Lez Miserable: How do I tell if I'm a girl or a woman?

Perhaps a cervical screening test is the “gateway to womanhood”, the rite of passage I’ve been waiting for.

‘‘Dear Miss E Margolis, I am writing to invite you to come to a cervical screening test.”

As far as summonses to have my vagina probed go, this one is at least polite. I never had a bat mitzvah; as I conclude my first quarter-century as a female, maybe this is the “gateway to womanhood”, the rite of passage I’ve been waiting for.

Sometimes it takes a letter from the NHS to remind you that you’re a woman. Not a girl, not a lady, not a nubile young wood nymph; a woman – with a great, blood-spewing uterus and a mighty triangular thicket of pubic hair. With oestrogenengorged ovaries and the most lewdly primal of instincts. It’s not that this clinical reminder of my biology makes me want to run up a hill, naked, relishing the cold wind against my tits and screaming, “I am woman.” But in a society that constantly infantilises young women, emotionally void letters containing the word “cervix” are sometimes extremely welcome.

A reminder that I’m biologically a woman is an indicator that I should regard myself as one linguistically. I rarely think of myself as a woman. In my head, I’m a girl, a guy (as in “Hey, guys!”), or a lesbian. My mum is a woman. My doctor is a woman. The various female bosses I’ve had have all been women, regardless of age.

There is certainly something authoritative about the word “woman”. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind whenever I hear it is a lady on a horse, frowning.

For many years now, the likes of Cath Kidston have been insisting, with a polka-dot paradigm from Hell, that even women in their forties are girls. And I’m part of a generation that’s cuffed to the word “girl” with bunting shackles. From cupcake-shaped vibrators to Bic ballpoint pens “for her” in pastel colours, women in their twenties are being aesthetically mollycoddled into prolonged girlhood. Society is doing its utmost to strip women of their woman-ness (woman-ness rather than womanliness, because womanliness somehow evokes patchwork aprons).

When you’re an adult, being a girl is dangerous. Can a girl live alone, do her tax returns and start a career? Of course not.

“Girls” are the girls in HBO’s Girls; “women” are the women in The Good Wife. Girls wear animal onesies and eat cereal for dinner; women wear comfy jeans and eat animals for dinner. There’s no fine line between girl and woman – it’s a big, hefty Maginot Line. It is also one that we’ll never cross if we allow seedy cupcake merchants to brainwash us.

I’m not looking forward to my smear test. A Google Image search has shown me that the nurse wrenches you open with a miniature scissor jack. There’s no guarantee that, during the procedure, I’ll transcend the bondage of girlishness metaphysically – that I’ll have an out-of-body experience in which the ghosts of Simone de Beauvoir and Boudicca crown me with a golden boob hat and say, “Welcome.” But on the off chance that I leave the examination room in a state of mind less addled by frilly baked goods, it will have been worth all the hideous probing. Knowing whether or not there are cancer cells in my cervix will also be quite useful.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North