When Girls Become Women

How do we know when to stop saying “girls” and start saying “women” to describe females?

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By Richard Boehmcke

For the majority of my life, I have been saying “girls”. Any female my age or younger was a girl. It wasn’t a deliberate act to denote girls vs women, youth vs adult. It was just what I had always done. Women were those females considerably older than me. Why? I’m not really sure.

Generally, we do what we’ve always done. Girls was the term I used throughout high school and college. And while I probably should have stopped referring to my peers as girls at some time, I didn’t.

The same way I didn’t immediately feel like an adult when I left college. The same way I didn’t wake up one day and instantly feel the transition from boy to man. My perception of the age I am and feel has never quite matched the language others might have used to describe me.

It is easy to blame our culture for not having a clear marker of when boys and girls become women and men. However, relying on our culture to tell us when and how to mature is lazy and insufficient. Waiting for a culture to give you permission to evolve is a great way to never evolve at all. More often our culture evolves because we have decided we ourselves need to, and thus our culture had no choice but to follow along.

What has also become abundantly clear is the male gender doesn’t face the same binary description females do. We are given the catchall, the magically flexible and almost always applicable term “guys.” We talk about the “guys we grew up with,” or “a guy from work.” It is both colloquial and folksy as well as a veritable no-mans-land.

We do substitute guys with boys when there is a playful nature in the way we talk about other males. The devil-may-care, wink and playful nudge at responsibility in how we refer to “The boys.” Going out with the boys? Yes. A guys night? Great. A men’s night? Going out with the men tonight? Not quite. We rarely use “men” in the same way. Despite your stance on your own adulthood, there is no denying the language of delayed adolescence is abundant.

The same way adulthood can seem perpetually out of reach, viewing ourselves as men as opposed to guys or boys can feel foreign. It often feels like those who definitively proclaim their manhood are doing so in a manner that is insufferable, braggadocious like they are compensating for a lack of confidence.

So we are boys and girls as children. We are men and women as adults. And in between, there should be terms of parity, yet there aren’t. The most obvious equal to guys is perhaps gals.

I can only ever remember hearing two people say it in my entire life. The first is my father. As we would sit around the dinner table and talk about our respective days, he would often reference “this gal in accounting or “a gal over at our distributor.”

I knew what he meant. But since it was my father saying it, I thought it was perhaps a dated reference. Something from his youth that had fallen out of favor like “hip” or “snazzy.”

The only other person I ever heard say it is my friend Kelsey. She is from the midwest, which (if you try) can explain a lot of things people from that part of the country do. But coming out of her mouth it always sounds classy. Even the way you have to hold your mouth to form the word has a lightness to it.

But even the minimal amount of reading I’ve done about the subject is enough to let me know not everyone agrees with the term. I don’t know if it will gain traction anytime soon. It is not my goal to solve the problem here, but the problem of parity still remains.

When we call women “girls,” we infantilize them. We treat them as less-than. We revoke their adulthood, their experience, and their value. It is not just semantics. Regardless if it is unintentional, it makes it no less unacceptable. What we call each other matters. Truly.

Changing our language requires paying attention. That is hard. Especially without the signposts along the road of life telling us when to change direction. Now that I have heard the ubiquity of it in my own language, I can’t unhear it. I am also now noticing the way I regularly say “you guys” to denote a group of people.

Finding acceptable alternatives to that term is difficult. I found a wonderful and hilarious list of alternatives to “You Guys” in my reading which included such winners as “chums,” “squad” and “mortals.” Again, I doubt any of these will take off.

This isn’t about what women must be called. We all have names we do and do not like. The debate of guys, gals, and you guys is not new. We will all perceive pronouns and titles differently. We will not avoid offending everybody. But we can be honest and open-minded with our language so we are not just talking at people, but to them. This is only part of the equation. We are still just learning as a society how to respectfully refer to people who are transgender.

It can be easy to dismiss this all as PC bullsh*t, as I’m sure many will. But this isn’t about being politically correct. This is about being personally respectful. We should have a say as to what we are called.

I am without enough insight to end this piece with an edict other than “pay attention and try harder.” In the meantime, I will continue trying out new terms to see what garners the best result.

I’m not sure how the mortal females in my life will respond.

This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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