Does my “petite woman” stature mean I’ll never be seen an adult?

Guest post by Britstix
By: PascalCC BY 2.0

I am a petite 27-year-old woman. My whole life I have looked younger than my age, and my size has always been a defining characteristic. I’ve always been “cute” or “tiny” and people took to calling me “Little Britstix.” In one of my first temp jobs, my boss called me Ant because I’m tiny but I can lift heavy things. I am strong and smart and capable, but somehow my age/size/gender continues to eclipse those other achievements.

I spent the first eight years of my career working in the theatre as a stage manager and I faced a lot of gender discrimination. Despite years of formal training, internships, and hard work, the men who ran the theatres (directors, technical directors, designers, master electricians, master carpenters) still did not believe I was capable of changing a lamp, climbing a ladder, moving furniture, or understanding the machinations of their designs. With every new show, I had to re-prove myself to my new colleagues as a competent theatre professional. It was exhausting. My decisions were constantly challenged as if I were some green intern.

For the past three years, I’ve worked at a biotech company that is overwhelmingly female-staffed. Over 60% of the upper level management is comprised of women and over half the company itself is female. Up until recently, I hadn’t experienced any condescending discrimination at all. I’ve been a valued member of the company and people have respected me for my knowledge base and my work ethic. I was so sure that this was directly related to the number of women in the company and I was so proud of my company for being a great place for women to advance their careers.

The other day I was in a meeting with some upper management. My boss introduced me to a new employee:

“This is Britstix, my project coordinator par excellence. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t know what day of the week it was or where I was going without her!”

Her boss (the Senior Director of our group) then jumped in, “She certainly doesn’t let us forget anything! Such a little person helps us do so much!”

I thanked them both for being so kind, finished introducing myself to the new employee, and waited for the meeting to begin.

But her comment burned in my brain. “Such a little person…” A little person? (Please note that I do not mean to offend anyone who identifies as a Little Person.) Does my stature have anything to do with my ability to work? Is the amount of work I do more astonishing because I am small? The worst part is that the comment had come from a woman. Shouldn’t she be supporting me instead of knocking me down?

I talked to my fiancΓ© about it when I got home. Initially, he didn’t see the problem with the comment. “Oh, she was just complimenting you. It was actually a double compliment because you’re tiny and also good at your job. I’ve heard people say stuff like that to women all the time. It’s supposed to be a compliment. I’m sure she was only saying it nicely.”

I was stunned. How could he not see how condescending that was? So I asked him if he’d ever heard someone make a comment like that about a male co-worker of his.

“Nope. Never. They would never say something like that to a dude. That would be humiliating.”

So… how is it less humiliating for me? How is it less embarrassing for a woman to be told that she is somehow less than a whole person? I felt like an intern again. Like my experience and abilities were secondary to my appearance.

When do I get to just be a normal adult woman? When I’m married will people start treating me with respect? When I have kids will I no longer be just a little person who miraculously does a lot of things? When will I be given the respect that I feel I deserve as a woman closer to 30 than 20?

I felt completely legitimate and like a successful adult until those words came out of her mouth. Then suddenly I felt like an impostor. Like some little girl just playing pretend. Like no matter what I achieve, I’ll always be that cute tiny girl who also does things.

I know this might seem like a complete first world problem — why would anyone object to being called cute and tiny? But it just feels discriminatory somehow. As if my stature is being used against me as a modifier to my experience and skill level.

Has anyone else experienced this kind of condescension at work or in life? Does anyone know when “adulthood” starts?

Comments on Does my “petite woman” stature mean I’ll never be seen an adult?

  1. I was just thinking about the same thing yesterday. I’m 5’2 and have a petite frame (despite being plus-sized…nightmare to buy clothes for). I’ll be 29 this month, have been married for a couple years, and have a 6yo stepdaughter, but when I go shopping alone, I get called “sweetie” by clerks. I always get carded when buying a drink. A woman actually called me “ma’am” at the movies the other day and I was so shocked, I had to take a minute to make sure she was speaking to me. I’m told it’s a good thing to look young, but it can certainly be frustrating when you wish to be taken seriously. I have trouble being assertive when I get, “you’re so adorable when you’re mad. You sound like Minnie Mouse”-type comments.

