Much Ado About Nouns

There will come a time in every female human’s life, when she must make a choice.

Yeah, I wrote female human. Awkward, right? I can feel my agent cringing all the way from Boston. Luckily, there are better descriptors for our gender. Girl, woman, lady, bird, lass, and matron are just a few that come to mind. Of course, those aren’t really synonyms. Each carries its own connotation beyond gender. Whichever noun is applied to me speaks volumes – my age, marital status, and attractiveness can be summed up with the choice. Lately, I’ve been musing on the two biggest and seemingly most benign: girl and woman.

I’m in my mid-twenties. I’m way past puberty, perfectly capable of bearing children, and in possession of both a credit card and breasts. Technically, this makes me woman. I have all the working parts. And yet…I don’t feel like one. Maybe it’s that I’m still in school, because holy hashbrowns becoming a doctor takes forever, or that I’m unmarried. If I were asked to describe myself to someone, I’d probably say Grace is a smart, blonde, book-obsessed girl. However, does that diminish me? There is obviously an age difference between a woman and a girl, but there are also disparate connotations of maturity and accomplishment. A girl is still small, vulnerable, and unformed. A kid. Why would I identify more with that word than its older, more respected sister?

Well, because she’s older, of course. My entire life, I’ve been told “One day, when you’re a woman…” This sentence can end with any number of things: “you’ll get married”, “you’ll make Boeuf Bourguignon without a recipe,” or even “you’ll stop gagging during blow jobs.” There are requirements for becoming a woman. Proper women know how to dress, know how to cook, have sexual confidence, and – the biggie – meet nice men and wear white dresses down aisles. I am not that person.

My wardrobe is awesome, yes, but oral sex still makes me want to gargle with vodka. Women, fully grown-up ones, wouldn’t have irrational fears of Australia (everything there wants to KILL you) or know every word to “I Kissed a Girl.” Despite my age and accomplishments, my mind rebels at the label. Aren’t I supposed to be more equipped? Hilary Clinton is a woman. Maya Angelou is a woman. I’m just a medical student who watches too much BBC America. I’m not dealing with issues of international security or winning National Book Awards. My mother is a woman. How can we possibly have the same descriptor? It can’t be one day yet, can it? I’m so behind!

In the span of history, it’s strange to even ask this question. Not until the turn of the last century, did our society even have the concept of teenagers. One went from child to adult with no perceived period of maturation between. Which is, as I see it, precisely my problem. There is no definite switch anymore. There is no coming out ball to attend, no four-day ritual to endure. One day someone refers to you as That hot girl from the gym, then the next you’re that lovely woman next door. Congratulations! You’re may or may not be a grown-up! Y’all, I want a definitive moment. I want a ritual. Where is my poofy ball gown?

Luckily, I’m not alone. My friends still refer to each other as The Girls. When Kate meets a person of the male persuasion, she calls to say she met a dreamy boy. This needs no translation. She met an attractive guy our age, not an actual drowsy minor. Mae is dating a really nice guy, not a really nice man. Despite our age and maturity level, we haven’t switched our language yet. Nowadays, I don’t know when that change comes. Perhaps, it happens when we’ve all married or when we all hit thirty. Perhaps, it happens when we stop getting carded for beer. Perhaps, it just happens.

That’s the answer, of course. The requirements society has cast down are crap. Becoming a woman, that great thunderclap of supposed maturity, has nothing to do with whether I’m married or know how to glaze a ham. One day, when I’m a woman, I’ll be exactly the same as I am now. I’m a woman because my chromosomes are all fancily matched and I’m of a mature age. I’m also a girl, a lass, a chick, and a dame. Creating Italian topiary tablescapes has nothing to do with it. Now, just tell that to my vocabulary. Hopefully “woman” steadily weaves itself into my self-image. Quite frankly, I’ve decided not to care. They’re only words, after all. Girl, woman. Boy, man. Bread, sandwich.

Just in case, maybe I will start perfecting that boeuf…

- Grace

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39 thoughts on “Much Ado About Nouns

  1. I’m definitely still a girl – regardless of the fact that my 30th is looming (I’m scared of August for a reason this year!)

    I’m currently in Australia which is exacerbating my status of ‘girl’. It totally undesrtand irrational fears about this country – I’m constantly certain I’m going to die of spider bites, despite the fact that I’m in a city centre that isn’t exactly a spider mecca.

    I knock my shoes out against a wall ferociously before putting them on.

    Hunting for wall plugs is terrifying, because you’re not ‘really’ supposed to stick your hands behind/between/inside stuff as thats where the spiders dwell. When I moved into my temporary apartment here I found some plugs behind a desk, and then decided it would be prudent to first blow the spiders out of their hiding spot back there with a hairdryer. So I marched off and got my dryer, beeming with pride over my diligence and ingenuity only to return and realize I would first have to reach back there and plug the damn thing in before my idea would be feasible, thus also rendering it useless. This behaviour does not a woman make.

    Nor does squeeling with delight anytime someone says ‘Koala’.

