Girls, Ladies, Women: What's in a Name

There's a lot of power in language, and that power is intimately related to the relationship between the people communicating.  If you don't believe me, think about how it would feel if your male professor called you a bitch versus when your friend tells you you're being a bitch for taking her food.

In the weird in-between of girlhood and womanhood, I've found myself wondering about how to identify.  I notice when I refer to myself or others as "girls" versus "women" versus "ladies."  I'm used to being a lady... that's the preferred term for female athletes.  "Okay, ladies, two down, we're going to one with it," is something I've shouted more times than I can count.  The bruises and the dust and the sweat from softball season that seemed to permeate everything from cleats to ponytails undermined those traditional notions of being a "lady." In the concrete parking lot coordinating rides home, we reveled in claiming the definition of ladies for ourselves.  Proud of winning, sore from losing, bitching about the other team and slumping down on benches, legs spread, taking up space with voices and with bodies.  Somewhere along the line that freedom faded and the word "ladies" stayed stuck on the fields I left behind when I graduated.  Going to the South for school and finding myself in a wealthy suburb of the Queen City, notions of "lady" got skewered down.  No flexibility.  I just knew it wasn't me.  But I tried.  To be small, to be quiet, to be cute, unobtrusive.

The word "girl" and I have a longer relationship.  For a decade and some extra I was pretty much only referred to as a girl.  Girlhood, that elusive definition, was full of dresses (my dad inexplicably called them "frocks" as though this were 1898) and overalls, long hair and short, scrapes, tumbling, nail polish, yelling, books, and peanut butter.  At some point, however, "girls" started referring to groups of women getting together and having a girls' night.  From media and from watching and listening to adult women in my life, the word "girls" became intimately connected to a) alcohol, b) shallow and simple markers of femininity like cattiness, gossip, movies with little to no plot, and conversation revolving around either food, men, or appearances, and c) a specific span of time that, like magic, the women would snap out of and return to the real world.  It was clear even early on that there was an escape inherent in "girl time."  That the women who spent a lot of time and energy navigating womanhood, femininity, and their own selves would revert to easy and simple gender definitions, claiming space to go back to that ease without judgment (until I came home armed with sociological snobbery) and only when they controlled the audience (though, you never really control the audience because you're always sending messages to people you've forgotten are listening).  

I get called out now for referring to myself as a girl.  There are those who think it undermines me, delegitimizes me.  But most of those people never were a girl and never had to feel the pain of letting go of the freedoms of girlhood to step into the prisons of womanhood and watch others grasp for the ease of girlhood.  I will always be a girl, because I was a girl first and a girl best.  It is as a girl that I started preparing to be a woman.  It is as a girl that the seeds of who I was took root.  It is as a girl that I learned how to negotiate myself and this world.

It also still feels strange to refer to myself as a woman.  It's as though I'm claiming a power I don't believe I yet have.  There's also a fear because "woman" connotes "older" and somehow "less than," and that is the death knell for women in the United States.  Woman, while claiming a power that has only recently been attached to the word, also means accepting fewer freedoms in so many ways.  Giving up the flexibility that came with simplicity in girlhood.  And since the first steps of going from girl to woman were marked by too many miles of running and far too few calories, my perception of what womanhood means and the pressures associated with it will always feel heavy. I am still, however, at the very beginning of figuring how to be my kind of woman.  Still in the process of learning how to claim the power in that word, and in myself.  

In the end, though, I get to decide which I am and when.  Which to refer to myself and why.  Criticize it, question it, don't let me lazily diminish myself, but know there's power in girlhood, just as there is in womanhood.  Because one cannot be without the other.

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