  2. Oh, I thought I was the only shortie around here… Im 35 and only 4’8″ (and not technically a little person) – I have had to deal with this my whole life! Especially at my job, I am not seen as competent, although I have a degree in chemistry… I just never get taken seriously.

    I am a natural platinum blonde, and I used to get asked every day how old I was – random people on the street and then having them make a big deal out of my answer and yelling and pointing me out, in the middle of the street/store, no less! So embarrassing…. what did help was dying my hair a bright, punk red color… at least people don’t ask me every day, but they still don’t believe me when they find out

    Sometimes, I even get accused of being my husband’s daughter (and my 4 kids as being my siblings) – it got really bad when I was pregnant, but what can you do? Ive even had people in stores/restaurants refuse to serve me – b/c either I didn’t have the money or I needed to wait on my parents

    I keep having people tell me that I will love looking younger, but even at 35, Im still waiting

    • I feel like the people who tell you that “it’s a blessing in disguise!” and “you will love looking like a teenager for eternity!” are just trying to cover up saying something so obviously offensive and ridiculous. They just put their foot in their mouth, so they are slowly trying to extract it with “compliments.” I don’t blame them and usually just smile and say, “I’m sure I will!” and go about my business.
      My fiance has a similar issue (he also looks quite young) and he was carded at a restaurant after ordering a glass of wine. The waiter looked at his license, realized he was 28 years old and said, “Oh woah – yeah, you’re good.” ?? What does that even mean? Woah – you’re old…er than I thought! *le sigh*

  3. Much of what I have to say at a hair under 5′ has already been said, but I’d like to add a word of complaint about the fact that women don’t even have to be that far from average height in order to be considered “short.” Average height for an American woman is 5’4″. There are multiple women up the thread talking about being short at 5’2″, and I can’t think of a single time I’ve heard a woman who’s 5’6″ described as tall, either by herself or others. I suspect that even at my four inches off of the average, I’m described as short more often than a woman who’s 5’8″ is described as tall. I don’t know if it’s because so many of our standard images of women come from models (I seem to remember hearing that some model related reality show type thing had a season for petite women that was defined as under 5’8″, anybody remember what I’m talking about?), or if it’s because we’re being judged against the male average of 5’10”. So women who are above female average are just getting closer to looking them in the eye and aren’t “tall” until they start getting taller than men, whereas on the other side of 5’4″ the only people we’re getting closer to looking in the eye are other people of below average height and children. Maybe it’s some of both.

    At least my voice has always been low, so I’ve got that going for me.

    • America’s Next Top Model did a season of “petite” models under 5’8″. If I remember right, most of the girls were between 5’6″-5’8″.

    • I’m 5’9″ and called tall pretty regularly (usually by some creepy and short old guy staring at my chest, because they’re on eye level “staring back at him” *eyeroll*).

      Incidentally, 5’8″ is the cut off between average and tall/long inseams, so part of the modeling standard is based on the prevalence of sample sizes.

      • And I get that on a practical level it’s easier to take away than it is to add, so it makes sense for standard sizes to be based on somewhat above average height. (At least, if one’s assuming that everybody of average height, let alone shorter, has the time and/or money to invest in altering everything.) But it still feels unfair when I’m trying to buy jeans knowing that I’m exactly as far from average as a woman who’s 5’8″, but she’s using standard inseams and I have to look not just for petite, but petite short.

  4. I’m of average height, but still look young. My favorite thing is being asked when I graduated college. Psst! I see what you’re doing. I know you’re secretly calculating my age. I get the idea of feeling like you need to prove yourself, but I just go about my business and let my work speak for itself. No time to worry about their opinion. That said, I’m also not dealing with pointed comments usually. Can you imagine if the height-style comments were made about someone’s weight??

  5. I would definitely talk to your boss about it, it was likely something that she said without thinking or even fully understanding herself what she was implying. I think in most cases your boss probably didn’t see it as offensive because it is personally something she has never experienced.

