Sexism (noun): words we use for girls

The other day, my friend told me that the next step in her feminist agenda was to start referring to older females as “women” instead of “girls.” “We always say ‘men’ and ‘guys’ when referring to males above the age of 15 or so, but we still say ‘girls’ even when referring to women in their twenties and thirties. It creates a kind of imbalance,” she said. And it’s true. Words have so much power in  how they influence our society, and the speaking patterns that we’ve fallen into are beginning to damage the way females view themselves and reinforce patriarchal ideologies. But the “women” battle is only a small piece of a much larger war.

So, let’s talk about words. Let me list a few nouns for you, and try to think of what gender you most often associate them with: bitch, slut, ho, whore, skank.  Now, unless you’re thinking of ways these words have been repurposed by men, such as sarcastically referring to their male friends as “man whores,” just about everyone will place this list as words referring to women.

Bitch: 1. Noun. “A female dog, wolf, fox, or otter.” 2. Verb. “Express displeasure, grumble, complain, whine.” This insult towards women labels them as complaining animals, and connotates an image of yappy dogs trying to get attention from their owners.

Whore: 1. Noun. “A woman who engages in sexual acts for money.”

Slut, skank and ho can all pretty much be placed under the same definition:  1. Noun. “A woman who has many casual sexual partners.”

It’s important to note that both of these definitions, provided by Webster’s Dictionary, clarify that the words refer to women.

These derogatory terms are undoubtedly part of our generation’s colloquial vernacular, and I’m sure I hear them used at least 5 times a day. Our insults for women either demean or dehumanize them. We are implying that women are lesser: that we are animals who are ruined and inferior if we have sex, and that we should be ashamed if we have more than one sexual partner.

But let’s look even further than how we insult women—let’s look at how we compliment them. I’ve witnessed the raising of my six younger sisters and through them, I’ve seen how people talk to little girls. “You look so pretty!” or “Oh, she’s so cute!” or “You just look adorable in that little dress.” I could go on with how many compliments I’ve heard adults give to girls that all come back to the idea of appearance.

When people talk to Sydney, my youngest step-sister—a sixth grader who is a year away from achieving a black belt  and is the lead in her school’s theater production—they talk about her physical looks instead of her academic and extracurricular accomplishments. We need to be telling her that she’s strong, creative, smart, and a good leader, and hold back on all of the ooh’s and aah’s over her beauty. Because ultimately, she will focus on the things we compliment her for and prioritize staying small and cute above all of her other good qualities.

Even past Sydney’s middle school woes, there’s a visible long-term effect of the compliments we receive as children. In my workplace over the summer, female co-workers commented on each other’s outfits, their haircuts, their freshly done nails. Male co-workers complimented each other’s ideas, the scripts they’d just written, the episodes they’d proposed. In brainstorms for the network, men would say their ideas with confidence, while most women would qualify their statements with “this might not be good, but…” or “I don’t know if this’ll work, but….” It became clear, through the build up of these casual clues, that the compliments we receive as kids—that boys are smart and girls are pretty—stick with us even in our careers.

I’m hopeful that our society’s progress in undoing harmful patriarchal systems will continue to work towards equality. But, in order to move forward, we need to stop looking at the world in a ‘big picture’ way and focus on one of the numerous things we can fix in our own lives: words.

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