Girls, Women, and Females

I remember being about 21 or so and sitting with a bunch of co-counselors at summer camp talking Feminism 101. One friend brought up her “new thing”: referring to herself as a woman. Not a girl. A woman.

“I mean,” she explained, “it’s basically an insult to call a man our age a ‘boy’  Isn’t it equally infantilizing to call ourselves ‘girls’?  By any definition, all of us, all in our 20s, are women.”

This was an entirely novel idea to me, and while I completely agreed with my friend’s logic, I had trouble making the change. It felt odd, and sometimes still does. Using “woman” to refer to a woman in her 20’s sometimes elicits turned heads, weird looks, or assumptions that I’m talking about somebody in her 40’s.

In casual contexts, it is quite common to hear people calling men ‘men’ and women ‘girls’ is at this point. I hear it a lot in Crossfit gyms, “135lbs for men, 95lbs for girls” or “count the girl’s bar as 35” or “a lot of the girls beat me”. What a weird and annoying word choice to describe an adult!

I find most Crossfit reporters  make a real effort to avoid the saying ‘girls’ in professional contexts. Great! Perfect start! Yet there still seems to be a real aversion to saying ‘women’. And I sympathize with that! In some situations (like when others are saying ‘girls’) I feel like it would be too awkward to say ‘women’ so I use an ironic ‘ladies’ or ‘gals’ or something. But something I see very frequently it Crossfit coverage is the word ‘females’. And, when paired with the word ‘men’ (as in ‘men and females’) it absolutely kills me.

Today’s example, which prompted this post but which is most definitely not a one-off peculiarity that I happened to find, comes from the Rx Review. The article gives us coverage from the USA Weightlifting Open and first summarizes ‘the men’s half’ and then a few paragraphs later, ‘the female’s half.”

Here’s the thing. ‘Men’ and ‘Women’ refer to people. ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ refer to bodies. When we call the men ‘men’ and the women ‘females’, we’re discounting women’s personhood.

I’m happy with male/female as adjectives, e.g.,  ‘the male athletes and the female athletes’, and I’m okay  with the use of ‘female’ when paired with ‘male’. But here, I’ll do a quick search through 2013 coverage and find some examples of men/females:

“While most of the men moved easily through the chest-to-bar pull-ups, this movement became a sticking point for the females.” NorCal Regional Report)

“Most females got to collect themselves regularly as the men split the work up into four to eight sets.” (Europe Regional Report)

“Our strategy with the guys was to just keep it going, unbroken, and not get caught up in a transition. No rest at any transition. We put faith in the females to finish it,” (Canada West Regional Report)

It’s all over the place! I sure noticed it a lot while watching the Games live, too. Let’s stop saying ‘girls’ or ‘females’ and start calling women ‘women’!

(In pre-emptive answer to “Why does such a little thing matter?”)

5 thoughts on “Girls, Women, and Females

  1. Lisa- what a thoughtful discussion! This is something I think about often, right down to sometimes feeling awkward calling women ‘women’. Why is that? I’m definitely working on removing ‘girls’ from my vocabulary when referencing females over the age of 18.

    • Thanks FA! It’s like sometimes “girls” sounds fun and “women” sounds boring, right? That’s how I feel sometimes. Or I’ve noticed other women feel weird when I call them a woman. It’s hard!

  2. A great point about ‘female’ needing to be paired with ‘male’ (rather than being paired with ‘men’). However, the sex/gender distinction you use is really quite controversial. While many people (and certainly many, *but not all* feminists) buy this distinction, many do not. Moreover, there’s a recent resurgence in the debate.

    Personally, I don’t buy the distinction one bit. I think people want to hold on to it, maybe, because while they know gender is complicated and non-binary, they think that bodies are simple and binary: you’re male or female, simple. Right? Well of course not.

    Just as there’s a wide range of genders, there’s a wide range of bodies. And just as gender is partially socially constructed, *so is sex.* If one needs proof, check out the very wide variety of ways of being intersex. Is someone a male or female? We can’t just look to biology to give us the answer: we have to make decisions. (Well, maybe we should work on why we feel the need to categorize people, let alone into one of two boxes.) And those decisions are socially constructed (and themselves construct society). It’s complicated. But what’s important is the sex/gender distinction isn’t even a clear one.

    • Hey Rachel,

      Very good points. I’m (fairly newly) familiar with the socially constructed aspects of sex (i.e., what categories we choose), but guess I glazed over the whole topic to make my point about females/men (what we call those categories).

      Maybe that will be a new topic for a follow up interview for you! Or maybe I should just do my own darn work, too

  3. Pingback: Muscles on a Lady | Ongoing updates on Crossfit HQ commentaries

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