    As to the whole grown up part of being petite… that my dear is going to be a whole different story. I’m constantly on the receiving end of comments about how “tiny” I am, especially on the rugby field (and I’m not actually considered a petite person). I’m young looking as well, which as I’ve read in previous comments, appears to also leave us more open to unwarranted commentary about being too young or not being “growed up enough”. Eventually I just started to ignore it because in truth, the people making those comments rarely knew me. They had no idea of my age, my education or my personal life experiences. So whenever a stupid comment was made, I would correct the assumption gently and then move on. It takes a lot to be solid in knowing who you are and that you are good at what you do, just remind yourself when someone makes a comment that you are who you are and that you are strong in who you are.

    • Thank you – that is excellent advice. I know that I often put too much credence into what my job performance says about me as a person, so it’s always good to get a reminder that I am not made entirely of what other people think of me. I am, perhaps more importantly, what I think of myself and how I behave in the world.

      The woman who made the comment is of average female height, I would say, and is not on the petite side. She is also much older than I am. I don’t think she often hears those type of comments. But, you never know what damage other people have in their lives. I’m sure everyone has something about themselves that they wish wasn’t pointed out.

  6. I’m 4’9″, age 30. I still get handed the kids’ menu from time to time. But people who know me? People I work with? Maybe they are shocked a “little person” can do so much, but they don’t say so to my face. You project authority, you get treated with respect. People pretty much know if they piss me off, I’ll set them or fire or something (not literally, and no, I’m not the top dog in the work hierarchy). My second week on the job, another short woman who’d seen me around the week before, said to me when we were introduced, “Oh! I thought you were a student!” Guess what? She doesn’t say that anymore.

    I hate to say this, but I don’t recommend bringing this to HR unless it becomes a repetitive, real issue, because you’ll just be seen as whining. And I’m sorry, but whining plus being short isn’t going to make your case for you.

    Best thing you can do? Act like you’re in charge and prove them all wrong. The right attitude will get you far more than even dressing like you’re older will (I only gave up my fun, printed comic book and video game t-shirts last year). And seriously, think of it as an advantage, not a disadvantage. If people keep underestimating you because of your height, they’ll be sorry when you run them down because they didn’t see you coming.

    Err, to clarify, I’m not *actually* saying you have to be aggressive or mean, just assertive and confident. I joke around; I even act silly at work sometimes and my desk has a corner full of tiny toys. But when it comes to the job, I get it done; I get down to business, and I don’t back down when I know I’m right. People respect that. If height comes up, shrug and move on, and so will they.

  7. I should add–practice your angry face. I am told mine is scary. Also, if someone does make a stupid comment? Call it out as stupid simply by rolling your eyes or giving them a pointed look and say, “Seriously?” Don’t make a huge fuss, but that’s enough to get them to realize it was a stupid joke/comment.

  8. I completely agree with everyone who posted. I am 28 and all of 5’1″. Add an extra 1/4″ if I stretch. However, my last name makes it even worse. Im not joking, my last name is Shortt. I work as a photographer and people don’t take me seriously when I show up for a shoot because I look so young. I’ve had magazine editors ask if im an intern or still in high school. I have started to over dress for the shoot, just so I am treated as an adult.

  9. At some point you will be seen as a “little old lady” but people will probably continue to default to “small = young” for a long time. Hell, a lot of the running jokes in the Lord of the Rings series (just as an example) revolve around the Hobbits being mistaken for 12 year old humans. And there’s Helena’s line in “Midsummer” about Hermia “…though she be but little, she is fierce.” That was 500+ years ago, so you’re not fighting a new stigma here. πŸ™ I’m not sure if that’s a default setting in humans since we’re semi-programmed to look after children even when they’re not ours, but the fact that in the States in general we tend to infantalize women far beyond their childhoods doesn’t help, either.

    And as far as the stage managing goes (I’m a part time TD and Prop Tart πŸ™‚ ) some of that is just because you’re female. Some of it is because you’re also petite. I get different but still stupid assumptions made about me ALL THE TIME because I’m built like a Valkyrie, teach combat, own my own tools, etc. (NO! I don’t play fucking SOFTBALL. And right now, you don’t want to hand me a 33″ bat either!) When I’ve dealt with the “the girl can’t do that” shit, I call them on it– after I do the job. I’m not sure if that would work when people attribute weakness to your physical size, but maybe it’s an angle from which to think of a longer-range solution? With the boss, a politely worded email pointing out that while she probably meant to give you a compliment, expressing surprise that a short person can do the job is as illogical as it is hurtful may go a long way toward both clearing the air and making her think about why she assumed small = weak.

