Discussion: Girls vs. Women

Sep 23, 2011

Earlier this week, a commenter on another post mentioned an article in The Washington Post by Hank Stuever dissecting the Fall 2011 television schedule.  Stuever remarked that while more “women write and produce and star in more TV than ever” the characters being shown on many shows are “bunnies, baby dolls and broads — and bridezillas and bimbos.”  This led Stuever to query: “What the f**k happened to women?”

This led me to a slightly different question–one I’ve been pondering for awhile–when does a person stop being a girl and start being a woman?

Is it age?  Is there some invisible line of demarcation?  And if so, is it 21? 25? 30?

Is it sexual?  Do you become a woman when you hit puberty? Lose your virginity?  Get married?  Have a baby?  These are the traditional metrics that have been used for millennia by cultures around the world. 

Is becoming a woman as simple as biology or is it something more complex, a measure of your maturity, your level of responsibility, your behavior?  If so, I know some 30-year-olds who are still girls and some 17-year-olds who are women.  

It’s certainly difficult to define what makes you a woman and not a girl.  Personally, as I was writing this post, I developed more questions than answers, which is why it’s so short.  

I don’t think it’s as easy as blowing out the candles on your birthday cake or buying a wedding license, though that’s part of it.  I also think most of the traditional, sexual definitions are terribly antiquated.  And at the end of the day, maybe there’s not one metric that works for everyone.  Perhaps, it’s too individual to define.

Maybe the simpler question is, at what age is it insulting to call a female person a girl?  I’m still referred to as a girl at 29, even though I know that’s probably not quite correct.  And it really doesn’t bother me either way, maybe because I’m still coming to grips with the change in status.

So what do you ladies think?  Are you a girl or are you a woman and what qualifies you for your title?  Also, at what age does it become faux pas to call a female person a girl?


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  1. Jen says:

    As a graduate student in the sciences, I often teach undergraduates. I call females over 18 women. Ideally, girls would be ages 0 to 15; guys would be 15 to 30; and women would be plus 30.

    I think that when a person in a position of authority calls someone in a subordinate position a girl that it can be demeaning. Girls don't have responsibilities and aren't as informed. Women make their own decisions.While not all those who are over 18 do this, the law expects that they do.

  2. V says:

    I always cringe when someone refers to an older, professional woman as a “girl,” but I'm not sure exactly when the destinction happens. I think graduating from college and getting a “real” 9-5 job that pays the rent should be the point of no return, but I'm several years out of school and still feel like a “girl.” I think part of that is that I've always been the youngest in any office I've worked in – maybe it'll change once I become someone's supervisor.

  3. m says:

    I think the real question is when is either appropriate. I think about people my grandparents' age saying of their wives “she's my best girl.” It's a term of familiarity in many ways. My parents will always call me their “girl” and my friends will probably always go “oh girl, that outfit” and my boyfriend will call me “his girl.” I think once you're in a job, you lose the general category of “girl” and may become a “young woman.”

    But I would hope my bosses would never call me a “girl” unless they were making fun of my outrageous amount of shoes, in which case, I'd accept “you are such a girl.”

  4. KC says:

    Within law firms I've frequently heard male attorneys refer to secretaries and paralegals as “the girls” (regardless of age) which “the girls” mostly complained about behind the scenes. I don't know that there is ever a situation where such a reference is actually necessary – why not just refer to everyone as their title (“the secretaries and paralegals”) or if necessary to encompass everyone of the gender, “the women in the office” seems better to me. I agree with m that “girl” seems to conote familiarity. It seems appropriate for “girl's night out” and when referring to friends, but not when talking about acquaintances, coworkers or strangers who are not in school.

  5. Amy says:

    All I hear in my head right now is Britney Spears' “I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”. And she actually has a point–there is a grey area between the two.

