I’ve had a lifelong love-hate relationship with a certain, seemingly innocuous word.
"Cute" is today’s universal term for aesthetic admiration, and I think it’s gotten totally out of hand. My shoes are cute. My haircut is cute. My bungalow in the Highlands is cute. I just bought a cute set of dinnerware. But me, ME — a grown-ass woman — I am NOT “a cutie pie,” “cute as a button” or “cute as a bug.”
It’s the damndest thing … I say that word in daily conversation to describe everything from clothes to décor to my dogs. I make it a point to tell my girlfriends how cute they look whenever I see them. But when certain people use it against me, I mentally throw elbows and scratch eyeballs.
I say “mentally” because I realize today that it’s intended as a compliment. In my 20s and 30s, I took it as a personal affront and shot verbal barbs back at the perpetrator. To the extreme where I became known for my overreaction.
Case in point, a girlfriend confessed to me recently that once, years ago, she told a guy in a bar where we were socializing that if he wanted to score with me, he should approach me with the line, “Hey, you’re really cute.” She admitted that was a shitty thing to do the poor dude — she knew I would skewer him. She just wanted to see the fireworks.
When spoken by a female friend as an overall compliment to my looks, it’s not as offensive to me. Cute means approval in girl-speak, especially coming from women I already know and love. From a man, well, it always makes me bristle. Yes, it’s a double standard. Therein lies a problem.
I should point out that I am petite. Short. Little. I’m certain that’s why when a man tells me I’m cute, it can feel dismissive and patronizing. I am a 43-year-old professional woman, and calling me cute is the equivalent of patting me on the head. At least, that’s where my brain goes when I hear it — suddenly I'm four years old again. Logically, I know this is not the intent. Emotionally, not so much.
Seriously, though, am I alone in this? Are there any women over age 25 who actually want men to call them cute? Let me be clear: I am not averse to compliments or courtesy. But choose a better word. Instead of cute, call me pretty, lovely, sexy, hot, beautiful. Any of those.
You don’t even need to compliment my looks if you want to express your attraction or appreciation of me as a human being. I would also gladly accept smart, sharp, witty, classy or interesting. My dear friend, Greg, calls me a shit-kicker, and I love that. Hell, you can tell me I’m a pain in the ass or a force of nature before you call me cute. (I choose to hear “tenacious and strong,” by the way.)
I bring all this up because it happened the other day — I got “cuted.” I smiled outwardly, but in my head I was screaming, “AAAAANNNNND, we’re done.” Zero to fuckety bye in three seconds flat. I hadn’t been so profoundly affected by that pesky little word in a very long time. I did not like my reaction, hence why I’m reflecting on it now.
It dawned on me that feeling dismissed by an off-handed compliment is just the tip of the iceberg. Some recent networking I’ve done with kick-ass women entrepreneurs got me to thinking about the much bigger dismissals women face.
One of the issues that came up was how hard it can be to ask for what we deserve in terms of pay. And I’m not talking about legislation and the push for workplace equality, i.e., other people establishing fair pay for women. I’m talking about, as an entrepreneur, don’t be afraid to set your rates high enough to make it worth your while.
I hear it all the time from other women out on their own — they don’t want to lose business by asking for too much money. Many low-ball their rates out of fear and then end up resentful, working their asses off and barely breaking even. I was fortunate to get this advice early on, so I’ve never felt underpaid as a freelance consultant.
The problem is that many women don’t see their own worth. And if we do, we feel the need to preface it with a justification or an apology. Why should I explain why I charge what I charge when a man in a similar profession probably wouldn’t? I have a master’s degree and almost 20 years of experience. That’s all the justification I need.
My friend Erica Rucker wrote a fabulous column in LEO Weekly about her cadre of goddesses. Click here to check it out.
A male reader commented that women shouldn’t be so lofty as to call themselves goddesses because a man could never get away with referring to himself as a god. Seems to me they have been “getting away” with that shit for far too long. Men have historically valued themselves highly, especially in the workplace. That mentality is part of the fabric of our culture. I think it’s time for women to do the same. If it means we need to call ourselves goddesses to get there, then so be it.
Side note: My son got a hold of my iPhone a while back and programmed Siri to refer to me as “The Goddess.” I thought it was silly at the time, but I kept it. Thanks to Erica’s column and recent empowering experiences with other women business owners, I don’t think it’s so silly after all.
Also not so silly: In a recent blog on The Washington Post, “Famous quotes, the way a woman would have to say them during a meeting,” writer Alexandra Petri pokes fun at how women communicate in the corporate world.
One example from the blog:
“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Woman in a Meeting: “I’m not an expert, Dave, but I feel like maybe you could accomplish more by maybe shifting your focus from asking things from the government and instead looking at things that we can all do ourselves? Just a thought. Just a thought. Take it for what it’s worth.”
It’s funny because it’s true. As a woman in the business world, being assertive means you often come off as a bitch. I say this from personal experience. A guy once asked me after a meeting, in which I tactfully and politely stood my ground on a project, what was going on at home that had put me in such a bad mood. I didn’t realize until then that I apparently needed to smile and bat my eyelashes to be taken seriously at work.
And really, that’s what underlies my disdain for the word cute. From a man, or even a high-powered woman I respect, it feels like a dig, a way to undermine me as a person. It’s a “less-than” word. It’s like telling someone they did a good job. Not great, JUST good. Not pretty, JUST cute. Well, fuck that.
I know it’s just one word, and a harmless one for most people. If being called cute is the worst thing that happens to me, I’m golden. I know this.
The bottom line is that ALL words have power, and that power is often dependent on who says (and who hears) them. My aversion to cute is a symptom of a much larger problem — and it's one that I want to help change. So from this point forward, I’m going to make an effort to eliminate that four-letter word from my vocabulary. The change you want, you first have to make in yourself, right?
Excuse me, my goddesses and I have work to do. And I can promise you there won’t be anything “cute” about it.
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After nine years, she's still just saying.