  10. LOVE this post. I’m 23 and petite as well. I completely identify with what people are saying in the comments, too.

    I’m the training Coordinator/Hiring Manager with my company. When I go to the lobby to meet people for interviews, the interviewees will look up expectantly when a guy or anyone older than me walks out. When I walk up, they always look away, just assuming “Nah, that’s not the person who is going to interview me.” And when I introduce myself there’s always a surprised look on their faces.

    Also when I am around the facility with my trainees, anyone that comes in from outside (vendors, etc.) they always go to one of the older trainees to ask questions first, assuming that they’re in charge and not me. Frustrating.

    Edited to add: I should also mention that I work at a bus company. I wish I had a nickel to every comment about how people wouldn’t expect me to drive a bus, or even every time I get a funny look driving a giant bus out on the road. Or every assumption from repair companies that I won’t be the one driving the bus back. Or every time there’s a comment about a woman driving period. I could keep going, trust me.

  11. All I can really say is… I’ve been through it all as well. As a 33-year old petite woman who looks about 21 I get comments all of the time. When I was actually 21 I kind of enjoyed looking young but now as someone who has been trying to establish herself professionally, it can be difficult. On a side note, I’m about to go into my second marriage and the shock on everyone’s face when I tell them this cracks me up. I think they assumed I must have gotten married the first time when I was 14 or something. πŸ˜€

    • It really is hilarious seeing their “OMG SLAVE CHILD BRIDE!!” expressions, isn’t it? Priceless.

      (Married 10 years, divorced, but look about 22, despite being 36.)

  12. I could have written this post. I’m 4’10” and 22, and I invariably get treated like a child still (the irony is that I developed early and at the age of 11 was being mistaken for a college student…I guess I’m just perpetually 18?). But people call me “sweetie” and “hon” all the time, and to me it feels very patronizing. I had a manager once nickname me “Little Bit” because I am so small (she meant it affectionately, so it didn’t bother me much, but still).

    I have taken to wearing heels pretty much every day and dressing very chic-ly when I am in a professional setting. I’ve found that it helps a lot; I feel more confident and self-assured, and people respond to that. I’m also a singer and actress, so I’m able to be very poised even when I’m internally uncomfortable. Also as a result of my performance experience, I have perfect posture, which helps!

  13. I thought it was a term of endearment. I think petite people are adorable. I took it as, yes she seems small, but she is powerful. Especially since you hold your bosses together, based of what they said I would imagine that you have a lot of energy, or so it seems, and your bosses just don’t know where all of it comes from, hence so much, production, energy, and power in this adorable package, it’s fascinating to watch. I am sure that if they didn’t think you where able to do the job they wouldn’t have hired you.

    • Thanks for your perspective.

      I think that petite people hear the “adorable” comment a lot and it gets really grating after a while – even though it is mostly meant lovingly as you pointed out. However, you don’t really hear grown people being called adorable. Mostly that descriptor is reserved for children, so it makes me (at least) feel like I’m being treated like a child. It’s kind of a diminutive…even if “normal sized” people think it’s not.

  14. I am 31, 5’2″, married, and apparently have a very young face. The most humiliating comment I ever received about my perceived age (I was mid 20s at the time) was in a job interview. They literally asked if I was aware there were child labor laws because they didn’t think I was old enough to have the experience on my resume. Needless to say I did not get the job. In retrospect I am glad because who wants to work for people who don’t believe you.

    Usually people seem to try to be complementing my small height and petite frame (but hey I am healthy and happy for my height and weight). It just gets a bit old hearing it all the time. Instead I’d love to hear more compliments based on my intellect and my work than for something I have little to no control over.

  15. When I worked in retail whenever I was asked “can I speak to the manager?” and responded, “I am the manager”, I more than once got the response “I mean, the real/actual manager” (!) I am 5 foot tall and relatively young looking (big, round cherub cheeks) and never knew for sure whether it was because I was small, young looking or female but it was likely a combination of all three.

