I May Be Short, But Don't You Dare Call Me Cute

by Jennifer Hudak
Originally Published: 

“Well,” she replied in an offhand way, “he said, ‘Jen’s OK, but she’s too short.'”

Stunned, I could only shrug, nod and say, “That’s true, I am.”

I’d always been the shortest kid in the class, but this was the first time I was aware of my height as something that might define me as a person. Prior to that conversation with Diane, there were a lot of adjectives I could have used to describe myself: smart, funny, loyal, talented. But after that moment, the first word I used to describe myself, even in my own head, was “short.”

I’m 4 feet 9 inches tall, in case you’re wondering. I like to believe that, at age 43, I’ve come a long way from those days back in fourth grade, but the thing about being short is that you’re constantly reminded of how short you are. Hooks are placed too high on the wall. You can never sit in a movie theater without peering from side to side around someone else’s head. When you ride the subway on a steamy summer day, you are exactly armpit level with the other commuters.

And, of course, there are the verbal reminders, usually from strangers:

“You’re the shortest person I’ve ever met!”

“How tall are you, anyway?”

“I’ve never met anyone shorter than me before!” This one upsets me the most. I would never, ever say this to anyone although maybe that’s just because I’ve never had the opportunity.

There are dozens of witty comebacks that I’ve memorized and never used. Mostly, I feel like asking these people, “Do you think no one has ever said this to me before? Do you think I don’t know how short I am? That I’ve somehow forgotten?”

In the years following that conversation with Diane, I learned exactly what it meant to be short. As a teenager, it meant that I was sweet and cute, and also un-dateable: everyone’s adorable little sister. I got used to people placing their elbows on top of my head and declaring, “You make a great armrest!” At parties I stood in the corner, wishing I would be asked to dance but secretly terrified that, if I were, I would look ridiculous reaching up for a boy’s shoulders. I teetered around in high heels, aware that I wasn’t fooling anyone.

Underneath my senior photo in my high school yearbook are the words, “Don’t call me cute!” Cute sounds like a compliment, but it felt like a box everyone put me in, and I was starting to feel claustrophobic.

I went out of state to a college where I didn’t know a single soul, and once there, I worked hard to shatter the stereotype my petite form suggested. I lifted weights and learned how to punch. I became outspoken and political. I refused to be patronized.

During my graduation ceremony, I was recognized for winning a prestigious fellowship. When the college president called my name, I stood up. I looked into the audience and saw everyone craning theirs heads around, trying to find me because when I stood up, I was the same height as everyone who was sitting down. The guy next to me whispered, “Stand on a chair, so they can see you!” “No way,” I hissed through my smile and sat back down with flaming cheeks.

I used to cry to my mother about the indignities of being short. She can relate: She’s only 4 feet 10 inches tall. At age 72, she still has people patting her on the head and telling her how adorable she is. (And by the way, if you think that this will be appreciated by the person whose head you’re patting, you’re wrong.) But she’s mellowed out about her height, and for the most part, I have too. I remind myself that short people have an easier time with yoga balance poses because our center of gravity is lower. I can stretch out my legs on airplanes, and when people call me cute, I am able—most of the time—to smile graciously and remember that they probably mean well.

Maybe it’s the wisdom that comes with middle age, but acceptance feels a lot easier now. My whole childhood I simultaneously fought against my height and defined myself by it. It’s exhausting to be so divided against oneself. The thing is, these bodies are all we have. They are not simply shells; they are the means by which we experience the world, and the means by which we discover who we are. If we hate our bodies, how can we ever love ourselves?

I married a man who is 5 feet 9 inches tall. This makes him a full foot taller than me, and I admit that I adore having someone in the house who can reach the high cabinet without a step stool. Every once in a while, I stand on a chair so that we’re eye level and look around the room. I remember my college graduation, how I remained on the floor, invisible, as if by climbing up on the folding chair I’d only be broadcasting my difference. Sometimes in my dreams I’ll climb right up—and I’ll wave—and people will see me standing there, and they’ll applaud and cheer.

Now, standing on a chair in my kitchen, I place my arm around my husband’s shoulders, my husband who might never have fallen in love with me if I were taller because I wouldn’t be me.

“Wow,” I say. “This is how you see the world.”

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