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 fiancé 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 teach middle school, and I’m about the same size as a large number of my students. I know I look young, so I make it a point to dress like a professional. When I was still interviewing for jobs, I kept my hair short, so I would look older (it was also easier to wash, yay!). Every so often, I get mistaken for a student by visitors to the building, but they’re always embarrassed when they realize their mistake. I don’t really mind having people mistake my age, especially if I’m kinda dressed like a kid in jeans and a t-shirt or something, and my hair is long. It’s a reasonable mistake! I haven’t really encountered any further size-based issues in the workplace. What really bothers me is when people know how old I am, and make other size-based assumptions. When I worked in a clothing store, I used to get comments from bigger girls that it must be SO easy to find clothes when you’re so tiny! It’s not! It’s actually really hard to find a properly fitting suit when you’re the size and shape of a 12 year old. (I’ve come to the conclusion that pretty much nobody has an easy time finding clothes that fit. Everyone has something about them that makes it a challenge.)

    Anyways, I got a bit rambly. If you know you look younger than you are, especially if you don’t try to make yourself look like an adult, don’t get mad if someone makes an honest mistake about your age. If they insist on making a big deal of your size after you’ve corrected them and asked them to stop, they’re being assholes. Try a simple, “Listen, making comments about my size isn’t cool. You wouldn’t tease someone about being fat, so why do you insist on teasing me about being small? I’m an adult human, just like you.”

    • I try to dress a little nicer than required per looking a little older, but I have drawn the line at altering anything else. I have had it suggested to me that I would look older with shorter hair or certain makeup, but I feel like that’s giving other people the ability to control me in a weird way in reaction to their bias.

  2. A thought on the advice of strategies provided to counteract a petite height and youthful appearance:

    I’ve wondered about this a little bit as I’ve been going to job interviews but not landing a job. While I’m closer to average height (5′ 4″), I’ve always been very slender and can still fit into some kids’ clothes (even with my 30th birthday coming up in a few weeks). I look young but have a distinct alto voice, a combination I thought would balance things out a bit. Now I’m not so sure. I honestly wonder if it’s a matter of intimidation and insecurity. I worked at Home Depot for about a year doing fairly heavy labor and using electrical lift equipment. This scared people, women in particular. Male customers were less likely to remark on my size and would just be thankful that I was able to find/retrieve something for them. Women, meanwhile, freaked out if I got on the electric ladder. I could hear them asking, “Are you sure you should be doing that?” while I’m 20 feet or so in the air getting a cabinet door or sink for them. That was not particularly enjoyable. As I’m going through the interview process, I wonder if I’m reliving this experience in some ways and thus barring myself from getting a job. It may not be direct discrimination, but it’s there.

    Given that I come from two lines full of petite women, I’ve looked at them to see if they’ve experienced any sort of snide remarks due to their height. So far I haven’t found anything (or had anything mentioned to me on the subject). I’m thinking about comparing myself to them and seeing what differences could cause them not to receive any comments while I have to wrangle with passive-aggressive attacks. My hypothesis is that posture will be the defining factor. Marching band and running have formed my back enough to make standing taller with somewhat lower shoulders very easy for me to do. Thus, my posture is somewhat lengthening and makes me look more assertive (if not necessarily taller). Further elaborating on that, I think posture adjustment can alter how people perceive a person’s figure/size but that too much adjustment can swing the pendulum from viewing a person as excessively young to triggering insecurity. It’s a thin line, indeed.

  3. This advice is less proactive, but I’ve found it to work wonders when dealing with inappropriate behavior from customers at my coffee shop and actors when I stage manage. When someone is offensive, even without meaning to, I make sure to directly look them in the eyes and raise my eyebrows. I keep a pleasant expression on my face when I do this (to avoid the “hysterical woman” label) and remain silent. I just let my body language work for me. I usually precede the look with a slow turn of my head or body to make sure I have their attention. Then I move on, pleasantly going about my business/conversation as though it’s no big thing.

    Hope this, and all other advice offered here, helps!

  4. Oh gosh, this. I am female, 5’2.75″ and baby-faced. And an engineer. With enormous boobs so it’s not like there’s any hiding the fact that I’M A SHORT GIRL in a man’s world.

    To make matters worse, I had braces in college. People were surprised I was old enough to drive (15-16 in the US). The night after graduation my boyfriend and I wanted to check into a hotel as we’d packed up our dorm to move to San Diego from LA. The desk clerk didn’t want to check us in, and wouldn’t say why – eventually he took my driver’s license to the back to make a copy. I finally realized he thought I was an underage prostitute with a fake ID! I was so offended we left and went to a different hotel, where the lovely goth night clerk checked us in without any problems.

    Later that year I went to a friend’s wedding. I had lost a bit of weight so my suit jacket was a bit too big and I must have looked like a little girl wearing mommy’s clothes. I had my ID in my pants but spilled food on them at the cocktail hour before the reception, so I went back to change to a skirt which had no pockets. I was at a table with a lady my age who I think looks younger than me, and a guy who was actually underage, but I was the only one to get carded – I was so pissed. I ended up drinking from everyone else’s glass and caught a cold.