  6. TrailBlaizer says:

    I have a penis, so feel free to ignore my opinion here, but I think the fundamental assumption that there's some kind of transition between “woman” and “girl” is wrong. I think all physically developed females are at all times both “women” and “girls.” Over time, the ratio of those characteristics may change. In different settings, she may prefer to highlight one aspect or another. But I think once you outgrow the “physical” reality of immaturity (puberty) both are always there. But the idea that you cease to be one in order to become the other is far too linear for what, I think, is a much more complicated duality of female existence.

  7. Katie says:

    To be honest, the “new girl” is a familiar archetype in TV/books/plays/movies, so I don't think the creator of “New Girl” was trying to say that because Jess is girlish that she is somehow unwomanly (whatever that means). I think Zooey Deschanel made a comment in New York Magazine to the effect that “girlishness” is not a threat to her own power. I don't choose to represent myself in that way, but I don't think she's dumb/a child/etc. because she does.

    Anyway, now that I am completely off topic, I think a lot about the difference between “girl” and “woman.” I don't know when it's insulting, I don't think I've reached that point yet. I think it's probably tied to perception; I wouldn't like it if someone called me a girl in my office, but I don't mind that my friends do. I wouldn't call Elizabeth II a girl, but I would call Selena Gomez a girl.

  8. Cate says:

    I have always used the term “lady” instead of wrestling with the distinction between woman and girl. I always that the term was so much more respectable. Through my adolescent life, I was referred to by parents and teachers as a young lady, which always made me feel that being a lady was something to aspire too. It has connotations of class and charm.

  9. L says:

    my personal cut off is probably 16 or so. At that point you're a young woman. You have the legal ability to act like a grown up (in some capacity at that age) so you should probably start acting like one. Can't say that I always did, but my grandma would always tell me at some point whether you like it or not, you're old enough to start taking responsibility for your actions. But just because you mature, doesn't mean you can't do things that are consider to be “girly”; you just do them a bit differently.

    I have friends my age, people younger, older, etc and it just seems less formal (ie L's a nice girl, etc) or getting a large group of women together (girls, gals, ladies). Professionally, I'd cringe if someone called me a girl – it seems a little inexperienced/young maybe a hint of irresponsible. Girls don't get the management job, women do.

    I'll say this – I read the article and watched about 10 minutes of that show the New Girl, to see how it was. Honestly, I've was offended. Watching a grown woman act immature, foolish, and helpless – qualities which apparently go along with being a “girl” according to the show's writers – not my idea of a good time. And to think they expect women to actually enjoy this? I'll take Brenda from the Closer any day of the week.

  10. Govvie says:

    Unless you are babysitting, scooping ice cream, or bagging groceries, I think you should “own” being a woman in the workplace. If you act like a girl, you are going to be treated like a girl. At my job, there is a twenty-something attorney who giggles and gives saucer eyes and who, in short, seems to try to use her girliness to her advantage. Or maybe she is truly immature and inexperienced and just comes off this way out of nervousness. Either way, it drives me up the wall. I just have no faith in her wisdom or ability to handle a difficult case or stand up to someone.

    Sorry for the negativity on a beautiful Friday.

  11. Mel says:

    Hmm, good question. My initial thought on this is that we become women when we take full responsibility of our own lives.

  12. Briana says:

    I'm called young lady at work (I'm 25) and while that may be a compliment to some women I absolutely. Can. NOT. STAND. It. I think it's insulting and demeaning and condescending. Just thought I'd add my two-cents.

  13. LL says:

    Today is my 26th birthday and I still consider myself a girl—probably because I am not married and am still in school. I think that makes a big difference for some reason, even though I did work in corporate America for two years before going back to school. It’s a mentality. Women have responsibilities, families. Girls have “time to grow up” and still have fun.

