There are some words that are only ever used to describe women: Ditsy, feisty, frumpy, loose, and hysterical are just a few that spring to mind, but a quick Google search returns a host of Buzzfeed-esque listicles confirming the existence of these, uh, lady words.
Describing women using terms such as these is not something exclusively done by men. We ladies are just as guilty of referring to our girlfriends as “dramatic,” our female colleagues as “bitchy” or our mothers as “badgering,” when we would almost never describe men in these ways.
In the workplace, for example, instead of meticulous, driven or passionate, women are often described as abrasive, irrational or feisty—an extra special lady word society has created for women with opinions.
While most of us are familiar with the vocabulary used to portray women in a negative light, it’s interesting to note the vocabulary we use to describe women in a positive way—and by that I mean it’s almost entirely superficial.
In fact, the idea for this piece came from a conversation I overheard on the train on the way to work last week between two friends, a man and a woman. It went something like this:
Man: I’m not having much luck on (insert names of multiple dating apps here).
Woman: Oh? I should set you up with my friend [Sarah] who’s moving here in a couple weeks.
Man: Is she cute?
Woman: Oh my God, so cute.
Man: Do you have a photo?
Woman (showing Male a photo): She’s really pretty and super sweet. You’d definitely like her.
Man (murmurs something about Sarah having nice hair): Yeah, okay. Put us in touch.
Um, hi there. First of all, Man—don’t you want to know why Sarah’s moving to the city, where she’s moving from, what she does for a job, what she likes to do in her spare time, WHO SHE VOTES FOR?! And Woman—c’mon. I’m sure Sarah’s more than just a pretty face. Ah, look, another in-context example.
Since this interaction, I’ve been taking note of how often we describe women by their looks or nature before anything else — using words like “gorgeous” or “sweet” before or in place of words like “smart” or “funny.” And it happens more often than you might think.
Next time you’re describing a woman to someone, take a moment to examine the language you use —are you commenting on her intelligence, credibility or sense of humour? Or are you referring to the way she looks, or how lovely she is? Many of us are guilty of defaulting to the latter (myself included). There’s nothing wrong with describing someone as beautiful or lovely, but what is it that makes them beautiful or lovely?
Take the way parents compliment or praise their daughters, for example. Often their comments focus on appearance or nature over achievements. Tell your girls how beautiful they are, sure, but don’t let this take precedence over how talented they are, what a generous and caring friend or sister they are, or how well they’re doing at a hobby or sport.
We should celebrate young girls for their successes, their talents, their lovable quirks, not just the way they look. This is especially important if you’re a father—and one of the most crucial things you can do to really change the way we talk about women, and the way women expect to be talked about, from a young age.
And to the younger men reading this, here are some bonus take-home language tips for you to think about when you’re talking to or about a woman you might be interested in:
- Please stop using the term “friend-zoned.” This is not, was not, or will not ever be a thing. Enjoy having women as friends without expecting them to sleep with you.
- Saying “you’re not like other girls” is not a compliment. Other girls are incredible, and we want to be like them. Learn to say something nice about a woman you like without bringing down others around her.
- Do not comment or complain about how long it takes a woman to get ready. Instead, think about the ridiculous standards of beauty women are expected to meet every time they leave the house, thanks to a system men benefit from. (Why not have a good book on hand to read while you’re waiting for your significant other to put the finishing touches on her outfit? If you’re looking for recommendations, try Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay or I Love Dick by Chris Kraus).
- Think about the way you describe women you’re attracted to. If a woman is older, overweight, queer, trans, or powerful, this does not make her your “guilty crush.”
- Don’t comment on women’s bodies. Please. Just don’t.
- Learn what the term intersectional feminism means. Tell all your friends. Be an ally to women of colour and queer women; be an ally to ALL women, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or class.
Every woman is beautiful, and we should celebrate that beauty. But not only are we beautiful, we are smart, powerful, hard-working and strong—all the things men can be, but in the same language, using the same vocabulary, with no lady words to be seen.*
*Although I am down to reclaim feisty.Support Villainesse