CLAIRE ELLIMAN: I was walking on the hot pavement. I was carrying a leather bag, and jingling my keys in my hand and listening to BBC news radio hour. It was summer, I was walking to work and, in that moment, I felt proudly and distinctly like a woman.
I can easily articulate this moment, this feeling like a woman, but if you were to call me a woman I would be taken aback. Throughout the day, I am referred to by friends and strangers as a “girl.” It’s the more casual term. “Woman” carries a seriousness to it. “Chick” feels offensive. “Lady” is formal and uptight. “Individual” lacks personality. “Person” removes my gender. The truth of the matter is, the semantic field surrounding terms associated with females is confused. But if you turn to females themselves, and ask them the simple question of what’s a moment they associate with being a girl or being a woman, the distinction between the two terms becomes glaringly clear. For some, the word “girl” evokes that sense of teenage fun, superficiality, an interest in something frivolous, or even a dependency connected to childhood.
EVIE SCHUMANN: My girl moment is when I come home from going shopping or having bought something, and I go home and try it on with a bunch of different things and make a lot of outfits and have a fashion show for my family.
ELIZABETH DUSERICK: I feel like a girl when I cry about stupid things.
ELLIMAN: What stupid things?
DUSERICK: Just like things that I shouldn’t be upset about, but I am upset about.
CHARLOTTE VAN VOORHIES: Probably, when, I don’t know, like when I use or like girly stuff like cream, like pink and creams, and stuff like that. I don’t know, that’s like a bad answer.
GRACE WYNTER: My girl moment, let me set the scene, in sixth grade, and so, I covered my room with like 14 by 16 feet, um, inch posters of Taylor Lautner, Justin BIeber—bowl-cut Bieber, this is like pre-“Baby” era Bieber, post-“One Less Lonely Girl” Bieber. It was pretty much the most exciting moment of my, like, young, budding adolescent career because now I had, like, onus over my room. I was like, “Great, I’m just like every other girl in America because I have these posters.”
ELLIMAN: For others, the word “girl” becomes associated with a misunderstanding, an inexperience with one’s body.
MARY MILLER: A girl moment for me was the first time, not the first time that I shaved my legs, but the first time that I, like, butchered them. Like blood everywhere type of situation, and you’re like, how am I bleeding this much because this cut just like, I can’t even see it. And then like you’re in the shower, so it just like looks so much more dramatic. And like you’re just looking down at your like body, and you’re like, “Wow, I don’t know how to fix this.” And you’re like 12, I don’t know. That for me, I don’t know a lot of, I don’t know if that many boys have really had that moment. I feel like, that’s a girl one, for sure.
ELLIMAN: Moving onto the word “woman,” the word conjures a moment of pride and acceptance of oneself.
AMANDA HANSEN: I think if I get dressed up for an interview. That’s what makes me feel like a woman.
ZOE ERVOLINO: I think the first moment when I felt like a woman, and this is kind of like strange, because it feels detached from womanhood itself, but the first time I felt like a woman was when I organized this protest in 2015 or 2014 to protest the kind of, like, lack of indictment of Eric Garner’s police officer, or maybe it was just at that point the whole situation, and I remember we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I think I felt, like I just felt so powerful, which I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. And I say that relates to my womanhood because I feel like womanhood for me is like adulthood, but it’s this, like, heightened sense of adulthood because there are so many like extra requirements that you kind of have to deal with. For me it’s meaningful to come or at least find these places where I feel very powerful, and not even in this like, individualistic, like, I’m-doing-this-for-myself kind of way, but in the sense that is about fitting myself in a larger whole in a way that is productive. And I think, so yeah, that’s when I first felt like a woman.
MILLER: I feel like a woman when I look at myself in the mirror, and I see something that, isn’t, doesn’t fit, like, stereotypically, or like you know, and, like, then I, like, continue to look at myself, and like I don’t look away. And I’m fine with it.
While in everyday conversation the words “girl” and “woman” come up interchangeably, the two terms are associated with distinct memories. Many of the examples of womanhood revolve around moments of pride, confidence, and responsibility. The moments associated with girlhood, however, evoked a sense of confusion towards one body or a feeling of youthfulness. Given the clear difference in association between these two words, why is it more jarring to hear ourselves called women rather than girls? Why am I more uncomfortable when someone calls me a “woman”? The word woman carries a formality with which we are still uncomfortable. We women take pride in being women, but we hesitate to say the word. There is nothing wrong with being a girl nor in referring to oneself as a girl. But shouldn’t we use the word that evokes the most respect? I don’t wish to criticise anyone who calls a friend a “girl.” I and most of the people I know say the word all the time. I just wish to bring a consciousness to these words.