  14. Bettina says:

    That's a really interesting question I've also been wondering about. Apart from what everyone else has been saying, I think it also has something to do with the cultural surroundings. I actually had a discussion about that with my boyfriend (who is Spanish) the other day, because in Spain pretty much any woman is mostly a “chica” (girl) unless she is a) positively ancient, or b) an at least 40-year-old whom you meet in a professional context (because privately she is still a girl). Interestingly, I don't get the impression that this somehow reflects negatively on how capable a woman is seen by others. It definitely does though in the German context, where I'm working right now. Although it's perfectly acceptable to talk about “the girls” when it's your group of friends. It's all very confusing.

    Personally, I have to side with Briana on the “young lady” issue. It sounds like someone is telling off a five-year-old (“Tut, tut, young lady!”), and I hate it. Either I'm a lady or I'm not. In fact, I have a question for you, Belle. What are your thoughts on how age is considered in terms of professionalism, especially in women? I seem to have noticed that when a young man is professionally successful, everyone thinks he's extremely clever, whereas if a young woman comes into a high position early, people tend to doubt whether she's capable of the job. Any thoughts on that?

    OK, that kinda turned into a rant – sorry and have a lovely weekend :)!

  15. Danae says:

    TrailBlaizer may be close to the truth. The evolution happens even when we do not realize it, but perhaps there will always be the little girl inside of every woman. (And the flip side is true – we know that every man may act like the little boy inside them on occasion!) However, the term “girl” became derogatory at some point, and it's unfortunate link to our anatomy means we must reclaim the use of the word as some are trying to do (GirlUp by the UN is one example). But how you reclaim it and in what way you defend yourself when it's being used against you in an office setting is the perpetual conundrum.

  16. bex says:

    To TrailBlazer's point, I also think that boys/men struggle with the same issue. I understand that this blog focuses on women's fashion but I do think it's fair to point out this isn't just a struggle for the female set.

    I refer to my male friends as “the boys” in passing, because men simply seems too formal. I also refereed to the students I taught in an all-male school as “boys.” Certainly in high school they could also be qualified as young men. I think with the term girls and boys, it really does reflect an acknowledgment of familiarity. And is also acceptable with anyone not yet able to support herself in life with minimal to no help.

    As for the “New Girl” regarding L's comments, honestly I don't think it was meant to be offensive. I lived in a situation where I was the one “girl” with three male roommates. Especially in the first few weeks of living together our lives were very much like the pilot episode. Throughout our time living together they looked out for me, in all the ways depicted in the episode. We also had frequent occasions when I just needed to talk about female (girly) things. They sucked it up and watched Say Yes to the Dress with me, allowed me to show them outfits for big events, and listened to me complain about my jerk Ex. Were these activities sometimes frivolous and a bit immature? Yes. But they also knew me as a successful career woman and respected my views about politics, current events, etc. Similarly, I would let them “be boys” and play video games and watch sports. At the end of the day our relationships were built around mutual respect, and an understanding of difference in gender. I expect “New Girl” to develop those relationships similarly, otherwise I won't find it to be authentic and will be greatly disappointed. Only time will tell.

    I think the answer to this question can most be answered with the quote “A (wo)Man is whatever room he is in.” When I'm with my family I am certainly more of a girl than when I am in a meeting with the CEOs of my company. I think it will always be that way, no matter my age. That being said, I would prefer to never be called “Ma'm” no matter how long I live.

  17. LC says:

    As an admin assistant that coordinates with a lot of companies, I've heard people refer to support staff as “so-and-so's girl”. I think it's pretty derogatory. Would you ever refer to your receptionist as “your WOMAN?” Why is girl ok, then?

    I also think that in a professional setting, your maturity level isn't really up for debate. Woman seems more appropriate and respectful in general.

  18. I just turned 30 (yay Virgos!) but It wasn't the abundance of birthday candles that took me from girl to woman this year…it was finally having the courage to get what I want.

