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Published: Irish Independent, March 2 2013

When does a girl become a woman?

bat mitz girl
When does a girl become a woman? That may depend upon your cultural or religious persuasion. You’ll get different responses still if you ask a lawyer, an anthropologist, a biologist or Neil Diamond. (“Soon”, I believe, was his line.)

As a male not wishing to offend, I know I’m on dangerous ground here. In 1990s blockbuster movie terms, this isn’t Tom Hanks going behind enemy lines in Saving Private Ryan. This is Bruce Willis crash landing on that meteor in Armageddon. I’m on a suicide mission and I know it. So I’m going to pivot and ask a broader question. When does a young person, regardless of their gender, become an adult? I happen to be sipping coffee on my former university campus at the time of writing, killing time while waiting for a train. The students at the next table look to be in their late teens or early twenties.

By just about any of the criteria listed above (Neil Diamond excepted) these people can consider themselves of age. Yet ear-wigging on their conversation, it’s obvious that they’re not quite adults. Just listen to the way they speak. In the short time I’ve been here, they’ve discussed having the best night EVER, the most amazing croissants EVER and the evilest housemate EVER.

(Bear with me a moment, I’m going somewhere with this…)

That use of language doesn’t just reflect that age group’s inarticulateness, or propensity for hyperbole. Rather it reveals their lack of an adult frame of reference. For Rudyard Kipling, being an adult meant having the ability to meet triumph and disaster “and treat those two imposters just the same”.

Yet how can anyone do that if they haven’t previously experienced triumph or disaster? If they haven’t known better or worse nights? If they don’t know that superior and inferior croissants will almost certainly come their way in the future? And if they have not yet learned, from experience, that sharing accommodation with strangers always ends up in disaster?

Being an adult, then, isn’t just about having the legal right to buy alcohol, have sex and drive cars. Although those things are all highly recommended. Neither is it about looking pretty or being physically strong. In Hamlet, Shakespeare pays tribute to mankind thus: “In form and movement how express and admirable… In anticipation how like a god.”

It is in their ability to anticipate, to evaluate risks and rewards in advance, and act upon that information, that adults mark themselves out from children, and humankind demarcates itself from lesser species. Being an adult is about learning to make decisions for oneself, irrespective of group pressure. It’s about being financially independent and emotionally astute.

It’s about weighing the consequences of doing something more heavily than how it might feels to do that thing, even in the heat of the moment. Ultimately, being an adult is about accepting the burden of responsibility for oneself and, eventually, for others.

And if you’re a woman, it might also mean learning to appreciate that your opinions, achievements and ambitions are of infinitely greater significance than your outfit, hair style or relationship status. (Or maybe not. Maybe you’ve worked these things out long ago. Maybe you never thought them in the first place. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Either way, please, please, don’t hurt me!)

For the record, adults don’t arrive at this state of maturity because they are better, more selfless or more high minded than younger people. They behave this way because bitter life experience has shunted them to a place where to do otherwise would be as absurd. Like believing in Santa Claus. Or being afraid of the dark. Or quoting Neil Diamond lyrics in an article aimed at 18-35 year olds.

Oh well. For some, it’s all still ahead of us.

[Written for International Women's Day and, also, because I was broke and they asked me.]

March 4th, 2013.

6 Responses to “When does a girl become a woman?”

  1. kate Says:

    I’m not out to hurt you here, and I think your observations in becoming an adult are astute. But there is a divide between your thoughts on becoming a woman and what I have experienced in my
    (relatively short) life.

    I’ve never cared too much about my appearance. My hair is curly, I let it curl. I’m hardly 5ft, I hate wearing heels so I avoid putting myself through the pain if I can. I don’t wear make-up, even when my childhood spots persist. I am clean, respectful and aware of how to present myself appropriately for the occasion (I think so anyway). I have gone on believing that none of that matters anyway and my efforts, achievements and ambitions will get me where I want to go. Recently however, I’ve learned – and actually been indirectly told – that I will be taken more seriously if I straighten my hair because it looks more professional, and wear heels so men won’t feel so awkward with the height difference.

    On the other hand, if a woman enjoys taking pride in her outfit (from miniskirt to power suit), lipstick, hairstyle, or relationship status, she should be able to do so without it compromising the recognition of her ability, or hindering the respect her opinions and achievements deserve. Unfortunately I have observed too often women, including women in senior positions, not taken seriously because they are wearing a pretty dress instead of a three piece pant suit with a matching shoulder length hairstyle. And I am not talking just about men. I have equally seen women treat women this way.

    Presumption can make the ripest person green. This is very much tied to your point about learning to make decisions regardless of peer pressure, but I also think being an adult is about learning to let go of preconceived notions others. Not just about women but about anything from young and old, rich and poor, race and religion, even music, clothes and lifestyle preferences etc. If you put aside your notions and listen to the blonde bombshell, the awesome super mum, the dorky Dora or the quiet plain Jane who likes to go about her own way, then who knows what’s ahead of you? You might even find the best croissant TOTES EVER is right in front of you.

  2. Darragh Says:

    Best.Article.EVAR!

  3. Rory Says:

    This may be the only semi-acceptable chance i’ll have to posit the following quote:

    “You’re not a woman until people come out of your vagina and step on your dreams.”
    Louis C.K.

  4. Eoin Says:

    @ Kate – it’s almost as if I had no idea when a girl becomes a woman and only accepted this commission for the money ;)

  5. J Says:

    Brilliant response, Kate.

  6. When does a girl become a woman? What makes her one? | A Mess in My Head Says:

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