What You're Really Doing When You Refer To Women As Girls

A girl is young, cute, flippant, naive, playful. A woman is grounded, mature, adult, capable.

A girl is young, cute, flippant, naive, playful. A woman is grounded, mature, adult, capable.

This article first appeared on Mamamia and has been republished with permission. 

Oh, how I pity the poor person learning the English language.

A veritable booby-trap of confusion in regards to spelling, pronunciation, and meaning; the majority of the English language makes no bloody sense. As J. Gustave White pointed out, “Our language is funny — a ‘fat chance’ and a ‘slim chance’ are the same thing.”

But one slip up is all of our own doing, and has been called out by actress and neuroscientist, Mayim Bialik: Stop calling women ‘girls.'

In a passionate video uploaded by Bialik to her Facebook page, she puts forth the argument that whether we recognise it or not, using the term ‘girl’ for a grown woman can have seriously detrimental effects. And with the video on 7.8 million views and counting, clearly she has struck a nerve.

“I’m going to be annoying right now, because I want to talk about something that a lot of people don’t want to talk about,” says Bialik as she opens the video.

“Sorry folks, I have to do this: we have to stop calling women, girls. Why? Because it matters what we call people. Language matters. Words have meaning! And the way we use words changes how we see things in our mind.”

The Big Bang Theory actress has a PhD in neuroscience, and references the ‘Sapir Whorf’ theory in her video, which is a theory that suggests that the structure of a language affects the speaker’s understanding of the world around them. That is, the way we refer to things, and the emotional response it evokes.

Like she says, “…it’s science.”

It’s unlikely most women would be offended being referred to as a ‘girl’ by women she’s close to, or close in age to. “I’m having dinner with the girls,” or, “that girl has great shoes” is a pretty standard way to refer to someone. Most of us would refer to a woman as a girl on the daily.

But what if it’s an older male calling you a girl? Or even a peer?

Introducing a colleague as “the new girl”, or referring to a group of women as “the girls” can feel demeaning and patronising. Using the term ‘girl’ for a grown woman can be a submissive term, with the intention of making someone feel inferior or subjugated.

So with so much difference in the meaning between the two uses, maybe it IS a good idea to drop it altogether?

Being a ‘woman’ has a wildly different weighting than being a ‘girl.'

A girl is young, cute, flippant, naive, playful. A woman is grounded, mature, adult, capable. Two very different stages in the life of a female, and ones that should be separated out. Girl, boy. Woman, Man.

“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 are inferior to men,” says Mayim.

“Even if that’s not what most people intend, words have an impact on our unconscious.”

I know what you’re thinking: wow, another set of eggshells to walk on in the ongoing battle of feminist semantics! And I get it. Calling your circle of friends “the girls” couldn’t feel more affectionate, right? But consider for a moment your emotional responses to the words ‘woman’ and ‘girl’, and see which you prefer.

Imagine, that one day, the process of growing into womanhood was defined clearly as such.

Childhood was something you grew out of. Adulthood was something you were welcomed into: a world of equality, self-confidence, control, and responsibility. Not to be boxed back into girlhood by anyone, at any time.

There are many factors to the feminist fight, and multiple frontiers being fought. From equal pay to inequalities in how we dress, raise families, work, and view our bodies; maybe redefining ourselves as women, not girls, is a great place to start.

Leave girl power with the Spice Girls, I reckon — and embrace the almighty Womanhood!

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