So I've decided to make one very small, but very crucial change in my life:
I've stopped calling adult females "girls".
It seemed really silly to me at first. I immediately thought of all the, "Atta girls!" my track coach would yell. I thought of someone saying, "We're having a girls night out/It's just us girls!" I thought of how the diminutive is a term of affection and endearment in so many languages. Obviously there was nothing inherently wrong about saying, "girl," when the person in front of you (or in the mirror) is quite obviously over 18, so why would I try to do this?
While a diminutive label like "girl" makes sense when the coach is congratulating her team or the group of friends is going for a night out, it stops making sense outside of it -- the same way you'd never use the diminutive in Spanish to refer to a superior or a stranger. But here I was, talking about female celebrities as "girls", talking about co-workers as "girls" -- talking about myself as a "girl" when I am toeing in on 28 years of age.
So I tried to stop cold-turkey. I allowed myself to fumble over my words as I nixed "girl" from my vernacular and replaced it with "woman". I'd stop myself mid-word to keep myself from saying "girl". I'd even reword a thought in my head if I started slipping into old habits.
Again, this seems a bit unnecessary. Why am I letting myself sound like a stuttering freak in order to not say, "I talked to the girl at this company..." or "She's the girl from..."? Why go through all this trouble when it's socially acceptable to do what I'm already doing?
The problem is, is that language shapes thought. You don't have to attend a semantics class to know that how something is worded can drastically change how it is taken in. My favorite example is of an experiment where they showed groups of people a video of two cars getting into an accident. In one group, the testers would explain that the audience was about to watch a video of, "a blue car bumping a red car." In the other group? They were told they were about to watch a video of, "a blue car crashing into a red car."
The differences between the two group's reactions were startling. The "crash" group saw the accident as more severe, the red car as having taken more damage, and the blue driver as being more incompetent of a driver. Exact same video of the exact same two cars, but viewed in completely different lights, purely because the testers replaced "bumped" with "crashed into".
The most telling reaction to this change came from within -- the visceral reaction I would get against myself when I would say "woman" over "girl". I felt out of place using that term -- who the hell was I to use such a strong word when describing this female or that female. Especially, who the hell was I to use that word when referring to myself? "Girl" is sweet, "girl" is dainty, "girl" is unassuming; I have no place busting out the big guns like "woman".
And that reaction is exactly why I needed to change. As I mentioned already, "girl" is diminutive. The same way a coach will say, "Atta boy!" or a friend will talk about, "hanging out with the boys." The only difference, here, is that "boy" feels out of place when taken out of the familiar and affectionate. We replace it with "guy", which carries a more masculine and strong connotation. But there's nothing to replace "girl". However, "girl" doesn't magically lose its connotation of soft and unassuming when we start referring to women that way. The word doesn't carry the same type of weight, and when even the most subtle changes in language can change thought (which, in turn, shapes behavior), that small inequity can unravel into bigger consequences.
Recently, a man who shall remain nameless got in trouble with his boss. His boss gave him the third degree -- and rightfully so, since he had messed up. However, his boss was a woman. What was the first words out of his mouth when he was out of earshot from that woman?
"I'm not going to let some girl tell me how to do my job."
People will disagree with me. People will brush off the idea that one seemingly-innocuous word would ever make any type of influence in life. People will see this change as another example of a hyper-feminist harping on every detail in society, changing "woman" to "womyn" and burning every bra she can get her hands on. And I'm okay with that. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, man and woman alike.
Besides, none of this will stop me from shouting, "That's my girl!" when a friend finishes a race or busts a seriously sick move on the dance floor.