I have to be honest. Being under twenty-five and engaged gets me some weird looks – and not for the reason you think I’m getting at. People don’t judge me for being in my early twenties and getting married in a year and a half. I get weird looks because people automatically assume I’m 16 or 17 and get freaked out when they see the ring on my finger. It’s only with a full face of makeup on that I actually look like I’m in my early twenties. It takes lipstick and some sharp-as-knives eyeliner for anyone to seriously consider me an adult. As though lipstick can make a woman.
When I go to the dentist, doctor, hair dresser, they all make the assumption that I’m still in high school. On my last dentist visit in December – prior to the proposal – the dentist actually asked me what high school I went to when I had just been discussing with the hygienist my living situation and had very clearly stated that I am finishing my Bachelor’s degree and live with my very committed significant other.
This is not only problematic because it annoys the hell out of me, but because it perpetuates the habit of calling women “girls.” I cannot tell you the amount of times I’ve been called a “girl” or found myself referring to a woman with a full time job and kids as a “girl.” Girls do not pay bills, mother children, or get married – at least I hope they don’t.
I know that I am not the first to say this but: Stop calling grown women girls. These words are not interchangeable. You wouldn’t refer to a clearly adult man as a boy. You would be accused of infantilizing the man in question and insulting him by insinuating that he is not responsible, capable, adult, etc. Yet, no one cares if grown women are called girls despite that being an action with the exact same inferred consequences as calling a man “boy.” How’s that for a double standard?
I’ve been thinking a lot abouta video that Mayim Bialik posted on Youtube a couple of weeks ago called “Girl vs. Woman: Why Language matters” and an article I recently read on Feminist Current called “You’ve heard of rape culture, but have you heard of pedophile culture?“. I highly suggest watching the video and reading the article as they both provide very valid points as to why this habit of calling grown women “girls” is an epidemic in our society.
The biggest connection that I can make between these two sources of media is that “pedophile culture” sexualizes young girls, which we can all agree is wrong, but calling grown women “girls” feeds into the distorted fantasy because “in pedophile culture, we casually refer to grown women as “girls.” We have a word specifically for attractive female teenagers: jailbait. Women are sexualized as chicks, kittens, and babes” (Grey, 2017). We need to stop this habit now. We need to stop referring to women as children and sexualizing them at the same time. It takes agency away from the woman in question and introduces sexually charged language in reference to young girls thus creating the illusion that lusting after an adolescent is socially acceptable.
This is an all too common problem. It not only exists in how we refer to said women, but how they feel compelled to present themselves. The culture we live in promotes anti-aging creams up the wazoo, surgeries proclaiming their ability to “reclaim your youth!”, and an omnipresent media that markets youth and beauty as though they are the ultimate goals of a woman’s life. This culture makes it feel as though women need to present themselves as children in order to be accepted as women. Seems kind of counter intuitive to me.
The most prominent and relevant example that I can think of is Ariana Grande’s media image. Up until fairly recently – in the last three years or so – the now 23 year-old singer was being marketed as a sexualized 14 year-old. She was dressed in either mini skirts, cropped shirts and thigh high socks with her long hair styled in a childish high ponytail or retro, calf-length dresses with her signature ponytail. Her makeup was always natural looking and she had a very subdued demeanor when in the media spotlight. She was seen performing in a mixture of outfits that looked like a young girl’s dance recital costume or grown-woman-ish looking dresses with childish hair pieces. Her ever-present high ponytail and innocent doe-eyed expression created a childlike illusion but was paired with highly sexualized outfits and a sexy-leaning stage presence. This conflicting image presented to the world turned Grande into an objectified version of herself. She appeared to be an adolescent but at the same time, clearly was presenting herself in a somewhat sexual manner. This signalled to the men who were watching her that it was okay to fantasize about Grande – despite her childlike image. So, many men did just that and weren’t shy about it.
Grande’s age and clothing were in complete discord with one another. She was being sexualized by magazines and fans right and left, yet her marketing team chose to preserve this image of childlike innocence through how she was dressed for public events. The way that she was being perceived by the media was entirely beyond her control and only perpetuated by the way she was presented to the public by her own image team. She was being viewed as a sexualized child by the vast majority of the world. If we want to end this culture – the culture that sees grown women but prefers to view them as “jailbait” – we need to stop calling them “girls.”
Let a grown woman be an adult. Let her age. Let her step outside of the gaze that has viewed her as an object since she was pubescent. Refer to her with the correct language. It may not seem like it has an immediate impact, but changing your language can help change your perspective. You never know, someone you know may pick up the habit from you and pass it along in a wonderful butterfly effect. It could wind up helping to move us all from viewing women as girls and give women back the agency they have so rightfully earned.