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The word ‘girl’: empowering or infantilizing?

“Paddle, girl, dale!”

My friend is in a paddle battle with two other men. She’s on the inside, rightfully her wave, but you can tell the dudes don’t think she’s going to make it. She digs her arms in and paddles with all she’s got. All at once she is on her feet and soaring down the face. I scream.

My friend arrived to El Salvador from Australia three weeks ago and almost every day since then we’ve been testing out the waves up and down the La Libertad coast. I’ve missed my countrymen. After three years having all my new friends, mostly French-Canadian expats and Central American locals, awkwardly cough and exchange sideways glances every time I crack a joke, it’s nice to have someone who shares my sense of dumb Australian humour.

I’m high on life. In the water my friend and I talk in thick Texan accents (or at least what an Australian imagines a Texan accent to be, so, a very shit imitation) and scream ‘OUT THE BACK, JACK’ every time a set rolls in.

Any dude sitting near us overhearing our conversation quickly paddles away for dear life:

“Ever emerge out of the water after a duck dive and feel like you’re a baby emerging fresh out of the womb into the world?”

“All the time.”

There is also one thing I find myself doing a lot more liberally. Using the word ‘girl’ for, like, everything.

Go, girl. Yes, girl. Paddle, girl. GOOD WAVE, girl. It feels good. It feels nice. But my internal filter system starts to do this 😬😬😬 and I’m left wondering if it’s the best thing to say. Is saying girl, like, an empowering thing? Or is it infantilizing grown women, using language to reduce them to young, immature, silly baby ladies? My brain started to hurt as it tied itself in knots so I took to instagram to ask the question. These are some of the responses I got.:

“Between females, it’s a term of endearment and makes the relationship more friendly and relatable. If a man calls a woman a girl though it’s somewhat insulting, but it really depends on the situation in which that man used the word. In sports, I do think it’s lowering the power of females by looking at them as little girls. The word “woman” to me inspires more power than the word ‘girl’ but I’m sure if you can generalize and say it is infantilizing.

“I think it matters who is saying it, in a surfing context, I would say no.”

“Boy is also used in a lot of similar ways without question.”

“All depends on who and in what situations.”

“Healed girls turn into powerful, amazing women.”

“Never felt the word girl needs to be an insult, like any word or title it depends on how it is being said. You can say the same about “woman” or “lady” or “señora” being twisted in meaning.

“I think I originally found it degrading, growing up playing sports with the classics like ‘you throw like a girl,’ and felt like the word itself didn’t have room for growth. It keeps us young. But I’ve been doing a lot of inner work to be both soft and playful and fierce and feminine, and I reckon allowing space for our inner girl and play in our lives as women is actually super empowering! So I am all for using it as empowerment in certain contexts/ certain circles.”

“I’m really not into girl as women so often have their power diminished!”

“I don’t see a problem with someone saying girl, because it just goes better than woman. Also, just like how my partner says ‘I’m catching up with the boys,’ when he goes to see his mates. They aren’t boys either, they are men, but again it rolls off the tongue better. But girls/ women, same thing. Both are powerful independent and strong.”

“In some circles, we like to call each other ‘bitch’ in the most loveable way possible.”

“It works in those situations! I just don’t like it when used in a professional setting.”

“Girl is powerful too.”

“I think it’s all about the intention behind it.”

“Depends on the person, it feels like I’m in high school when I hear it. “Girl” culture has been mean.”

“Totally agree! I’m okay with ‘hey, girl!’ But don’t like to be referred to as one.”

“The power is ours. If a girl is used as a dig, we correct it. We are strong as girls and women.”

“Depends on context and tone. But I am more aware not to use girl, and use woman instead.”

“We do the same thing with guys, often call them boys!”

“Me gusta en el surf. Tiene que ver con el juego. En parte es conectarte con tu lado infantil.”

“to me it’s the same when guys call me cute. I don’t call my colleagues or friends girls because I want to empower them. They’re women. We all are and if we don’t start to see ourselves as this, who will. And cute- well babies are, and puppies. But not women.”

“I think it’s meant more as an endearing phrase. Like when you’re stoked for someone and you say “ATTA BOY!”

“I like it after much inner debate. I think it’s one of those ones where as women we should use it intentionally. I don’t care as much for men using it.”

“Never thought about it but does make sense.”

“Depends on the context. If it’s another female in a supportive way, like, YASSS GIRL GET IT or something heeeell no, but if it’s a male I’m automatically like ‘no.’ Because I thin the term girl generally holds immaturity as a connotation. Also in saying that I’m trying to use woman where I’d once used girl. I also feel like we don’t as often use the term boy to describe males and their success so why use it for females? I understand the ‘fun loving, youthful’ connotations the term girl has, but are we only so comfortable with it because of the patriarchy?”

“I also think we’re ok with being called girl, because it’s what we’ve known and heard for such a long time that there’s a comfortability with the familiarity of it. If you have to call me something tell me I’m strong, tell me I’m capable, tell my i’m a woman because to empower you use language that has larger boundaries than those with associations of childhood.”

“I simply don’t take it personally. I know what I am and that someone calls me girl doesn’t change it or make it less. I would prefer to be called girl than señora!”

“I like the term gal, use it all the time.”

“I never thought about it, I just take it naturally. Anyhow we all have a girl inside.”

 

“I think it’s all about the intention behind it. You’ll feel the energetic edge is someone is condescending.”

“I like it, after much inner debate. I think it’s one of those ones where as women we should use it intentionally/ I don’t care as much for men using it.”

“After reading some of the answers I kind of agreed with all of them. Between females it is a term of endearment and makes the relationship more friendly and relatable. If a man calls a woman a girl thought it’s somewhat insulting, but it really depends on the situation in which that man used the word. In sports, I do think it’s lowering the power of females by looking at them as little girls. The word ‘woman’ to me inspires more power than the word “girl.” But I’m not sure you can generalise and say that it’s infantilising.”

“I’m alright if it’s only used between “girls.” I’m not a fan when it comes from a boy.

“I believe there is room for tone and intention! Words hold the connotation you give them!”

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“Depends on the use, I don’t love “Girl Boss” feels like an unqualified teenager.”

“I love the connotation of sass and fun and youth. Appropriate use for each of them I think.”

“Girls can call other girls girls, but I feel like it’s not okay when a man calls a woman a girl.”

“I don’t mind it wether said by women or men. To me it’s more a question of what context was used.”

“No! I think it need to be embraced. We should all be girls at heart.”

“I’ve never felt that way, I think it just rolls off the tongue easier than a woman.”

Out of over 200 replies, 27% voted yes, while 73% voted no.

What do you think? Let us know!

About the Author:

Caitlin is a journalist and writer from Australia. She’s into collecting and sharing the stories of other human people. Mostly women’s stories. You can find her at @caitlincreeper

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