Petite Womanhood: Finding a balance between sexy and cute

I'm a short individual. During my teen years this was something that I was comfortable with. I did, however, imagine that I was going to continue growing. I did not, in fact, continue growing. When I pictured adulthood, it looked like Claire Beauchamp from Outlander. Tall, mature in the face, capable-looking. As a young woman I look the exact same as when I was sixteen. I’ve been told younger, but I’ve disregarded those opinions as being entirely ridiculous, and I’ll continue to do so until hell freezes over.

Over the last few years there has been a disconnect for me between how I felt I was maturing inwardly, and how my development (an absolute lack thereof) on the outside was progressing (it wasn’t). When coming to understand myself as a woman, my first instinct was to compare myself and female characters represented on-screen. But I’ve learned these characters fell into archetypes that were, again, incongruous with not only my own identity, but reality.

There is a lot of discussion around being a tall woman, and what this means in terms of transcending traditional concepts of femininity. Less have I seen people speaking about being short. Height means a lot to womanhood; it’s a patriarchal remnant we still fight. This concept that ‘male’ means larger and stronger is not reflected in nature. In fact, most animals show females as the larger of the two sexes. But being short has its own preconceptions and stereotypes around it. It falls within the classic cis, heterosexual relationship binary — in which the larger of the two is the dominant partner, and the smaller the submissive of the two. One of them capable, the other emotional support. There is undeniable pressure to fulfil this role, despite my personal feelings on the matter.

As a shorter woman I often find myself conflicted about how I identify in terms of being ‘sexy’ or being ‘cute’. Your models and movie stars are often quite tall. When I realised becoming an adult was never going to mean I looked like them, I had to come to a point of questioning my place on this scale.

It seems to be largely agreed upon that being smaller is the more ‘feminine’ appearance. That it is the ‘lucky’ stature, sure to attract a man’s attention. Being small I don’t have to worry about challenging people’s ideas of their own masculinity. So why then have I stopped feeling that way since I left my teens? Why then is this not a privilege I can revel in? In truth, on occasion I can feel powerless the smaller I am in comparison to whoever is next to me.

But it’s more than that too. The internalisation of the male gaze has made me attempt to construct my behaviour within the archetypes the media presented me with. That is; the tall, sleek, femme fatale, and the delicate, small, damsel in distress. I verge between wishing myself smaller, thinner, more delicate, and wishing myself larger, with long limbs, voluptuous curves, and imposing with each hip swing.

As Susan Brownmiller says in her book Femininity: “Yet nearly every civilization has sought to impose a uniform shape upon the female body, a feminine esthetic[sic] that usually denies solidity by rearranging, accentuating or drastically reducing some portion of the female anatomy or some natural expression of flesh.”

When I went on a mission to find examples of actresses and models around my height, I came upon this line: “It’s pretty shocking that Panettiere is such a sex symbol and is so tiny.” And I felt immediately like my confusion had been validated. See, I thought, I haven’t just made up this struggle for myself.

When presented with these two foils of womanhood — sexy, tall woman, or small, cute woman — I found I simply didn’t exist in the narratives. I love feeling powerful, and being sexy does this for me, but sometimes I remember the outside image of it doesn’t ‘fit’. Being sexy, whatever that really means, somehow became something like imposter syndrome, like I was acting a role I did not really personify. Interestingly, I also began to feel guilty if my behaviour could be considered ‘cute’. I began to feel like I should have grown past this years ago — that cuteness is innocence and immaturity. I’ve come to understand that it is neither of these things, and should in fact not be a point of shame, or even the only thing I should aspire to. I’ve learnt that I can be sexy sometimes, cute others, and not embody only one at a time. They’re not separate personalities within me, but all the same. No one can be one or the other the whole time.

Wonder Woman was one of the first female characters I saw who embodied both simultaneously. She was tall, and powerful, and alluring, but she was also very sweet, and soft at times, and innocent in her own way. As more female-driven fiction comes out, I hope to see more characters like this.

What I’ve come to learn is that womanhood is something we find inwardly, and not outwardly. Womanhood is subjective to each individual. I want to encourage shorter women like myself to find strength in their own image of a woman, and that being ‘cute’ doesn’t signify immaturity. So here’s to my short queens — there’s power in petite.