    However, that was merely irritating…

    In my 20s, many people thought it was ok to pat me on the head (friends and strangers) or even PICK ME UP. Like a toddler. Like a baby. Without asking. One time, a guy in a nightclub picked me up from behind and span me around his head (wrestling style) and actually dropped me on the dance-floor. All the while I was screaming at me to put me down. Well, I am not proud of it but I had to be pulled off that guy (only time in my life I have thrown a punch)

    Slightly extreme example I know but it has stuck with me all these years!

    • I’ve been picked up at a party IN MY OWN HOUSE without my consent. I freaked out and scratched that guy’s face pretty badly. . I am 5’2″ and at this point people saying I’m adorable is starting to get rage-inducing, especially if I’m mad already. “Oh, you’re so cute when you’re mad!” = “I view you to be as non-threatening as a child”

  16. This this this.

    I’m a short person, and I look relatively young for my age (I’ll turn 30 this year, but people still think I’m in college). One of my biggest pet peeves is that all short people, in my experience, are always called “cute” when they dress up, instead of “elegant” or “beautiful.” Cute is a complement all the same, but when I was younger, I always saw “elegance” and “beauty” related to taller, slender women. Even on my wedding day, I was told “you look cute” constantly.

    • Yes!! I always thought the same thing. The “cute” schtick wears out fast. My fiance calls me beautiful, and that’s one of the (very small) reasons he is my future husband πŸ™‚

  17. So, this could be an unpopular opinion, but I am offering it as a way for us to re-frame some of these situations to have less of a negative impact on our psychological states. This really only applies to the more benign statements, like being called cute or being given a true compliment at the same time someone is calling you short. So, with all these qualifications in mind:
    Do you think that when you are already sensitized to something (being called short or young), that you interpret statements to be related to that when they might not be intended that way at all?

    • I’m sure this could be the case sometimes. I tried to pull back and look at what she said and see what bothered me about it and this is what I came up with:
      – I help the department do a lot of things. I am a go-getter and my reputation here is very much “she gets shit done.” My boss’s boss was trying to convey this.
      – Because I am petite, she added the part about me being a little person.
      – If I had been of normal stature, she would probably not have qualified her statement with a comment about my size.
      – If she had said, “Such a busy person helps us get so much done” then I wouldn’t have taken issue because it would have been a reference to the fact that I need to balance my workload with also helping the department.
      – If she had said, “Such a determined person…” or “such a pro-active person…” it wouldn’t have really made sense because of course determined people get things done. Of course pro-active people get things done. She might as well have just said “Britstix helps us do so much!”
      – She used my stature as a “little person” as a qualifier to how much I get done, like perhaps if I were larger I could maybe do MORE! Which also doesn’t make sense.
      That is really the crux of it for me. That tiny inference that maybe if I weren’t so small I could maybe do more/better.

      Am I over thinking this? (Probably…) Every time I try to explain how much her statement really cut me, it sounds absolutely absurd…but it just really made me wonder.

  18. I just want put the clarification out there that being petite has Nothing To Do with one’s weight. Petite is the term for the unique body proportions seen in women typically 5’4″ and under, regardless of how heavyset or thin one might be.

    And also, I totally get the demeaning language thing (5’1″ over here) and UGH.

    On that note, if you do happen to live in Petitelandia, it may be helpful to shop at petite clothing stores (they fit us better!) if you decide dressing more professionally is a valid path. Nice clothes won’t do as much good if the armscye on your blouse doesn’t fit.

    • Also saves you time or money if you don’t have to hem all of your pants. πŸ™‚

      Although…sometimes you still have to hem the “short” sizes…

    • When I worked in Macy’s children’s clothing, the 30-and-40-something age extra-petites shopped there often. I guess being in Florida impacted this reason, as most women here want to look like perpetual teenagers.

      Interesting, na?

  19. Here’s another tactic:
    Around the world, people who take up more room are seen as more authoritative. This presents a problem when you are not, in fact, very large at all. However, you can still use posture to convey “I’m here to kick ass.” Don’t cross your legs and minimize the space you take up, leave your feet flat on the floor. Stand with your shoulders back and your spine straight and your head up.

