“You are so cute” - Stranger
“I don’t like to be called cute” - Peyton
“Oh but you’re so cute” - Stranger
“I DON’T LIKE TO BE CALLED CUTE!” - Peyton
Week after week I see that same conversation play out with Peyton. It’s as if the world is readying her for the street harassment she will undoubtable endure as she gets older. Actually, it already sounds a lot like catcalling. For the past two weeks, I’ve tried to note all the first time interactions Peyton has had with people she encounters in public. When I took stock of what I had, while writing this post, I was alarmed at the problematic ways we speak to girls.
Man on the street – “You are so adorable.”
Women on the train – “She is so cute; I love your outfit”
Man on the express bus - "You made it! Now smile, little mama"
Man on street- “You're cute just like your mommy”
Man on street- “Be careful little mommy” (Peyton was on her skateboard)
Man on street- “You want a sibling”
Woman at the grocery store – “You’re such a cutie” Peyton respond “I don’t like to be called cute” and woman responds “but you’re so cute, I could just snatch you”
Man biking beside us- “Tell your mom to ride on the sidewalk so nothing happens to that beautiful face of yours”
Man at Pizza shop- “You’re so pretty, pretty like mommy. Come let me give you a lollipop”
Woman on the train- “Your mama is going to have a handful when you get older”
Woman outside of camp- "I bet you drive the boys crazy with those beautiful eyes"
This doesn’t even begin to paint a picture of the things that people say directly to me about her, or about me in her presence. Most comments are focused on her physical appearance, the idea that one day she'll be a mother, or protecting her from boys. How can I tell my daughter she is more than the sum of her appearance when every day people show and tell her differently?
When she was younger (to my family’s detriment) every time someone would tell her she was beautiful or cute, I would say “and smart, brave, and kind.” However, as time went by I got embarrassed at having to correct everyone from family members to close friends, so I stopped. I shouldn’t have.
I think when Peyton says "I don’t like to be called cute", she really means there is more to me than my appearance. Or she might just be tired of hearing her male peers and cousins get more than the "you're cute." I think what makes me most upset is that these empty comments are meant to draw "thanks" from her. I’ve even had people scold me for not telling her to say thank you. It’s eerily similar to when I walk down the street and people tell me to “smile”.
No thank you.
These strangers feel entitled to take up space in her daily commute and in her life. They feel entitled to a response--more so, they feel entitled to a favorable response. As if she should be thankful that they find her pretty. As is she should feel thankful that they've acknowledged her beauty. If this doesn’t seem problematic to you that a 4 year old should be thankful to a stranger for noting her physical appearance, I don’t know what to say to you.
Some of my friends ask me, "What else should I say to her?"
Well, what should strangers say to her?
For the strangers she encounters who tell her she is beautiful, pretty, and cute and then pause for a response. Keep holding your breath. Teaching girls that the way they look is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything. More important than the ideas she has, more important than her interest, more important than all the really weird and cool things that she thinks of.
Maybe you’re not a stranger and maybe you need some talking points on how to speak to little girls.
Here are a few suggestions
Hello, how are you today?
What is your favorite thing to do on Saturdays?
Do you think Elsa or Mr. Freeze would win a battle?
What do you think of the election?
What’s your favorite color?
Who would you feed to zombies in your class if you had to pick one person?
Do you prefer Koalas or Raccoons?
Bryn Mawr or Wellesley?
Will the Knicks win a championship by the time you’re 50?
Is it okay that I like Rihanna more than Beyonce?
For the ones that say there is nothing wrong with telling a little girl, especially a black little girl that she is beautiful, you're wrong. Feeling beautiful and feeling happy and confident in the way you look doesn't come from such empty comments. Confidence comes from working hard for things and accomplishing it. Feeling beautiful is more affected by your own perceptions and seeing yourself reflected in everyday positions of power. Confidence is an internal component. These comments, although well meaning, result in the idea that she is her "beauty." When we comment and focus on her physical attributes, we're saying these are the important things. Not her interest, not her humor, not her.
We have to continue to examine our interactions and the words we use because these words shape their expectations for what is important in the world. It shouldn't be their looks or what they're wearing, it should be a holistic view of who she is and who she wants to be.