Don't Call Me Cute: A Short Woman's Plea

Photo: Brogues Cozens-Mcneelance/Eyeem.
Back when I started school, I was so tiny that even the smallest off-the-rack uniform had me resembling Tom Hanks at the end of Big, all trailing cuffs and quarterback shoulders.
"Look how CUTE you are!" friends shriek when I show them my kindergarten class photo. "LOOK AT YOUR TEENY FEET!" In the photo, my feet — admittedly teeny — dangle miles above the floor. Even I can see I’m adorable.
The trouble is, not much has changed. I’m 31 now, and 5-foot-1. In the U.K., where I live, the average height for a woman is 5-foot-4, which leaves me three inches wanting.
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There are perks, of course. Most people will let me slip in front of them at music festivals; dating is (marginally) easier without the threat of a Rod Stewart-Penny Lancaster situation; and in Topshop, if the dress I want has sold out in my size on the main floor, I’ll often find it lurking in the Petite section. I hold fast to these little victories, for each is accompanied by a dozen defeats.
My teenage dream of dancing on Top of the Pops was dashed when I learned you had to be at least 5'4" to stand a chance of getting work; likewise my backup dream of becoming a flight attendant (I may have taken "reach for the stars" too literally). Rush hour on the subway is nerve-shredding: I can’t reach the overhead bar, so if I find myself beyond touching distance of an upright one, I have to pray for as tight a crush as possible to keep from falling. As for what’s on the top shelf of my closet — your guess is as good as mine.
But that’s all cosmetic, really. What really irks me is this perception that small equals girlish, delicate, dainty. Cute. Who decided that all the adjectives for women of diminutive stature should be similarly dinky? Why the collective jaw-drop when a short woman turns out to be powerful? Try googling "small female celebrities" – you’ll notice the results are depressingly uniform in tone. "You’d never know how tall Gaga is judging by her ginormous presence," gasps one writer, "but Mother Monster barely stands over five feet tall. Pretty surprising, considering the way she owns a room."
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Then there’s Simone Biles, the incredible US gymnast who won four gold medals at the Rio Olympics. Media coverage of her performance was universally adulatory (words like "eye-popping," "strength," and "brilliance" abound) yet you’d be hard-pressed to uncover an article that doesn’t make a point of her height – even in women’s gymnastics, where athletes tend to be on the smaller side. (Biles, if you must know, is 4-foot-8.)
Let’s be honest, though; I can’t imagine Lady Gaga losing sleep over a handful of "Fuck me sideways that woman is minuscule"-type editorials. The damage is done in the real world, to those of us without 67 million Twitter followers or a stash of Olympic medals to waggle in the faces of our belittlers. I may be the eldest of three children, with a job and an apartment and a demonstrable ability to keep out of trouble but, around my family, I revert to impractical, head-in-the-clouds liability. My mother visibly crumpled with relief when I arrived in Australia for my brother’s wedding earlier this year, having traveled out alone. “Did you know what to do?” she asked, as we discussed the flight. As if I hadn’t been on a plane before… Increasingly I wonder whether years of bear hugs and being told "I do worry about you, Katy, you’re so tiny" has colored not just my mother’s impression of me but my impression of myself. Tell someone something often enough and they’ll start to believe it.
I've already resigned myself to making considerably less money than my taller colleagues over the course of my career. There are, apparently, certain "non-cognitive abilities or social skills that are correlated with stature and rewarded in the labor market." Well, what about the former boss who would pantomime reeling back in shock whenever I spoke up for myself? Or the number of visitors at a recent university open day who asked my little sister — the tutor — what she was hoping to study? After a while, she said, the satisfaction of wrong-footing people gave way to exasperation. If these are the social skills deemed worthy of reward — rudeness and a tendency to patronize — then I'll take my circumscribed earning potential and run, thanks.
In the grand scheme of things, I know there are more pressing concerns. I know that having the space to air my woes is a luxury not afforded to many people with actual problems. But man, I’m tired of guys (it’s always guys) at the bar resting their pint glasses on my head. Or seizing me as an opportunity to bolster their fragile masculinity. "STOP FUCKING PICKING ME UP I’M NOT A BARBELL" I want to scream as yet another muscle-bound city boy hoists me over his shoulder. Perhaps I should make more of an effort to put my foot down. To call out the next person who dares equate my size with my strength. To take up more space in the world. In the meantime, can everyone agree to stop calling us short women "cute"? After all, we’re the perfect height to kick you in the shins.
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