Don't Call Me Cute

Words: Jemima Skala Accompanying Image: Ellie Connor-Phillips

‘Cute’ has become the catch-all response for the multi-tasking, freelancing, busy, burnt out generation. Such a versatile word, too. Enthused about a plan coming together? Cute! Your friend’s showing you her new dress over FaceTime? Cute, babe! Not been paid on time? The word can even be dunked in sarcasm: wow, cute. 

Cute is something I have always aspired to be but have never really fit the description. Growing up, I was lanky-limbed, gangly and awkward in my movements. I have always been tall, and so inadvertently drew attention to myself throughout school as the one that the boys all competed against to be better than, faster than, taller than. Because of my height, strangers saw me as much older than I was. Once, I was sold an adult ticket at the cinema when I was just twelve, excited to be going out alone with my friends. Rather than bolstering my confidence, it shrunk me down. I felt like a bit of my childhood innocence had been snatched away from me. You’re not small enough, sweet enough, cute enough to be a child, is what it told me. You’re an adult now.

When I went to my all-girls secondary school, I felt like I finally had space to grow into myself a bit. This body of mine had spurted up without my permission, and I didn’t quite have the confidence to match it yet. Yet I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that my confidence would be meaningless when matched against the cute girls. There was one cute girl in particular who bothered me, and I set her up as my rival in my mind. Not healthy, I know, but I was eleven and I knew no better. She was the polar opposite to me: four feet tall to my five foot six and counting; high, dulcet voice to my deeper, louder one; small and dainty feet to my giant-sized ones. She was also a dancer, and always pulled to the front of the class to demonstrate the moves to us. I was always placed tactically at the back, at least two feet from anyone else so I didn’t accidentally knock another girl out when I spun around. 

We both stood out, but for dichotomous reasons. I was too tall; she was just short enough. The older girls would all crowd around her at breaktime, or during rehearsals for the Christmas concert. “Oh my god, she’s so cute!” they would cry, clamouring to be the one to hold her on their knee or hoist her up onstage because her small, delicate legs couldn’t reach. In the midst of this adulation, she would just smile gracefully, accepting the praise and love of her peers.

I saw all of this and compared it to how people related to me. After the first few nerve-wracking weeks of school had passed and we all got a lot more comfortable with each other, friends started confiding in me that they had initially found me scary. Intimidating. I laughed it off but inside I felt something sinking right down to the soles of my feet. I had done nothing but smile and try to be polite during those weeks to my classmates. I would never be cute if I was scary, I thought. Although I found a group of good, close friends, who have stayed with me as I have grown up, I still remember that feeling that cuteness would make me widely loved and instantly liked. I have always had to work through the intimidating first impression that I apparently give off to make friends.

Look around you: cute is a tangible currency. Schoolgirl porn is incredibly successful and makes a lot of money for the porn industry every year. The Guardian recently reported that puppy dog eyes are an evolutionary feature designed to ‘wield emotional power over humans’. Cute is manipulative; cute is conniving; cute is never as cute as it seems.

What I’ve discovered from years of observing the cute people of this world is that it is often an adjective ascribed to them by others for very few reasons other than physical appearance. It hangs on the illusion of childishness and innocence, and, as a descriptor, often sticks, at the expense of all of that person’s other personal attributes. Once someone is cute, it doesn’t matter whether they’re really good at maths, or a concert-level flautist, or an amateur kickboxer. They are cute, and that will be enough. 

Cute, when applied to womxn, strips them of their autonomy. If they are cute, they can be controlled. If they are cute, they can be cowed. If they are cute, they cannot be themselves. Cute peddles the cherry pie and sunshine lie of womxnhood: that they are there to serve male happiness. It diffuses the power of femme anger and its daring, destructive consequences; it denies womxn any capacity to be sexual and to use this sexuality in whichever way they choose. Cute puts womxn in a glass box for the rest of their life, ensures that they are one-dimensional caricatures of womxnhood rather than fully-fledged, complex, beautiful, anxious, angry, confused, powerful womxn. 

Cute isn’t cute at all. Seemingly so expansive in its definition, its real-life applications are diminutive and often demeaning. I will be the first one to put up my hand and say that I am guilty of using it far too frequently, in spite of my own long-standing suspicion of it. I am not perfect – far from it. But perfection is what cute expects, the standard that it holds us up to, and it’s time to just quietly start saying no. 

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Ellie Connor-Phillips