{the life} “Girls” vs. “Women”

by Rachel on April 6, 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the terms “girls” and “women” — specifically, I’ve been trying to figure out how people use these words and why.

For most of my life, I’ve referred to myself and my female friends as “girls” and to my male peers as “boys” (through high school) and then “guys” (college and beyond). I used the term “women” sometimes — sorority nationals always referred to us as “sorority women” and “college women” so I got in the habt there, and I talk about “women’s magazines” and “women’s health” without even thinking about it — but in general, I still used the term “girl” regularly. Sometimes it’s just easier to say “girl” (“girlfriends” rolls off the tongue better than “womenfriends” or “ladyfriends”) but other times it’s because I still think of myself and other females in their twenties as, well, girls.

And that doesn’t seem quite right. I really don’t think we’re girls anymore. And yet “women” often feels like something that other — older — people are…until I remember that five years ago, I probably called a 26-year-old female a woman rather than a girl.

So what are the standards we use to decide when people transition from “girls” to “women”? I’ve been thinking about it and trying to figure out what the markers of adulthood are in our culture today, and, quite honestly, I’m stuck.

Is it getting your period? Perhaps, though that’s happening younger and younger these days and I’m not sure an 11-year-old should be treated like an adult.

Is it turning 18? Could be. That’s when you get the right to vote. Still, though, there are plenty of other things you can’t do at age 18.

Is it going to college? Perhaps, but many college students aren’t self-sufficient and certainly don’t behave like adults.

Is it moving out of your parents’ house and becoming self-sufficient? Maybe, but given the current economy and trends, that might not happen until you’re well into your thirties.

Is it getting married? Could be, but people are getting married later and plenty of people never get married. Is a 35-year old totally self-sufficient female still a girl? I don’t think so.

Is it having kids? [See problems with “Is it getting married?”]

Given the fact that there isn’t a clear-cut official marker of adulthood in our culture, I’m not quite sure when to use the term “women.” But still, I’ve been trying to use it, mainly because I think referring to adult women as girls is problematic. First, it seems to undermine our experiences and maturity. I don’t want to be referred to as a girl at work; I’m a capable adult and should be given the appropriate title that reflects that. Second, the term “girl” seems like a way of excusing our own bad behavior or our lack of responsibility. To me, “girl” implies that I’m young and therefore allowed to be irresponsible. Sometimes when I am thinking about or discussing “girls'” behavior, I remind myself to instead think of this as “women’s” behavior. It’s easy to forgive certain things when it’s children taking part, but when you remind acknowledge that it’s adults behaving irresponsibly, cruelly, unprofessionally, or illegally, it helps me recognize, This is completely unacceptable. I feel like calling myself and my peers “women” helps me raise my standards and expectations.

I’m really curious how other people feel about this and what terms you use to refer to yourself and your peers. Do you use “girls” and “women” interchangeably? Do you think it matters? Let’s discuss!