CONFRONTATIONS OVER CUTE

by Elizabeth Crego

What’s wrong with “cute”?

Today, I was forced to have yet another awkward conversation with total strangers over why my almost five-year-old hates to be called “cute.” They were not talking to me, but my daughter was in earshot. So when I confronted them, I got the impression my comments were not welcome.

The interaction felt foolish and ineffective. I wondered briefly if I was overreacting. I wished they would just understand – that they could see it from my perspective – but why would they? They don’t live with my daughter. They don’t have daily interactions, probably hundreds of them when in public, where they have to analyze the intent, the effect their child, and then decide how to react.

Living with dwarfism – whether you are a little person or a parent of one – changes your perspective. And I don’t have time to explain that to every single person my daughter passes or who notices her.

In our culture, there are instances when the word “cute” is acceptable, even a compliment. Babies are cute. Puppies are cute. There are even grown-up animals that are cute. In my teen and pre-teen years, it was a term used we used to describe someone we found attractive. The problem is with that first category. When does a child outgrow cuteness? I remember a time, when my youngest sister was maybe six or seven, when the things she had done previously that were seen as adorable simply became annoying.

At some point, a child is no longer “cute” and we cease to notice and smile when we see her walking down the street. Children sense this attention, and they recognize when it stops. Imitating adults, they look at younger babies and toddlers and start to coo and call them “cute.” The child will then start to look for a validation of the category she fits into – a “big” child is not a baby and can do things herself. She is someone an adult can talk to and take seriously, not just someone that an adult coos over and smiles at.

My daughter understands this dynamic, probably more than most. She is aware that people turn their heads and smile and point when she is speeding on her bike down the street. She gets angry when other kids that are her age and even younger call her “baby.” She knows that, even though she is half the size of a typical four-year-old, other kids should not pick her up. She knows that, when an adult or anyone points at her and calls her “cute,” that person is perceiving her as a child of inferior age and ability.

When we notice, point, smile, and call someone “cute,” we are objectifying that person. She is no longer a person with real ability and feelings, she is someone to be looked at, a spectacle. Unfortunately, being a spectacle is something that little people, or dwarfs, are far too familiar with. They have been freaks in circus side shows, caricatures in movies, theme restaurant entertainment, kinky fetish acts, and more. People take pictures of them when they are going about their daily business and laugh at them when they struggle with that which comes easily to people of average height. They are passed over on jobs that they can do because people confuse size with ability. People forget, or don’t realize, that they are humans too – people, like you and me, with feelings, capacity for thought, and capacity for greatness.

My daughter, who turns five this month, constantly shows me her strength, sense of humor, and intelligence. She frustrates me with her stubbornness. Even though her adult height will only be a few inches taller than her first-grade sister is now, I do not see her as merely a “little person” – she is my daughter, and I have high expectations for her. My heart aches when she complains about other children babying her, and I make sure and explain various concerns about her treatment to her teachers and the parents of friends. But my heart aches even more when I see the little things that I can’t control as much – the downcast look and scowl when some stranger is pointing at her and smiling, the picture snapped of her from across the playground, some stranger helping her climb the ladder she has climbed a hundred times on her own – all of these small things affect her too.

I know how it looks when I try to address it these seemingly minor misunderstandings. I know it looks like I’m overreacting, that I’m hovering, I’m being a helicopter parent, maybe I’m a little crazy. Most of them probably don’t even fully understand what dwarfism is, and they definitely aren’t going to understand everything I just wrote in the two seconds I have to talk to them. And maybe I could do it better – I don’t always handle it as well as I should.

But I’m also not doing it for these strangers that don’t understand and won’t even after I give them my haphazard explanation. I’m doing it for my daughter. I’m hoping that, if she sees me standing up for her enough, she’ll have the courage to stand up for herself one day, and not just when people think she’s a baby. Because I know it has the potential to get worse. I know that, someday, much later than for her peers, people will stop calling her “cute.” Some people will realize that she’s just small and not pay much attention past that. Hopefully most will have that reaction. I also know that “freak” may replace “cute,” and I won’t be around to protect her anymore. But maybe she’ll know, from watching me, that she doesn’t have to accept their view of her. No one, especially not my daughter, needs to accept other people’s labels of her. That’s why I’ll tell you what’s wrong with “cute.”

Elizabeth Crego is a mother of three living in Alexandria, Virginia. When she’s not playing with or yelling at her children (sometimes doing both practically simultaneously), she attempts to regain her sanity through reading good books, her part-time law practice, exercise, and meditation.

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