Recently, the head coach of a women’s national team competing in this summer’s Olympics was quoted in a press release saying something along the lines of how proud and excited he was to embark on the adventure with “these girls.”
These professional athletes. These Olympians. These adult women.
Let me be clear: I’m not demonizing the coach. By all accounts, he’s excellent at his job and has healthy working relationships with his athletes. Moreover, I have it on good authority that when began the job, he’d asked the team how they’d like him to address them, and “girls” got the vote. (Photo credit: Sabrina Asch)
Let me also be clear that I am aware the word “girl” is not a swear word, and that we could be called much worse. But…“could be worse” is not the measuring stick most of us are using anymore.
Language matters, and using the word “girls” can be tricky territory.
Language matters, and using the word “girls”—especially in public-facing materials, such as in the instance above—can be tricky territory, according to linguists and those who study gender and sexuality. Such references are still extremely common in both public and private spheres, but more conversations surrounding word choice are occurring. A couple years back, for example, the BBC nixed the use of the word “girl” referring to adult women, and in 2013, Forbes devoted an entire article to the usage of the word. In it, writer Kashmir Hill quotes a source saying, “You never see an action hero with ‘boy’ in his name. It’s hard to imagine Robert Downey Jr. signing up to play ‘Iron Boy.’”
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Isn’t it harmless, though?
Very often, the answer is no, even if the speaker is well intentioned. “Use of the word ‘girls’ continues to suppress women in a male-dominated society,” says Lisa Borchardt, MSW, LCSW, professor of social work at Nebraska Wesleyan in Lincoln, Neb.
“It reinforces gender inequality and bias, it can keep women from leadership positions (because of the connotation that she’s not old enough, experienced enough, or smart enough to lead), and it may contribute to low self-confidence.” — Lisa Borchardt, MSW, LCSW
“It can be a way to talk down to women. To be patronizing. To infantilize them. To not take them seriously,” says Erica Smith, MEd, sexuality educator and advocate for LGBTQ youth at a major hospital in Philadelphia.
“It also keeps women down when ‘girl’ is used as an insult—when any feminine term, like ‘pussy,’ is an automatic insult.”
“My own take on the use of ‘girl’ and ‘boy’: If you’re not talking about a child or a love interest, these terms are best avoided,” writes Hill.
For those of you stressin’ about saying the wrong thing, I get it: Language is constantly evolving, and even those who want to stay up to date can find it difficult to keep track of what version we’re on now. But, as is the case in most relationships, being respectful and asking a few questions about preferences goes a long way.
When to Avoid “Girls”
“My favorite movie is Thelma and Louise, and one thing I always hated was how all of the male investigators in the movie constantly refer to them as ‘girls,’” says Smith. “Like, these two just killed a rapist and robbed a liquor store, they sure as shit aren’t just ‘girls.’”
Smith offers some guidance on when else not to use the term:
- In a professional setting when a man is speaking about female colleagues.
- Any time a man/masculine adult uses it when speaking about women who are of equal age/standing.
- Any time it’s used as an insult by anyone, regardless of gender.
When in doubt, says Smith, stay neutral: “I’m a fan of removing gendered terms whenever possible. How about y’all? Everyone? Folks? You’s and yinz, for Pennsylvania people!”
“We as a society need to move away from labels,” says Borchardt, who encourages using the names of the people or groups of people you’re addressing. “In sports, ‘Let’s go, team’ sends a message of unity versus a demeaning ‘Let’s go, girls.’”
When “Girl” Talk Is Appropriate
OK, but girls do exist…right?
They do, but again, there’s some gray area here, too. My own loose age limit for the world “girls” has long been around the age of 18, but Borchardt and others prefer even earlier, around age 12, after which they suggest making the switcheroo to “young woman” or, even better, the genderless moniker “teenager.”
There are no hard and fast rules, and context matters, so again, do the best you can and keep asking questions.
“Girls’ Night Out” and Other Exceptions
“We’ve all heard ‘you throw like a girl’ or ‘stop being a girl’ or ‘screamed like a little girl’ as a way to insult masculine folks,” says Smith.
“But like so many other terms, I believe it can be reclaimed and used in an empowering way by those who self-identify. ‘Girl’ is definitely not always a bad word in my book, but it’s also not for everyone.”
Exceptions are all about context. Are you a woman yourself? What is your relationship with the person or people you’re talking to or about? What is that person’s preference? “Using the term ‘girl’ within one’s social network has become a cultural norm—for example, ‘girlfriends’ or ‘girls’ night out.’ Within different cultures, there are terms that are used within that group that only members of that group can say to each other without offending people,” says Borchardt.
“I actually love when older women refer to each other and themselves as girls,” says Smith. “My mother will say to me, ‘I talked to one of the girls at doctor so-and-so’s office,’ and chances are she’s speaking about a woman aged anywhere from 20 to 65. The women in question also refer to themselves as girls. I like this in the same way I love when older women call me baby or doll (but I wouldn’t want a strange man to call me this).
“Also, sometimes queer men and trans women of all ages use the term ‘girl’ and ‘girlfriend’ to refer to themselves and members of their community, and it’s said with affection,” adds Smith. “That’s an acceptable use in my mind. It’s definitely not the same as men using it to put women down or to put other men down.
“I think that using ‘girls’ is always OK if you self-identify as a girl and are referring to yourself and/or other people who self-identify as girls,” says Smith. “If you’re a masculine person and have no relation or identification with the term ‘girl,’ on the other hand, then proceed with caution. Only use it to refer to actual children and young adults. And definitely don’t use it to insult anyone, ever.”
What about other gendered terms, such as “lady” or “gal”?
The same rules—and massive gray area—apply. “Again, I find the usage to be OK only if women are self-identifying,” says Smith. “I’m really into valuing femininity and the femme aspect of things, and realizing our power,” says Smith. “So I’m careful not to totally dismiss the word ‘girls’ when used by adult women, because there’s really not a damn thing wrong with being a girl.”
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