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A few years ago, I worked in one of those really testosterone-driven sports bars common in the South. It was at a point in my life where my main interests were beer, attractive women, and wearing shorts at every opportunity; luckily, this job encompassed all three.
Alas, as fun as the 2 a.m. happy hours were (from what I remember), it would be a stretch to call this place a great environment for women. I suspect that the management training consisted of a two-hour viewing session of The Real Housewives and a warning that women get their periods, like, a lot.
The hiring practice of the restaurant were as follows: attractive women between the ages of 18 and 30 to be servers, bartenders, and hosts. The face of the establishment, if you will. Men do everything important. This was because in the fantasy land called Every Manager's Mind Ever, women make more in tips than men do because of boobs. I would venture to guess that women do make more — it's just that 70% of tipped employees are women, and we have fewer chances for advancement, so we have more time to figure it out. Also, boobs. Boobs are very useful in making tips. I know this first-hand because I was an A-cup.
It was important to note that while none of the guys in the kitchen were anything but men, the front of house consisted entirely of girls. As in, "Girls! Shift meeting in five!" and "Goddamn it, girls, why can't you learn to put an order in correctly?" If a 40-year-old woman walked in, the managers would be sure to mention that she was a pretty girl, for her age.
Men worked in the kitchen until they were old enough to be managers. They received steady paychecks and job security. We (the servers) tried to up-sell beers to a demographic that preferred $1.50 Bud Lite specials. They told us to wear more makeup because men prefer it that way; I disregarded this advice and my tips suffered accordingly. They determined what was "officially" sexual harassment. They were allowed to wear jackets when it got cold.
I'm not here to bash on the reality of working in a sports bar; I chose to be there because it suited me at the time, and it can be a great gig if you find the right fit. But the sexism there was pervasive in a way I have never experienced before. It made me question a lot of things that I previously took for granted, and I got really into feminism around this time.
And, for some reason, it started to grate on me that the managers would consistently refer to all us as girls.
As anyone who has browsed psychological terms on the internet to make sense of their own existence knows, there is this thing called the Sapir-Whorf thesis that basically says that our language shapes how we view and behave. Language creates the culture rather than reflecting it. Dominant groups have used derogatory terms to keep people in subordinate positions since language was created. I will be the first to admit that it has been used in far more nefarious ways than this one, but this is the example I have.
At the time, I was reading some think pieces about women who had hit their limit with the word girl. It was inappropriate, demeaning, and a holdover from the 1950s. I didn't feel the message applied to me, as the authors portrayed themselves as ambitious women with real careers. I mentally wished them success, but I was more comfortable thinking of myself as just a really stupid overgrown high-school senior than an actual adult human whose life had consequences. But I was bored and needed a mental challenge, so I decided to implement a ban on this word anyway.
I called my mom and told her that next time I use the word girl in a story, or worse, chick, she was to correct me harshly. She agreed, and I immediately launched into a story about "this girl from work..."
I told the story again, but this time I called her a woman. And despite myself, I respected her more. It was like, when a girl did something it was obviously a character flaw, but when "this woman" did something, she required more explanation. It was verbal sorcery the way my tearful ballad about the bitchy hot chick taking the best section at work became a human-interest piece about the stressed-out woman who used shady tactics to secure more money at a thankless job that didn't pay the bills. I didn't like her more in this new version, but I understood where she was coming from. I automatically gave her more nuance because the word woman demanded it.
As for myself, I was not so generous. It was far easier to call someone else a woman than to think of myself in such terms. The word woman was scary. If I was going to think of myself as a woman, I would have to hold myself accountable for things I wanted to pretend weren't my fault. It was uncomfortable. But at least I was growing in my own small way.
See, I envisioned myself as this wide-eyed child who would one day be wandering through the forest and where a toad might grant me three wishes or send me on a magical quest and then I would be the adult I always dreamed of being. Alternately, I thought getting a nine-to-five job might transform me if the fairytale life path didn't work out. Ultimately, I realized that we don't magically become adults. We just turn 18 and... are them.
One day at work, my manager was celebrating his birthday. He posted an adorable Facebook update of himself surrounded by waitresses and a cake with the caption, "My girls love me." It was innocuous, but something about it resonated with my new pledge.
His use of girls was so simple. He didn't even think it might be offensive, and neither did anyone in the picture. There wasn't even a better substitute. "My women love me" would have sounded weird. "My employees love me" sounds robotic. "My friends love me" was inaccurate. And yet, this guy was 26. He was a wee baby giraffe just barely stretching his legs. He was a fetus of a person, which was fine because so was I and so was almost everyone there.
And yet he was going to be called a man, and we were going to be girls. Even surrounded by women who were older than him, more educated than him, and with as much work experience as him, he was the only one given linguistic adulthood in this picture, and as long as he was the one granted adulthood, he would also be the one with the adult salary and benefits, and the adult connections. But we were all busting our asses on the real adult grind, and we deserved to be respected for it just like he was.
The word woman is confrontational. It's powerful. And, silly as it sounds, it helped me take responsibility for my choices at a time when things felt too big to handle as a scared little girl. It helped me get comfortable taking up space. And I don't think it's fair that we make women jump through so many more hurdles to claim their adulthood than men. Men get all but handed a trophy with the word man engraved on it the second they turn 18, and that's just it.
So I stopped using that evil little word. Because the women we come into contact with on a day-to-day basis deserve basic respect as adults, and when I thought of us all as a pubescent underclass, I was not giving it to them. I've stopped making judgments about how women get their money. It doesn't change my life to know that their significant others pay the rent or their parents pay their car insurance because even if they still think of themselves as girls, I don't get to default to treating them the way I was treated in that position. And maybe I will subconsciously tip my server more or have a different tone in my voice when I am talking to a receptionist if I keep in mind that this is not a girl in front of me, but a woman. Maybe I will listen to a female speaker's point more closely instead of focusing on her outfit.
Understanding the power that words had over my perception has helped me become a better ally to other groups. I will never be the person railing about how political correctness is ruining America because I am not that attached to the America the old words represent. Language that relegates people to second-class citizens should be adjusted. And really, it takes two seconds of my time to ask a person what gender pronoun they identify with or how I should refer to their ethnicity. It would be selfish of me not to adjust my thinking when the situation requires it. Words have a bigger impact than we give them credit for, and so I decided to respect that.