    • Oh, Nancy. You are a much braver person than I. Someday I will go to Australia, because I really do want to visit it, but I know I’ll be an insomniac the entire time I’m there. Thanks to my dear Biology teacher mother, I’ve read entirely too many books on poisonous creatures…all of whom seem to live down under! I would be hanging my shoes from hat racks, not just banging them out. Courage, they name is not Grace! ;) Nothing in my house would be plugged in. Jesus.

      Also, I think people who don’t squeal in response to “Koala” aren’t human. Cutest creatures ever.

    • Dani, I’ve been thinking about this for the last day. While I think responsibility for someone else definitely plays a part in man/womanhood, I’m not sure it’s the sole qualification.

      Due to some family circumstances, I gained extensive responsibility over someone else at the age of 11. Yet…I wouldn’t have said I became an adult then. Throughout my teenage years I had much more responsibility than my friends, yes, but though I may have been more mature, I wasn’t a woman. It’s funny, because now that I’m twenty-six, I actually have less responsibility for others than I did then. Yet, now I consider myself an adult.

      It’s a complicated issue, obviously. I think that responsibility can flip a switch for some people, but not for others. An interesting argument, to be sure…

  2. Ah, a kindred soul. Until very recently I would describe myself as ‘girl’ without even thinking about it. And I am a good decade older than you. That’s got nothing to do with delusions or self-deception. I guess I had just been a girl for so long and nothing had changed in how I felt about myself.
    Add to that that my hubby lovingly calls me ‘My girl’ – yes, even getting finally married at the ripe age of 33 didn’t shift my self-perception enough.
    The event that caused me to (subconsciously, of course) revise the way I describe myself was, you guessed it, the arrival of our little monster. Now, instead of a girl, I mostly think of myself as a mother. Problem solved!

    • Sandra, your comment alleviated my anxiety about this so much. You’re put it perfectly – thinking of yourself in one way for so long is just a hard habit to kick. If nothing monumental happens, why would you stop being a girl in your mind? I really like the switch from girl to mother, incidentally. That’s a mental shift that seems natural, to me.

  3. Traditionaly you are a girl when you whine and a woman when your roar. I read that into that Helen Ready song that was popular when Ms. Ready was. There is an overlap period usually in your twenties when your voice changes. I hadn’t thought on this topic in a long while. You made it fun.

    • Ha! Millo, I hadn’t heard those lyrics before. That’s an absolutely brilliant way of putting it. Thanks for the great comment! I shall commence roaring now…

  4. I prefer to think of myself as a Manchild, inasmuch as I have the capability of doing grown-up things, but the child-like inability to understand the consequences of those things.

  5. Thank you, Grace, for getting Britney Spears’ “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” stuck in my head. If I sing this to myself all day I swear I will hunt you down…

    • Kate, this is why we’re best friends. I was – this close – to entitling this post that. And, of course, it’s been my stuck in my head ever since. Damn you, Britney!

  6. I ponder this topic quite often, however usually I am in the phase of am I grownup? Because let’s be honest being a grownup comes with all these responsibilities and although I have lots (own my place, my car, student loans, etc.) I am still responsible for only me so how can I really be a grownup right? I will continue to live in my world that requires the care of another to be considered a real adult.

    • Lindy the Am-I-a-grownup? question is such a big one, isn’t it? As children, we think it’s an automatic switch, but once you grow up, it’s not so cut-and-dry. It’s funny, because as I referenced in a comment above, I’ve had the responsibility of someone else’s care already. Since it began at such a young age, however, it’s rather blurred my vision of that as a qualification. No way was I an adult at age 11! However, it is a good litmus test for a lot of people. So many priorities shift when one has such a responsibility, it’s natural that self-image would shift as well.

  7. I’m older than you . . . ladies? . . . and I think being comfortable applying the noun “woman” to one’s self happens in stages and in only in certain areas of your life. At work, I’m a Woman. I’m an educated professional giving advice to clients on technical matters. When talking to minors, I am a Woman. I know so very much more about he world than they do. When I travel, I am a Woman. I speak more than one language, I can navigate foreign taxis and markets and public transportation, I carry my own bags. When I go to the bank, I’m a woman. I own my own house, I negotiate my own car purchases, I take out my own loans for home repair, I buy my own appliances.

    Can you hear me roar?

    HOWEVER

    I sit get together with my Girls once a week and gossip about people we wen to high school with. I still take an occasional week night to play dress up with my pretty shoes and try new hair and makeup styles. I still eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When I have a date, it’s with a Boy I like and if he doesn’t call me it makes me wonder if I’m not pretty enough or if I didn’t laugh enough at his jokes. I still sing out loud and seat dance when my favorite song comes on the car radio. My sunglasses are pink with rhinestones.

    I think I’ll always be part woman, part girl, part lady, part bird, part matron, etc. And that’s OK by me.

    • Jayne, thank you so much for a great comment! Your sentiments echo an article I read recently, talking about the situations in which each label is appropriate. It does seem natural to be different female iterations at different times. I certainly wouldn’t want to be considered a girl at the hospital, when I’m helping deliver a baby. Yet, I don’t even think twice about calling myself one on the dating scene.

