Why are elite athletes still being called girls?
Anna Meares and Kaarle Mcculloch during the medal ceremony for the Women's Team Sprint Track Cycling at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
For the jauntily-named Team GB, this has truly been an unprecedented Olympics: on their home turf, British athletes have been raking in the medals left and right.
But more than just being an unusual victory for the local team, London 2012 has been a stunning victory for British women, who’ve climbed the podium in a wide competition from Jessica Ennis’ gold in the heptathalon to Beth Tweddle’s bronze on the uneven bars.
It’s been impossible not to get caught up in the celebration; despite being amongst the thousands of grumpy Londoners who spent the months leading up to the event in a bit of a sulk, I too have raised my arms in victory and shed tears of joy at the sight of British women achieving their sporting dreams. Except that every few minutes, it seems, my sense of elation is interrupted by yet BBC presenter making another grating reference to these superhuman athletes as ‘girls’.
Sally Pearson post gold-medal win.
A 25-year-old boxer. Two rowers in their mid-twenties. 26-year-old Ennis. And, OK, a 15-year-old swimmer, among them the only person for whom the title is appropriate. Throughout the British media, Britain’s woman athletes (and, indeed, women who’ve come to compete the London Olympics from around the world) are being lauded for their girlish achievements. And it’s not just the journalists. Prince William is just one of many men who are backing the ‘girls’ too: according to the London Daily Telegraph, he remarked this week that the fact that ‘the girls have done really well’ could be a key part of the legacy of the 2012 Olympics.
Shock! Horror! Prince is patronising. Perhaps not the greatest revelation of the Games. But I do think that all this Olympic girl talk has demonstrated is a general and somewhat strange aversion we have to referring to female humans over the age of 18 as ‘women’. ‘Hey, girls!’ say advertisements pushing products that under-18s would never desire. ‘Get together with the girls,’ lifestyle magazines for the over-30s exhort us. ‘I’m looking to meet an amazing girl,’ write men well over 30 in their online dating profiles; others, perhaps aware that perhaps they’re a little old for that, put out a call for attractive ‘females’. Anything but the dreaded w-word.
I’m guilty of it myself, at times. When I turned 30 I made a conscious decision to refer to my peers as ‘women’, but that doesn’t mean it always trips off my tongue: it takes real effort to resist the trend to refer to women diminutively, not to think that it sounds awkward or pretentious to my ears when I describe a new friend, say, as ‘a woman I met at a party’ rather than ‘a girl I met round at my friend’s house’. ‘Women’ are serious, grown-up, intimidating, the generation above us; ‘girls’ are fun, diminutive, relatable. A girls’ night out is for cocktails and laughter and, if you get lucky, dancing on tables; a women’s night sounds like it calls for severe hairdos and frowns.
Jessica Ennis winning gold in the Women's Heptathlon.
Perhaps we’re just not clear enough on when we truly become women. Menstruation? Leaving home for the first time? Marriage? Truly mastering our finances and hair removal regimes (I hope not; I’m still fine-tuning them)? Lena Dunham’s series Girls feels appropriately-named because the protagonists in the show are so hapless, so dependent on their parents for guidance even though they’re in their mid-twenties; in other words, though, they’re in stark contrast with successful Olympians.
In the no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood (of which Britney Spears sang so movingly in that video where she gazes thoughtfully over the Grand Canyon), men can be referred to as ‘guys’ - more sophisticated than boys, but still more fun, and perhaps less mature, than men. But unless we resort to the hideous, cloying, ‘gals’, women lack this kind of convenient buffer term. Sometimes when I’m feeling very weak, I resort to ‘ladies’, aiming for something a bit more casual than ‘women’ and a little bit ironic but which probably just sounds a little bit weird and old-fashioned.
Language is forever being reborn, so I am hopeful that maybe one day a word like ‘guy’ for women will emerge and solve this particular challenge. But until then, I think it’s time for us to reclaim the word ‘woman’ and its derivatives: there’s no shame in asserting our status as adults. Sometimes, I suppose, this will require making a little bit of a fuss about being addressed as a woman. But then if there’s one thing that living in a female body into womanhood earns us, it's the freedom not to care about that.