    First step: DECIDE what it is you want!
    Second step: STOP CARING IF ANYONE AGREES with what you want!
    Third step: GO OUT AND GET IT GIRL…I mean woman ; )


  19. Lib says:

    I think the reason that so many females have a problem or issue with the girl/woman name confusion is that there doesn't seem to be a good middle word. With males there is boy (informal/familiar), guy (neutral), and man (formal) so it's easy to just say “guy” and risk not offending anyone in the late teen through mid-30s range that I typically find the use of “guy” most appropriate. I guess the equivalent progression for females would be girl (informal/familiar), gal (neutral), and woman (formal) however – and this is not meant to stereotype – I grew up in the North and there are very, very few people who use the term gal and for whatever reason I don't have the same neutral connotation with “gal” as I do with “guy,” in the sense that I find “gal” to be more degrading then the “guy” equivalent.

    Yes, I realized I just added to the problem/ possibly raised more questions.

  20. L says:

    bex, Your comments helped me pinpoint exactly what made me feel gross. I guess my problem was it seemed the show was SO stereotypical “girl in distress” and nothing to balance it out. Granted, I couldn't stomach it for too long so maybe I missed that part?

  21. Sarah says:

    In journalism, we are instructed to only call females under 18 “girls.” Every other female is a woman. In the in between times of adolescence and young adulthood, I think a female can be both. When she's with her friends or at school, she's a girl. She goes out with “the girls.” When she is at an internship or her first real job, she's a woman.

    I think living on your own has a lot to do with it, as well as life experiences. I consider myself a woman (I am 20 years old) because I don't freak out about cooking for myself and other adult tasks. I've experienced a lot in my life and have intentionally exposed myself to many different people and places. On the other hand, my 22-year-old roommate is a girl. She grew up in a small town and pretty sheltered. She has no idea how to cook for herself. She won't go anywhere in the city alone because she doesn't know how to work the public transportation, she talks to her parents every night. I am secure taking on adult roles and responsibilities, but she is not.

    I didn't consider myself a woman until I had been through a time of transformation within myself. Everyone hits the stage of becoming who they are at a different time. Everyone becomes secure with who they are at a different age. For me, that age was 17. At 17, I became a woman. I know some who have reached that at as early as 13.

    In a nutshell, when a girl becomes confident in her own skin and embraces who she is, and grows into who she is, she is a woman–When you stop saying to yourself that you will be an amazing woman someday or are becoming an amazing woman and start saying “I AM an incredible woman!”

  22. Leigh says:

    It seems inappropriate to me to ever address or refer to someone as a girl in a work-related context. Maybe if she's not legally of age, such as a high-schooler in a part-time job, it's okay. If it's in the context of a personal relationship, then it's a case-by-case sort of thing. I wouldn't call a stranger a girl unless I was fairly certain she was not a legal adult.

    I know legal adulthood is a fairly arbitrary marker of maturity, but you have to choose some point to start treating people like adults, especially if you don't know them very well. If I'm going to be expecting adult behavior out of someone, then I'll also do them the courtesy of not referring to them as a girl (or boy, as the case may be.)

    It rankles me a bit when someone calls me a girl. Now that I think about it, though, I can't remember the last time that happened. (Not counting my parents, of course. My sisters and I have always, and will always be “the girls.”) I'm in my mid-twenties, for reference.

  23. sai says:

    In Bossypants, Tina Fey has a hilarious passage about this that basically says women feel they are women instead of girls the first time a guy does something nasty to them, usually while hanging outside the window of a car: https://bibliofeminista.com/post/4643660732/excerpt-from-tina-feys-bossypants

  24. Devinzgrandma says:

    At 58, my view on “woman” versus “girl” is based on the following, which has nothing whatsoever to do with age. It's about the following: Confidence. Poise. Charm. Kindness. Maturity. And, yes, that long-lost phrase …. acting like a lady.

  25. love it says:

    I'm 29 and refer to myself as a woman. I'm not married, nor do I have kids. The change in my vocabulary came gradually over the last year… and now I think it's stuck!

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