      Thanks again for the great insight!

  8. It’s so funny you bring this up!! Lately I have been unsure about this too. While talking to a guy I say “well, what kind of girl are you looking for?” and he says “A woman who is active…..” and I think…”A woman hu?” hmmmmmmm. It’s a transitional phase I guess. I think we eventually will get used to it. I don’t want to grow up!!!!

    • Withoutequal, I’m with you! It would weird me out a bit if a guy described his ideal woman. There’s just something intimidating about the word! Definitely a mental shift to be made.

  9. Fantastic post! – Though I’m aware my situation has probably changed somewhat, I was once considered an “honorary girl” (A guy accepted and treated as “one of the crew” by the ladies, thus entitled to share in the viewpoints, ideas and secrets normally reserved for those of XX chromosome)

    It didn’t take long for this subject to arise: the topic was a long and confusing one but had one commonly accepted conclusion: You could own all titles be they “Woman”, “Lady”, “Girl” (or for the dudes their male counterparts) – and thus pick and choose whichever best suited the situation. (Woe betide any who used the wrong noun here) For who wishes to anger a female? Not me…

    Though I initially agreed with the “until-responsibilities-shift” viewpoint – I say:
    “If it isn’t to change who you truly are, own them all!”

    • Kurt, I think that’s absolutely the most brilliant solution. Why shouldn’t one be a woman at work, a girl with her friends, and a dame on a date? I love it. Thanks for the great comment! And you obviously still deserve to be a one-of-the-girls guys. ;)

  10. Well, I can cook a boeuf bourguignon, I have a work and I study at the same time, I´m way over thirty and I´m married, but I still feel like a girl. And I like it that way !

  11. I am a 30 something, married, mother of two and I wake each day a little Hepburn on a holiday. Despite my real responsibilities, I am a dreamer and each day feels like a wonderful adventure.

    • ScribbleChic, one has to be envious of such a description. I think that might be my goal for future Grace – be a little Hepburn on a holiday. What a lovely turn of phrase. Thank you for the wonderful comment!

    • Would it be too cheesy to say great minds blog alike? ;) I would love to read your points on the subject, potluck! I certainly had so much more to include. It’s an almost inexhaustible discussion, don’t you think?

  12. Interesting musings… I think a lot of this has to do with how one grew up understanding the terms “girl” and “woman.” I must confess that the word “girl” to me means little girl, as in a child. I have always found the term “girl” when applied to a grown female and me in particular, rather offensive, precisely because it does imply naivete and helplessness. Girls need to to protected by grown-ups; women do not. I have a group of female friends but we are not “girls, ” do not refer to each other as such and Heaven knows I haven’t been one in a very long time. I suppose what I’m getting at here is that “woman” and “girl” originate and are defined by each person individually, not by what society mandates. Since the age “rules” for marriage, giving birth and so many other things have changed for women, those really shouldn’t come into play as to whether one is truly and adult or not.

    • What a great point, C&C. I hadn’t thought about the regional and generation differences of this. It seems everyone I know still refers to herself as a girl, but it is probably from the “Hey girl!” culture we’ve grown up with and been exposed to. It doesn’t just apply to children for us, but younger women and friends. Very interesting, indeed, to think about how that’s not the same for others elsewhere. Thanks for the insight!

  13. Love this post!, love it, love it, love it! – I am 33 and both girl and woman – I actually have wondered lately if I ever will stop thinking of myself as a girl and I suppose I hope that I don’t… It is that part of me that can be immature, child like, fun and throw off the shackles of responsibility.
    Even when I am 80, I hope to be a wise old woman where the girl sparkles underneath.
    BTW – I am from Australia and the only thing that I think is going to kill me is birds (massive fear of them) and they are in every country :(

    • Lin, I love that way of thinking! To pair the responsibility of a woman with the joy of a child should be our goal in general, I think. Thanks for the great comment!

      Also, I wasn’t even including birds in my list of Things To Fear In Australia. I have a feeling those are more fearsome in your home country, in addition to your snakes and saltwater crocodiles! (Really, wtf, crocodiles? You have no business swimming about in the ocean! That’s just mean.)

  14. Nobody has anything to say about blowjobs and vodka? You’re all girls.

    I am a random grandmother (in case you can’t tell); I don’t know how that happened, but it’s a lot more fun being on this side of the random grandmothering than it is on the other. Hopefully, it will be a long, long time before that makes sense. Brilliant comment millodillo, but curses for getting I Am Woman stuck in my head (may have to sing that later when I’m trying not to gag – that’s a random grandmother tip).

  15. I can see 40 just over that hill and I still can’t seem to describe myself as a woman most days. And quite often refer to the latest love interest as THE BOY. It’s just more fun that way.
    I don’t wanna grow up. You can’t make me :)

  16. I’m just about the same age as you gals here and never once been able to consider myself as a “woman”. I remember they used to talk about growing up and being a “woman” at school and I used to cringe at the thought!

    I’m still very much a girl, though often in a group of other same age girls, we’ve been known as ladies. For some reason I prefer that as a collective noun.

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