There is a problem with the word ‘woman’. I am in my late thirties and, although I am racking my brains, I can’t actually recall being referred to as a woman. Ten years ago I would be called a girl, and now it is usually lady. Just today, a woman said to their child who was standing in my way, “move out of the way for the lady.”
I find myself doing the same. I feel awkward in referring to my peers as women, even though it is difficult to decide on a suitable alternative, when ‘girls’ is surely too babyish and ‘ladies’ sounds like a toilet or a day at Ascot. We were in a restaurant recently and I wanted my daughter to ask for her own juice. The waitress stood there expectantly, and I said, “tell the nice lady what you want.” Nice lady? At the last minute, saying ‘woman’ sounded all wrong, ‘waitress’ too menial and using the name on her badge too familiar. ‘Lady’ seemed to be the most polite term, but what is wrong with ‘woman’?
The French have a neat solution, calling their women ‘Mademoiselle’ – an elegant and graceful word (has anyone not grinned inside after being referred to as Mademoiselle?) – until they are married or noticeably over the age of thirty, and then ‘Madame’ – which has gravitas and dignity – thereafter. But in English, ‘Miss’ is outdated and ‘Mrs’ too much like ‘her indoors.’
Even the French word for woman – une femme – is not half as loaded as its English counterpart. ‘Woman’ sounds like a statement of gender: a police report, medical description (‘a 39 year old woman presenting with the following symptoms…’) or Carrie from Sex and the City affirming ‘I. AM. A. WO-MAN.’
It is natural to write the word ‘woman,’ but can you say it?
If there are problems with ‘woman,’ far worse is the lack of suitable names for a woman’s ‘bits.’ ‘Vagina’ is medical, cringe-inducing and unpopular, ‘fanny’ is old-fashioned and associated with Enid Blyton, not to mention it is what North Americans call their bottom (a bum-bag is a ‘fanny-pack’ in the US). Then there are the babyish names: ‘Foo-foo,’ ‘Woo-woo,’ and the unparalleled ‘Rudy Judy,’ that may work for the three-year old girl but not one ten years older. And it is rarely acceptable just to point or to pull a face and say “down there.”
A quick Google search on the issue highlights a webpage boasting ‘238 words for a vagina.’ 238, really? Surely that is more than the eskimos have for snow. But we don’t build our houses out of vaginas and nor do we melt them to make water. So why are we so obsessed with naming them? The answer may be that most of the 238 names were thought up by men. The vagina list includes names associated with semi-aquatic rodents, shellfish and Mexican food which conjure up fairly disgusting imagery and I doubt were invented by women to describe their own body parts: ‘beaver,’ ‘clam’ or ‘taco’ anyone? But I could be wrong.
In a desperate bid to to come up with an inoffensive moniker that wouldn’t cause undue embarrassment if our little ones shouted it across Sainsbury’s (which of course they do, all the time), we turn to euphemisms. My husband (only when absolutely necessary) will refer vaguely to our daughter’s ‘bits and pieces,’ which could equally be used to describe the contents of a toolbox. When a friend’s daughter asked recently where babies come out, she told her that they come out of your ‘front-bottom’. “I didn’t know what else to call it”, she whispered. And nor do any of us.
No doubt due to my hesitation to refer to her vagina at all, my four-year old daughter has christened hers, her ‘bo bo’. “Boys have willies and girls have bo-bos,” is what she tells me when taking a bath with her brothers. My failure has led to my child being forced to invent names for her body parts. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say.
Is this a big social problem? Well, no, not really, but it is irritating, particularly since the difference for men in all this, is that there are fewer negative connotations. A ‘willy’ is so harmless that it is acceptable as a first name for a boy (I doubt there are many girl babies born these days with the name ‘Fanny’) and slang names for penis tend to denote strength and power (‘manhood,’ oh purleeease) or harmless comedy (‘mini [insert man’s name here]’). Admittedly, ‘dick’ has become a bit ridiculous and is now interchangeable with ‘idiot’ but it is not half as bad as ‘gaping axe wound.’ Why can’t vaginas have a non-sexual name as inoffensive and universally used as ‘willy’? One that doesn’t make you blush and cross your legs when you hear it?
Equally, we can refer to a man as a ‘man’ or a ‘guy’ without hesitating and worrying that we are saying the wrong thing. Women need to have a ‘guy’ equivalent: there are many alternatives to the word ‘woman,’ but most of them you wouldn’t want to be called. Perhaps ‘woman’ is the best option after all.
So, I have made a pact with myself to use the word ‘woman’ more regularly, rather than ‘girl’ or ‘lady,’ in the hope that I get used to it and no-one is mortally offended when I call them a woman. They certainly shouldn’t be. We will see. As to the vagina issue, I will let my young daughter lead the way: for our family, ‘bo-bo’ it is.