Why Are Plus Size Women Always Called "Cute" And Are We Being Infantilizing In The Process?
I'm guilty of a crime: over cute-ing everything, and that includes in my descriptions of plus size women. Babies are cute, friends are cute, salad is cute, pillows for my couch are cute, and that shrub over there is totally cute. Here's the thing, though: I'm tired of being called cute.
Growing up, I was never able to be one of the "pretty" girls in my class, and I had a gorgeous blonde-haired, blue-eyed little sister. Suffice it to say, I became used to never being — or needing to be — the prettiest girl in the room. It hardly crossed my radar, to be honest, because I was often praised and recognized for other things, or dealing with bigger issues than feeling pretty. As I grew up and got older, and as my body and the way I looked became more scrutinized, I internalized all of the things I was hearing about the way I looked and my inability to meet the impossible standards that I was being held to.
But there was one thing that I craved... phrases I loved to hear that made my dopamine receptors fire wildly: compliments about my appearance. Being complimented felt like being seen and being validated. Since I had grown up believing that "you're not what we'd consider pretty," was simply a fact, these compliments felt more about the way I'd done my hair or makeup, or perhaps the outfit I'd painstakingly thrifted for and put together. Compliments always seemed to tell me, "You've done such a good job at making yourself look acceptable! You have great taste!" Which was far more important to me than just happening to look a certain way.
Compliments felt like a privilege, and became things that I savored because I was certain that I'd never get another one, or that I didn't really deserve another because surely one day everyone would find out that I was fooling them and remember how truly hideous I was. Very rarely was I told I was "stunning" or "gorgeous," but more often I was told I looked "cute" or "nice." And it never bothered me, because I was taught that being called "cute" was an extra compliment: It was about more than your appearance. A girl had to have an adorable personality to be called cute. So I was likable!
As I started to gain weight thanks to my PCOS and became a bona fide fat babe, however, I noticed that "cute" became the go-to compliment for other people my size. I never really made a big deal out of it because with all my internalized fat phobia, I felt lucky that I would even be worthy of a compliment at all.
As I started to learn more about size acceptance and the body positivity movements and began diving into some more critical theory of how fat women are treated and why — and as I started doing more plus-size shopping — I realized that it was part of the infantilization and defeminization of fat people. The pastel pinks, floral prints, cartoon characters, and frills characterized a certain era of plus-size fashion — and remain a good amount of what's widely available today.
While there are certainly people whose personal styles this reflects, this meant that there were basically two images of plus-size women that were commonly seen: The dowdy, matronly, frump machine who apologized for her body by hiding it and minimizing it, or the cherub-faced, woman-child who wore solely pink and florals. Besides, everyone knows that the privilege of being a sexy, stunning, feminine woman is reserved for thin, white women only, right?
When it comes to the struggles plus-size women face, being called cute is probably the least important. Getting adequate medical care and employment equality are higher on most people's lists than being called "gorgeous," but I think it's symptomatic of the way that plus-size women are still seen and thought of. Despite more plus-size women and celebrities gaining visibility and acceptance, there seems to still be a double standard when it comes to who gets to be desirable and who is stuck with being "adorable" or "cute." I mean, fat, chubby kittens and babies with arm rolls are so adorable, but Adriana Lima is gorgeous. It's an easy habit to fall into — we've been socialized to view fat women this way; we've been socialized into seeing only certain people deemed worthy of being hot or desirable.
It's been a conscious decision that I've made to start avoiding the "c-word" when talking about or complimenting my plus-size friends and the celebrities whose styles I covet. I've generally stopped referring to myself as cute as well, because that's part of it, too. I'm glad whenever people compliment me, of course. I'm stoked when I see hot babes out there being fat and visible and so gorgeous. And I'm not against being called cute every now and again. But if we want to start talking about re-framing our standards of beauty and the way fat people are seen and treated, it's a small thing we can do that challenges our thinking and our language — easy and important places to start.
Images: piank/Flickr; Giphy