    Even just a few years ago at age 26 I went to the mall to exchange money for a trip to Japan. The lady said she was out of yen, but asked if I was with the blah-blah school trip. I said no, actually, I graduated from college 4 years ago. She said, “Oh, blah-blah is a middle school!” I was mortified.

    Now I’m 30 and have a 3-month-old baby, and at least temporarily the new mommy look with dark circles and bags under my eyes makes me look a little older, haha. We’ll see what happens when that wears off!

  5. I go through this all the time. All. The. Time. I am not a fan of women commenting needlessly on other women’s appearances for any reason in the workplace, so the liberty people tend to take with “looking young” really, really irks me. The other day I met a new employee for the first time. I said, Hello __, it is nice to meet you! Her response was, with nothing before it, “You look twelve!” Then my boss made a comment in the same line. I was horrified and felt like my position as a colleague and peer was undermined.

    That said, I have not really found any way to breech this subject well, so my tactic has always been to tell myself that as long as I am behaving and performing in a way I can be proud of, the ball is in THEIR court to be fair, professional and respectful.

  6. I’m not that short (about 5’4″) but have a pretty young face. I get asked all the time by my patients if I’m in high school, or if I’m old enough to be a doctor. Once I was told I looked 16, and my reply was that I was “more than double 16” which shut them up for awhile while they calculated how old that was. I usually refuse to tell my patients my age because it’s rude of them to ask and none of their business. I always get the “you’ll like it when you’re older” bit but at 33, I’m not liking it so far. I know my patients are just stressed out (I’m about to anesthetize them) but that doesn’t excuse the behavior. Since I’m in scrubs and a scrub hat, there’s no way to make myself look older aside from waiting to actually be older. Sigh.

  7. One more reason to be super glad that I’m tall… Even if shoe shopping is a pain.

    I totally feel you on the ‘hate being called cute’ though. I’m always like, “I’m a grown woman damnit, not a puppy.”

  8. I meant to comment on this when it was posted, but the right words escaped me. I’m going to try now.

    You remind me of an amazing woman I met and still follow on Facebook. She’s dating a close friend of my husband and came up for Christmas two years ago. She is 4’11” and model gorgeous. I commented to the friend “wow, she’s so tiny and perfect.” He said “She’s not tiny when she opens her mouth, she’s 10 feet tall and astounding.” As the evening progressed, drinks were flowing, and she (at the time, one year and one semester away from her masters degree) blew everyone away with her wit and her intelligence. She just got her masters and I honestly believe this woman may be president in a few terms. I did make the faux pas of asking her height, she gave me her stats then asked me mine… point proven. Apparently, in situations like you described, she’d be the one saying “And coming from such big people within the company, I have to graciously thank you for your compliment!”

    Point being, if you find benign ways in which the comment can be received and comment to that, then you have the upper-hand. And eventually, the comments will stop. Commenting on your appearance is NOT OKAY, but being small in stature makes it a bit difficult to file complaints: “well, you ARE under the average height for women in this town, so technically it was the truth.”

    Then carry yourself and speak as though you are ten feet tall. You look them all in the eye, you be confident in what you are doing, and those “tiny” or “small” comments get shot down with a smile. Yes, you will be seen as an adult. And yes, you will make those asshats feel stupid.

  9. I am in my early 20s and 5’1″

    I also look much younger than my age, and I am treated like total crap for it all of the time. I have always hung out with older people, dated older guys (my husband is a fair amount older than me), because those are the people I identify with more, yet I am still treated like I small child.

    When I was getting married, I got tons of rude comments from my peers, from vendors. When I mentioned to the seamstress working on my gown that I was graduating the same month as the wedding, she assumed I meant from high school (what???), which explains how she was flat out ignoring me and talking directly to my mother instead.

    When I was growing up I had a lot of issues leading groups. I love leading and I love directing (I actually left film school partially for this reason), but it was always very hard to get taken seriously. When you have to physically look up to people you are trying to lead, it does some screwy things to the dynamic. When i switched to a more female dominated field, I was met with being treated like a child because of my height and young appearance.

    Getting married didn’t really help. Now I’m just seen as a child who is “owned” by her more capable and older husband. Which makes both of us want to puke.

  10. So, I’ve experienced this as well –

    The other day, a door-to-door sales rep came to my door, a rather tall man in his late 20s, early 30s. I’m 23, a month and a half off of 24. He proceeded to ask me if my parents were home. I live with my fiance and two other friends of ours, all in our mid to late 20s.

    I was surprisingly hurt by the assumption that I was a) young enough that whatever he had to say couldn’t be said to me and b) that based on some factor (I’m not sure what), I wasn’t an adult.

  11. I am 4ft 11 and am 26.(I’m also blessed with a curvy body, big boobs, hips, thighs and bum and would have assumed this counters the child-like look) however I have always struggled with being seen and treated as younger than I am and the “aww she’s so cute/tiny/bless” mentality that seemed to follow me growing up especially when people realised my ‘big’ brother was actually 2 1/2 years younger than me. I had my daughter fairly young (pregnant at 19 and gave birth at 20) and I found people’s attitude then hard to deal with. Complete strangers would often complain to me about ‘underage pregnancy’ or assume that once she was born, she was my younger sister and not my daughter.
    It’s lessened somewhat now, but people find it amusing that my daughter is almost shoulder height on me now and my partner is 6ft something. I do find it funny that people comment about how she ‘ is like my partner rather than me’ given he’s not her biological dad.

