Commentary | Conflations of girlhood and womanhood

How ageism is not gender neutral

Ageism can be most basically defined as discrimination against one on account of one’s age. However, I would like to suggest a broader definition – that ageism is the inexplicable sense of constraint within the age group that you belong to and all that it entails.  The conventional discourse around ageism would require one to gather statistics that indicate reduced opportunities for those of advanced age groups and then compare those between the two genders. But I would like to discuss a different kind of ageism – one that all women (arguably) feel at all stages in their lives. Perhaps the first question you’ll ask at this point is, starting at what age exactly? This question is a direct indicator of the women-specific complexities surrounding age, more specifically, the blurring of the line between girlhood and womanhood.

The most literal proof of this is that women continue to be referred to, and to reference themselves as, girls, well past the onset of adulthood. I’ve even noticed the paradoxical phenomenon where many women, regardless of their age, tend to refer to females older than they are as “women” and females of their own age as “girls”. Even well into their forties and fifties, females feel uneasy referring to themselves as women due to their association of the word with something unattractive and undesirable. Men avoid it too and opt for words like girls and ladies essentially to flatter women. The same is absolutely not true when the roles are reversed: while boys are referred to using the convenient in-between term “guys” starting from age 14 or 15, their female counterparts remain “girls” until as long as society allows or dictates it, before they’re suddenly demoted to the category of women, usually when they become a mother and a wife, at least so would argue comedian Louis CK. According to him, “you’re not a woman until you’ve had a couple of kids and your life is in the toilet.” Whatever happened to the word woman designating an adult female?

This discrepancy is translated in turn to outward appearance. Taking a look at any publicity shot on an ad or even at Hollywood red carpet events, one aspect is most obvious when comparing the men and the women. This is that the women’s “imperfections” (invariably those indicative of age such as wrinkles and gray hairs) are concealed, while men’s are quite often proudly displayed, the prevailing notion being that men of advanced age have charming or desirable qualities. The result is that it is usually much more difficult to gauge a woman’s age than it is to guess a man’s. In this way, women attempt to physically prove, to themselves and to the world, that they can play the part of being thirty forever. While there are sections of both men and women in the middle-aged group that seem not to accept their age, a disproportionate number of women dress in a way that their younger self would. All this points to the fact that many women feel an enormous amount of pressure to remain youthful.

To drive the point home even further, I would like to bring up one more phenomenon particular to women, and that is regarding the concept of Lolita, the 12-year-old ‘nymphet’ from Vladimir Nabokov’s eponymous novel. Lolita somehow became an icon over the past few decades, where grown women seek out to don attire to resemble the young sexualized female. If the idea of a grown woman trying to look like a young sexualized girl is not an absurd conflation of girlhood and womanhood, I don’t know what is.

While ageism is rampant in many stages of one’s life, the fixation of girlhood haunts all too many females long past childhood.

Mays Chami is a U4 Chemical Engineering Student. She can be reached at mays.chami@mail.mcgill.ca.


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