Are We Girls or Women?

Recently, I was talking to a woman, probably in her late thirties, who was totally surprised that my friends and I ever call ourselves girls. She said that, for her generation, college marked the beginning of ‘womanhood’ and they called each other ‘women,’ even when it didn’t quite fit, until they finally grew into the title.

As I listened to her, something seemed off. It feels like there’s gravity to the word ‘woman’ that I don’t always feel. When I do grown-up things—get a paycheck, care for a newborn, put on a classy, curvy dress—then I feel like a woman.

But I don’t do grown-up things all the time, and I don’t always feel like a woman. Sometimes I laugh so hard I pee my pants, or have a nightmare and need someone to cuddle with me. And when I go out with my girlfriends, I go ‘out with the girls.’ Not ‘out with the women’ or ‘out with the ladies,’ just casually ‘out with the girls.’ So Carrie Bradshaw.

I find myself, most of the time, somewhere in-between where I feel grown up but youthful.

It occurred to me that men get a word for this in-between. Men older than 18 would never be referred to as boys (except with a stab of sarcasm). Sometimes they are called men, or young men, but most of the time they’re ‘guys.’ They go from boys to guys to men. And despite all their heel-dragging, they do get to move out of boyhood.

As women, we often lament how much faster we mature than men, but we keep referring to ourselves as girls, offering no distinction between our 25-year-old and 9-year-old selves. We go straight from girls to women. But when? Where is our youthful adult in-between? Where is our “guy” stage?

The words we have for ourselves seem to convey a feeling, or a measure of how youthful we feel in that moment. We may not ever be exclusively girls or women, but we seem to be missing a chunk of our vocabulary. Maybe we should come up with a word that lets us be grown-ups without having to always be women.



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3 responses to “Are We Girls or Women?

  1. liz

    Well, this is one I’ve thought about, because I know some of those “women” who get offended if they ever get called “girls,” by anyone. But I’m definitely not one of them.

    I’m over fifty, and I still think of myself as a girl often, in many of the situations you refer to, and some others, although I also think of myself as a capable, independent woman. I still refer to my friends as girls, especially when we are acting “girly,” and can’t imagine that changing even as we get older.

    If a boss called me a girl at this stage, it would be inappropriate, but between friends, it’s totally comfortable. So I’ll assume you’re not talking about in professional situations. Maybe insisting on being called “women” has something to do with putting that “child” self away now that they are grown, but I refuse to do that. My inner girl will always be a part of me, and I like to acknowledge her–she’s a lot of fun.

    • That’s interesting to hear that you’ve known some of those women who insist on being called women. I actually don’t know anyone in my generation who does. I like your interpretation that maybe it has to do with putting away the ‘child’ self. I’m glad to hear you like yours, I hope I never lose mine either!

      But while I was writing this, I was thinking of a 9-year-old girl I babysit for who is starting to wonder why women get breasts and hair and is constantly trying to see mine. Whenever she does that, I’m feel so aware that I am grown up and she is not.

      Those moments make me wonder if there’s something to be said for having a word for our girlish side that is only for grown-ups, and can’t be confused with a 9-year-old. Maybe that’s not necessary, who knows? But I am curious what difference that would make, if any, if we did have an in-between word. Maybe we should ironically take back ‘dolls’ :).

  2. liz

    Just have to add an aside about that nine-year-old. I was maybe a bit younger than that, but not much, when I figured out I wouldn’t be growing a penis. As the youngest of four, with two boys between me and the oldest, another girl, I had seen the boys naked a lot, knew they were older, and so figured I just hadn’t grown mine yet. It wasn’t until I happened to spot my older sister, who generally didn’t parade around in the buff, that I realized we were different and started asking questions.

    That, and the fact that I was pulling used tampax tubes out of the trash to use as telescopes, prompted “the talk.” It took a little time to get used to the fact that I would never be able to write in the snow the way my brothers could, but I’m happy how things turned out. I’ve always liked being a girl, and like Elaine said, “I can’t figure out how they walk around with those things anyway.”

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