Let me be clear. I don’t mean women. Girls are 18 and younger, and anyone 19 and over can officially be called a woman. Programming for girls in the non-profit world typically encompasses the 6 – 18 year old age range with certain exceptions.
I’m intrigued by women who refer to themselves and their friends as girls, as in “Let’s go girls.” Often, the women who use the word “girls” are looking for an alternative to the word “guys” and are coming up short. What options are there? “Ladies” or “gals” smack of another era altogether. Saying “Let’s go, women” comes off as a little weird, formal, and somehow impractical for every day use.
Even if you think that women calling each other girls in every day life is not such a big deal (and many smart savvy women I know don’t have a problem with it) what about groups of women organizing and calling themselves “Wonder Girls” as a NYC group of women are doing? I am guessing it’s meant as a fun, Gen X way of responding to more mature established women’s organizations which could use an infusion of youthfulness. I'm all for young smart women organizing themselves to make a difference in the world, but women calling themselves girls is problematic.
Flip the coin, and you have the problem of what to call girls themselves. With young girls, you can simply say “girls,” but as girls hit 11 and 12, the word no longer fits. A tilt of the head and the look that says “I am not a child” is what you might get in response if you try. Professionals working with girls struggle for alternatives, often landing on “young women” or “young ladies.” There are worse things to call young people, but I think it is just as problematic to start calling girls, “women” or anything that intimates adulthood at age 12, as it is to call grown women, “girls.”
Why is this such a problem? Girls are growing up in a mediated culture which sells them adult clothing at younger and younger ages, in a world where the song “Candy Shop” is not about chewing bubble gum, and with high-pressure expectations in relationships, school, and staying on track towards a positive future. Professionals who work with girls can help preserve a girl's world by helping us to find language that recognizes their development into their teen years, but doesn’t place adult expectations on them. And women can help us by letting the word “girl” belong to those 18 and under.
What do you think?