We often come across women of various ages being referred to as ‘girls’. Though usually said without malice or much forethought, this seemingly harmless habit can have complex and often grave implications for women and on the quest for the empowerment of women.
The way we use the terms ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ interchangeably doesn’t exist in our usage of the terms ‘boy’ and ‘man’. An adult male is almost never referred to as a boy in a professional, social, or even a casual setting, but when it comes to acknowledging that adult females are women and not girls we tend to overlook it and pretend there barely exists any difference between the terms and what they explicitly and implicitly imply.
When we think of the term ‘man’ we picture a male with complete bodily anatomy, sense of responsibility, control over his life, someone who is reasonable, capable of making important decisions and someone who is capable of critical thinking and possesses a certain degree of intellectual prowess.
As far as the term ‘boy’ goes, we picture a child, because of this very clear distinction between who a boy is and who qualifies as a man. We easily accept that all adult males are men and not boys and calling them the latter will be considered offensive in most settings, but this distinction and the necessity to use the proper term seems to be lost by the time the discussion shifts to women. It’s considered acceptable in almost all types of settings including professional ones to call women of varying ages ‘girls’.
This rather trivial mistake in language usage might seem inconsequential to most people but it is not. It not only has negative effects on the lives of individual women but also on the entire cause of women.
Referring to an adult woman as a girl infantilises her. Calling an adult woman a girl promotes the idea that women are childish, overly-emotional, thus bad at making sound practical decisions, that they are incapable of taking up responsibility or being in complete control of their lives, just like a child. This furthers the idea that women ‘need’ someone to ‘take care’ of them because essentially they are still children. When we call an independent woman a girl we disregard everything she has accomplished by essentially saying she is childlike.
Also, the usage of the term ‘girls’ for women is a clear testimony to our obsession with wanting women to be young and youthful. Women are told they are desirable only if they fit the mould of the young, ‘beautiful’ woman and are also socially encouraged to ‘preserve’ their youth for as long as possible. The very idea of older women having a libido or having sexual desires is considered gross by us. We only allow women who are young to be sexual beings. This also contributes to our need to call women girls, because girls are the only ones that fit our cultural idea of what a woman should be.
This also sexualizes women. The image of the young, innocent girl as an object of sex is all over the media and pop-culture today. In most Eastern cultures women are expected to be child-like, innocent, and submissive to be appealing to men. The idea is to pretend that grown women are essentially girls that are child-like and naïve, thus an object of sex and perfect for the male gaze. It inevitably leads us to see real girls usually in their late teens in the same light as well.
This also leads to toxic attitudes towards women in the workplace. It creates an atmosphere where there exist working ‘girls’ and powerful ‘men’. When we constantly infantilise working women, we inevitably create an atmosphere where they cannot be equal to their male colleagues who aren’t seen as boys but the soon-to-be part of the who’s who of the corporate world.
Another issue that the constant infantilising of women brings about is in the sphere of dating and relationships. She is always his ‘girl’ but he is always her ‘man’. We never hear women talking about their ‘boys’ or men talking about their ‘women’. It is always girls and men. When a man is in a relationship with a girl it automatically makes him her protector. When we infantilise women in the realm of romantic relationships and dating we are essentially saying they are helpless, hapless, naïve, emotional, and beings of inferior intellectual and ‘worldly’ abilities who need protection by their ‘men’, just like parents protect their boys and girls.
Though calling an adult male a boy would make most people very uncomfortable, referring to an adult woman as a woman instead of a girl is what makes most people uncomfortable.
A version of this article also appeared here.