’d share a wine with, I won’t object. I don’t expect everyone to agree but, for me, it’s a term of endearment. It implies familiarity so, on that basis maybe my labelling of the stranger was wrong – I didn’t know her after all.

Me (bottom centre) and my ‘girls’… can’t imagine calling them my ‘women’

Naturally, I consulted Google for a steer on the rules and some wider opinion. One argument goes: we shouldn’t be calling ourselves ‘girls’ as adults, under any circumstance, because it has infantile connotations. It’s patronising. It’s demeaning. And sexist. According to Carmen Rios in an article on the Everyday Sexism website: ‘When we call women “girls,” we’re using the force of language to make them smaller. We resist and deny their maturity, their adulthood, and their true power’.

Now I take the feminist line on most things but this I don’t buy. Surely it’s all about context? Nothing against the word ‘woman’, it’s a great word: authoritative, strong, powerful, serious, but I don’t get the opposite from ‘girl’. Thanks to movements like the Spicegirls’ Girl Power in the nineties or Nastygal Sophia Amoruso’s ownership of the title #girlboss – complete with hashtag – there’s nothing subservient about it. At one time it might have conjured thoughts of pre-schoolers in bunches, but language, over the years, changes, as does our translation. Think how it might have gone down calling your kids ‘little buggers’ in front of your mother-in-law at one point…

Top Left: Mayim Bialik’s Girling Up, t-r: Spicegirls Spice, b-r: Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss, b-l: Lena Dunham’s Girls
But for every Cyndi, Lena and Rose, Blanche, Betty and Sophia (look them up if you’re too young), there’s a Mayim Bialik (Blossom, Big Bang Theory) ready to counter argue why it’s not cool. And while she makes a good case (sort of), I personally think we have bigger battles with pay-gaps and flexible work hours.

I wouldn’t be too keen on a man using it in a boardroom but if advertisers thought enough of us in the 18-65 bracket would be offended at being called girls, we’d never have had the fist pumping campaigns for Boots (Here Come The Girls) or Sports England’s This Girl Can, which incidentally inspired the domain of this blog. If anything, our reclaiming of the word is making it even more desirable. Do you think you’d be seeing every other fashion influencer modelling Mutha.Hood’s Strong Girls Club T-shirt on Instagram if it wasn’t a gang they genuinely wanted to belong to?

Top-left: The Golden Girls, t-r: This Girl Can campaign from Sports England, b-r: Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun, b-l: Boots’ Here Come The Girls

Of course, not all phrases containing ‘girl’ are flattering and maybe that’s where some of the objection comes from – like when girly’ is seen as derogatory or it’s substituted for the word wimp. Incidently, if I ever heard someone being scoffed at for ‘throwing like a girl’, I would take whatever it was being thrown and sling it right into the critic’s mouth to show them exactly how girls can throw.

Bialik says grown men don’t say ‘boys’, and this is where I think her argument falls down. Maybe in America where ‘guys’ is the colloquialism, it’s used less, but here in the UK my husband calls his mates ‘boys’ – they have ‘boys’ nights out, sometimes he refers to his colleagues as ‘the boys from work’ – even the ‘old boys’ get a nod, so it transcends age and isn’t a one-sided thing.

But just as he wouldn’t ‘boy’ every situation, neither would I ‘girl’. You get a feel for when it’s appropriate, but I like to have a choice, and isn’t that what real feminists are in favour of?

I hadn’t thought to be offended by the use of ‘girl’ until it was pointed out. I’m still not, but I am genuinely interested in what you think. Does it jar or make you uncomfortable to be tarred with the stick?

If someone called me a ‘lady’ I’d probably look over my shoulder to see who they were talking to, but that’s another conversation altogether. No. As long as Beyoncé is declaring it to be girls who run the world, that’s a camp I’m more than happy to have a foot in.

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Lyndsey Gilmour

Lyndsey Gilmour is an entertainment and lifestyle journalist. She's also a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, feminist and ex-procrastinator.

6 thoughts on “Are you a girl or a woman? And does it matter?”

  1. Yes, I’m not a big fan of girl when applied to grown women. It seems belittling somehow. And when women use it to describe themselves it seems like they’re just belittling themselves before the men get a chance to do it. But then don’t get me started on grown women using “the boy” to describe their other half. Barfaroonie!

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  2. Ah, now I am firmly in the girl camp. Think it’s mainly due to me being immature but I don’t really like being called a woman, and I’m 41! It makes me feel old. Some fab pics on this post too. I’ve just read Girl Boss – isn’t she brilliant?!

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    1. Ah thanks Rachel. It’s really divided people this one, and that’s fine, but I’m not going to be offended by something just because I’m told to be. And I’m totally with you, only half way through Girl Boss but she is fab!

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