It happened again last night. I was innocently scrolling through my Facebook feed, and someone I know posted a picture of her “little man” with a new haircut. The boy was 4. Why do we do this? Why? Why? Why? Most of the women I know with boys have been calling them “little men” since the day that they were born. 

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but the definition of man, when I was growing up, was Burt Reynolds. In other words, men had body hair that looked like a hair brush under your nose, a shag carpet on your chest and pubic hair that escaped from your underwear, invaded your armpits and was launching an offensive to reach the back of your hands. Thankfully, none of my friend’s children look like that, so I needed to make some inquiries about this naming convention.

“Why do people call their infant boys ‘little man?'” I asked a friend who is both socially normal and moderately aware of gender bias. “Doesn’t that strike you as a little sexist, if we call all the boys ‘little men’ and all the girls ‘little girl’ or ‘baby girl?'”
“Oh,” she said, taking on her wise, old sage but still highly attractive female voice. “I think it’s because babies look like little old men.”
Wow, I thought. Really? I missed that whole part. After both of my daughters were born, though they were more like 10 pounds of butter wrapped in human skin, no one once mentioned that they looked like little old men. And they were bald. So bald that there was nowhere to attach the microscopic barrettes that were given to us at our baby shower. 
Then, I started to pay attention to all of name calling. Boys vs. Girls. Men vs. Women.
There were all the little men with their Legos and their gelled haircuts. Then, there were all the girls in high school with their bejeweled cell phone cases and teenage pregnancies. There were the “Boy’s Nights Out” and “Boy’s Weekends,” followed of course, by “Girl’s Nights Out” and “Girl’s Weekends.” And last, but not least, there were the girls in the office — a collection of post-50 women who did secretarial work. 
I think I can now draw the conclusion that if the male gender is doing something serious or meaningful, then they are men. See getting a haircut, above. If the male gender is doing something fun, frivolous, but most especially if it something destructive, then they are boys. Girls are just girls on the other hand, even after they have babies or grow old. We are only women when we hold leadership conventions or try to assert our rights for equal pay, better maternity leave or breastfeeding in malls. Having hair doesn’t make you a man anymore than having a baby assures anyone that you are woman. At least they would never call you that to your face.   
Sarah Gilbert

Sarah writes with sarcasm about science, gender, feminism and fertility issues on her blog She is writing a memoir about her experience becoming a parent. Sarah lives in Denver with her wife, two girls and an ungrateful dog. If she had more free time, she would spend it lobbying the state government to make down vests and flip-flops the official uniform of Colorado. You can talk to her on Twitter @sarahanngilbert.

1 Comment

  1. I dunno, I call my boy a little man, but just as often, I call my girl a little lady! I’ve also been known to call them, even at 4 & 3, baby boy and baby girl. I think that the “girls” vs “women” thing in our office isn’t so much a commentary on sexism but the fact that we, ourselves, see “women” as old – and most of us subconsciously think of ourselves as still girls – young, lots of energy, our whole lives ahead of us.
    I remember my mom telling me, about 10 years before she retired, that she still uses the term “girl” for herself in her head because she doesn’t feel old/matronly enough to be classified as a woman.

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