    Even if you can’t do it in a meeting you can do some “power posing” beforehand and it will continue to influence how people see you afterwards for quite some time.

    • My husband and I watched that Ted Talk recently and now when I’m feeling down, he encourages me to do power posing. It’s kind of hilarious, but it totally works. It’s called the Wonder Woman pose because it really does make you feel like a super hero.

      • I fucking love the wonder woman pose so much more than “stand like a man” because when i think of it that way it just makes me angry that I have to act like a man to be successful.

  20. Oh man. This thread is fantastic for me feeling not so alone.

    Height is not my “problem” area (I’m about 5’8), but the age/looking young thing… oh man. I’m 26, with a bachelor’s and 3 years of experience, but I look quite young and I am the youngest in my workplace. My clients repeatedly write on my feedback forms that I am mature, wise, full of good advice, an expert in my field, etc… and yet, on my performance evaluation last year, my boss wrote that I am “immature,” with no examples whatsoever of when I have demonstrated a lack of maturity. It still stings so badly.

    I’ve been feeling a lot this year like the beginning of a career is just So. Tough. I constantly feel like my boss doesn’t think my opinion is valid, and I’m always worried of my clients asking to be switched to one of my coworkers (though this is largely paranoia, as it’s never happened and I always receive excellent feedback). I keep wondering when I will have a boss who recognizes the good work I do, and who doesn’t treat me like a child.

    Thank you for making me feel not so alone in the struggle.

  21. I feel your pain! Unfortunately it doesn’t end with kids. Mine are 15 and 13 and we’re constantly asked if I’m their sister. It’s especially annoying for stuff like school meetings and extra curricular activities. But I just go with it. I mean I’m happy I can still wear my hot topic clothes and have fun!! πŸ˜€

  22. Ugh, this post exactly. I am a manager where I work and I get a lot of phrases like, “thanks hun,” from co-workers who are about 5 years older than me. Honey? Dear? REALLY? It’s so annoying, but I choose to look past it. Unfortunately you can’t really do much to make these people change over night. All you can really do is make changes to your own appearance or call people out on it when possible.

  23. I am not practically petite/youngish looking (I think?) but I am a manager in a system where most of the people in similar positions are older than me. I work for the public library system in my parish & basically all of my employees are older than me/have been there longer. About 6 months after I started a thing happened which still grinds my gears. A guy came in & had fines. I looked back at his record & saw he’d gotten a lot of his fines waived/forgiven, so I told him he had to pay up (it was a few dollars. Nothing major.) He then went & talked to my much older coworkers, assuming one of them was the manager. One of them (not a regular at my branch, someone who was filling in) offered to pay some of his fines for him out of her pocket. She says to him while doing so “I know she looks like she could be our granddaughter, but she’s the manager here so we have to listen to her!” I know (choose to believe) that she didn’t mean to undermine my position. I told her afterwards why I had refused to waive the fines & she apologized. Still. She’s a freaking adult, even more so than I am. She should know better. Your boss/coworkers should know better too. But in similar situations, I choose to believe that no harm was meant & explain the situation/my feelings about it when I am no longer upset (or, when less upset.)

  24. I may be the height of an average guy, but I have a real babyface and get ID’d all the time. I’m also the youngest mum in our child’s year and regularly get mistaken for the older sister (when I’m nearly 30!) and can’t buy wine from the supermaket without being asked to prove I’m old enough to! There will always be people who judge you on what you look like, but really, don’t let those people get you down. It says MUCH more about them than it does you πŸ™‚

  25. This is definitely a gender issue. The “petite”, young-looking men at my office are never treated like impostors, but I’m sure your experience isn’t uncommon for petite women. It also bleeds into the body issues. My sister, who is average height, but barely 100 pounds, gets teased all the time for being thin. Our society thinks it’s okay to point out the body type of a thin woman, but being singled out or judged on body type is offensive whether you’re 300 pounds or 95 pounds.

    And can I just say, if one more waitress or old man calls me “hun” or “sweetie”, I can’t be responsible for what I do to them. And I have an average body type. I can’t imagine how often a petite woman hears these terms.

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