by: Kathryn Spindler
Mimi Nguyen and I are friends. When I read her essay, “The Problems With Being Called ‘Cute’: Deconstructing a Diminutive Stereotype,” I thought about it a great deal because I had never reflected much on the negative connotations of being called “cute.” As a woman, I had always thought of being called “cute” as overwhelmingly positive. My experiences with that word are totally different from hers. The reason is that Mimi and I are physical opposites.
When Mimi and I first met, we were intimidated by each other. I was intimidated because Mimi is so cute. She was intimidated because I am, simply, intimidating. I am about ten inches taller than she, broad shouldered and strong. I am pale, dark haired, and have a stoic expression. To me, “cute” means “attractive” and “approachable.” Clearly, some people find me “attractive” but almost never “approachable.” I am not “cute.” If Mimi is a baby seal, then I am a polar bear.
This does have some advantages. Being intimidating gives me a lot of natural authority. If some guy in a bar puts his hand on me and I tell him to take it off, he does. Strangers rarely harass me because I look as though I can fight back. If I am put in a superior position, people tend to respect me with relatively little effort on my part. Simply put, people usually take what I say or do seriously. But there are some true disadvantages.
These disadvantages begin in childhood. Take, for example, the old schoolyard adage of “pick on someone your own size.” Note the word “size.” It is not “pick on someone your own age” or “pick on someone your own level of maturity.” Frankly, some of the worst bullies I have ever met have been small cute people because they were untouchable. If you are an intimidating child and your bully is not, you are automatically the villain. Even if adults see that the intimidating child is not the culprit, that child is assumed to be able to handle the situation on their own. This is very difficult because a taller or more mature-looking child does not necessarily have the ability to defend his or herself or to cope with the situation. Additionally, tall people are taught to be passive, whereas their diminutive classmates are taught to be aggressive.
I had my hair painfully pulled every day in class by an adorable, tiny, high-voiced Asian-American girl because her boyfriend would greet me before her. I could do absolutely nothing about it because the situation looked laughable to outsiders. Clearly, I could have flattened her in a physical altercation, but I had been taught never to fight, nor even to be mean to those smaller than myself. Her cloak of “cuteness” meant that no one would perceive her as dangerous or threatening.
This continues into adulthood. There is a certain type of personality that, when put in a position of power, will purposefully try to break down individuals whom they would normally find intimidating. As a physical metaphor of this behavior, please imagine my brother playing rugby. He is 6’7” and is built like a brick wall. He looks absolutely invincible on the pitch. In reality, he tends to be the most injured out of everyone on the team because he is so intimidating that the smaller players are extra rough in an attempt to take him out as soon as possible. He looks like a colossus, but he is a regular person with breakable bones and flesh that tears.
That kind of thinking applies to work and social situations as well. Someone “cute” probably is not even aware of the existence of this sort of personality because such a person will usually pat her on the head and may even be extra protective. An intelligent cute person, like Mimi, will probably think that such a person is a condescending jerk because they do not treat her like an adult. However, the alternative is much worse.
Women with this personality are pretty bad, particularly if they tend towards jealousy. Men, however, can be truly terrifying. I have met men who seem to hold me personally responsible for being taller than them or who just naturally resent any woman they do not perceive to be “cute.” They will condescend to a cute woman, but they will terrorize an intimidating one. Just about the only thing that will get such a man to change his behavior is to cry in front of him. Once an intimidating woman cries, he has established dominance. She can then become “cute” or “defenseless” or “vulnerable.” The scariest thing is that if such a man can get an intimidating woman to be defenseless, he will sometimes become affectionate and sweet because to dominate such a woman is like a prize.
The problem is, as Mimi aptly pointed out, that people make assumptions based on physical appearance and behavior. Many people might be jerks to both of us in completely different ways, but with the same reasoning. Obviously Mimi and I cannot put on each other’s skins and experience what it is like to be cute or not cute, but I think we would both learn a lot if we could. I honestly don’t know which is better.
All of us want to be judged on our character and not simply be summed up in a single word, but the idea that every human walking the Earth is a complex mix of traits and attributes is daunting. So we generalize, even about ourselves. I have heard a number of women complain that being called “cute” is a backhanded compliment, but I have seen relatively few accounts of what it is like to be perceived as “powerful.” Neither adjective truly fits anyone, but then again, no adjective ever could.