Ideasthesia: Why We Shouldn’t Refer to Women as “Girls”

Two abstract shapes, one with sharp, pointy edges, one with round globular edges.
Which is a bouba and which is a kiki?

“Synethesia” is the phenomenon of one sensory stimulus triggering another simultaneously. For example, individuals may associate letters with specific colors, word sounds with specific tastes, smells with specific tactile responses, etc. In other words, individuals with synethesia experience certain senses at the same time automatically.

Though synethesia is extraordinary, this phenomenon occurs in most humans to a lesser extent. The graphic above has been used in dozens of studies analyzing what is known as the “Bouba/Kiki Effect.” When asked which shape is a “bouba” and which is a “kiki,” 95% to 98% of study participants report that the angular shape is the “kiki” and the fluid shape is the “bouba.” These findings are consistent despite age, gender, country of origin, native language, and have even been found in pre-literate children below the age of 3.

Our brains are designed to associate words with ideas, a phenomenon referred to as “ideasthesia.” Both consciously and subconsciously, we create deeper meaning from the words we hear and the words we speak.

Ideasthesia is the concept at the root of Implicit-Association Tests (IAT) popularly taken through Harvard University’s Project Implicit. These studies essentially test whether or not the participant associates certain positive/negative or traditional/nontraditional attributes with a marginalized or stereotypical demographic. The subjects vary from Light Skin/Dark Skin to Young/Old to Gender/Career and many more.

What we find is that certain words are practically conjoined to abstract concepts on a subconscious level, leading to societal problems such as racism, sexism, homophobia, islamaphobia, etc. We can attempt to fight against these implicit biases by 1) Becoming aware they exist and then 2) Consciously changing the way we think about the individual, group, community, idea, etc., and that conscious change includes altering the way we speak about them.

Medical and psychiatric professionals’ promotion of the phrase “die by suicide” versus the phrase “commit suicide” is a recent example of a push to alter public lexicon in order to change society’s collective psyche. If someone “dies of a heart attack,” their death is seen as out of their control. Whereas someone who “commits suicide,” is seen as culpable. When followed by an act, the verb “commit” is associated with immoral behavior of some kind. Someone commits murder. Someone commits perjury. Someone commits a crime. Rather, suicide is often the manifestation of trauma and/or mental illness that requires compassion and understanding rather than judgment. Since suicide is not a crime, vocabulary associated with criminal behavior should be untethered from its phrasing. Words create ideas in our minds whether consciously or subconsciously. By switching to the phrase “die by suicide,” medical professionals are attempting to remove the stigma and culpability.

The language we, as a society, choose to use matters , and the ideasthesia phenomenon is also the reason why we need to stop referring to adult women as “girls.”

A girl is defined as a pre-pubescent or pubescent female human. Any female human over the age of 18 is no longer a “girl,” she is a woman.

Why is it important to call women women? Well, what are some of the implicit associations we might uphold by referring to female adults as children? How do adults view children? First and foremost, children lack the education and experience of grown adults and therefore cannot be trusted to make life decisions for themselves. On top of that, children need adult help or supervision to be able to make those life decisions effectively. An adult wouldn’t want a child as a boss. Or a president. An adult wouldn’t want to be given advice from a child. Or be given orders by a child. If a child attempts to take on a dominant role, leading the pack, adults see it as adorable and out of the ordinary. Adults typically see children as lacking, needing assistance, needing education, needing guidance, and not ready to take on the world on their own. Too often factions of society in higher education, upper management, religious institutions, and in personal relationships, treat women and young women like children. Take into account the visual reinforcement that women are typically shorter and smaller than men, and the subconscious infantilization of women is doubly internalized.

While conversing with a man who is 20 years older than I am about a topic I have a Masters degree in, he asked me:
“How old are you?”
“Alright, then you should be able to understand this concept…”

Would he have asked me this if he saw me as his equal? Would he have asked me this if I were a 32-year-old man? Or even a 22-year-old man? Would he have asked me this if he saw me as a woman rather than as a girl? Is it that he didn’t see me as an adult?

Examples of mansplaining, manterrupting, condescension, degradation, and overall disrespect of women are infinitesimal. Will misogyny and sexism disappear after changing one word in our cultural vocabulary? No, but it’s a start. So, why not start?

Some women have voiced to me that they don’t “feel” like a “woman,” and they are uncomfortable being called a “woman.” And I’d like to respectfully challenge that idea. Why is it that women feel uncomfortable being called “women?” What do they internally feel they are lacking as to not be defined as “woman?” Are these feelings not constructs of the gender hierarchy into which they have been institutionalized? If for decades women were not referred to as “girls” well into their 40s, how would both women’s and men’s implicit associations regarding adult female human beings be different? Would we more easily envision ourselves and other women in upper-management careers? Would we more easily envision ourselves and other women as political leaders? Would we more easily envision ourselves and other women in any position of power? Would society be less likely to attempt to regulate women’s bodies? Would we find that women are generally seen more as equally intelligent, competent human beings?

Progress no doubt has been and continues to be made in the realm of gender equality. However, on individual- as well as community-wide scales, work remains to be done. Erasing “girl” as a term used to describe any female between the ages of 18 and 45 and limiting it to any female between the ages of 0 and 17 is a small gesture that can create large differences in society’s collective psyche. Let’s eliminate the Implicit Association that women are children. Women are adults, competent leaders, and capable of making decisions autonomously.

I survived puberty. Therefore, I am a woman, not a girl.

*** Author’s Note ***

This article previously defined “girl” as only “pre-pubescent” instead of “pre-pubescent or pubescent.” I have since updated the definition to appease one man who focused his comment on the critique of the definition. Hopefully, he can now move on and reflect on the actual fucking point of the article.

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