    I’ve found when working or applying to work with children and young people, some bosses have implied that I would not be able to ‘cope’ with pupils who were taller than me simply because of my height.

    Ami, I’ve had things like that happen to me before now where a salesman has come to the door and once I’ve answered ‘asked to speak to my parents’. One one occasion my daughter was asking if “she should ring Grandma”. The salesman then quite rudely asked ” Oh, how old are you? You must have had your daughter very young”.
    My daughter (who is not shy) replied for me: ” My mummy is 26 and I am 6. She is just short! and Grandma doesn’t live here”

    I am happy to be a short person but I do wish people wouldn’t assume I am incapable or that I am ‘cute’ or ‘helpless’ or less of an adult because of this.

  12. I have always been a young-looking person in a professional career. And, yes, getting to your 30’s works, but it is the slow solution! I think that ‘youngness’ or ‘cuteness’ (and let’s be frank, ‘femaleness’) makes some people think that you are lesser-than, but using assertiveness and intelligence redresses the balance. I don’t engage or legitimise questions about my age by answering with a smile and “you would be surprised”, then follow up straight away by getting back to business with “now, you were asking my clinical opinion on……”

  13. I’m 25 and I get mistaken for being in high school. I’m short too kids actually mock me for looking too young making cutting songs at me as jokes “Are you old enough”. I am pretty sure my height is 99% of the reason people judge my age. My mum is short. Well I say if someone cant find a reason to stop degrading you find better people!

  14. Here’s my issue. I’m a pastor’s wife – 30 and just as most have been saying, look young for my age (most say age 16). I grew up in this church, my husband just became lead pastor. There is a girl who also grew up in the church, 8 years older than me. She is CONSTANTLY making comments about how I’m “just a baby” and she’s “so much older”. She’ll say “I did this, oh but you were probably in diapers”. We’re an age diverse church so I often hang out with men and women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and no one has ever (at least rarely) made any comment about my being too young. But her…all.the.time. She hangs with lots of girls “my age” but only makes comments at me. I get it – we grew up together and I was younger, but we’re not 7 and 15 anymore, we’re 30 and 38. Advice on getting her to stop?

    • Agree with her in a positive upbeat way. “What a great observation! You are right! I AM 8 years younger than you! God works in mysterious ways.” (wink). Now if you’ll excuse me. I have to return these calls, attend this church meeting etc, must say hello to this person etc…. than turn- walk away. This makes it seem that you are too busy to entertain her views on your “young-ness” because you are too busy. And as a pastor’s wife- I’m assuming you probably are.

      Do not ever show it bothers you or get confrontational with her. That could backfire and makes you come off as defending yourself for something that as the article mentions; should be inconsequential. Yeah, she’s insecure about your position within your church and perhaps even a bit envious. You mentioned that she hangs with people your age- Is she relating to them as equals or is she mother henning them? It’s nice to feel like a big sister to other younger women so maybe its unsettling that she can’t do that as easily with you simply because the dynamic is different. Especially if she makes those comments in front of others. Really 8 years older? Its not such an age difference once you hit your 30’s.

      – I’m 34 and I get the “young” quotes and small” petite quotes” all the time. I especially get mother -henned to death. There is no end to a few lady colleagues who make it their business to have an opinion about everything you do at work and in your life and tell you how it should be done differently, but that “I’ll understand when I’m older.” Its always for weird inconsequential stuff too. I notice they never pull this with men that are my age in the same position I’m in.

      I’ve actually jokingly said, “I appreciate your concern but I’m not your teenager. I’m not going to take the car out without your permission.” 🙂

  15. I just turned 25 and I have gotten these comments my whole life. I’m 5’1″ and only recently reached a “medium” build – otherwise, I could be described as elfin or tiny – and have always looked young. To my slight benefit, people tend to comment on my pale skin, but unfortunately it’s more in the range of “you look sick.” I used to work as a barista and ALWAYS wore makeup so I didn’t hear that.

    I think being full-busted has saved me some of the disbelief at my age, but it changes into my being identified as “the short chick with the boobs.” Gee, thanks. I don’t feel like I stand out because of them already, please use them as a primary identifier.

    I have a hard time figuring out how to do the professional dress in my field – I’m a graphic designer and they always tell you to dress like your style, and mine is inspired by art nouveau and Japanese decor. It’s hard to balance the pro look with the organic and flowery aesthetic and still look adult.

  16. Clearly not alone!

    I’m 5’2″, 31, and I’ve been ID’d for movies! People have asked me if I was visiting my dad at work. I was pregnant with braces and people assumed I was a teen mom. I’m a professional engineer and I work a fair bit in the construction industry. In a hard hat and steel toe boots I’m a poster for ‘take your kid to work day’.

    Someday I guess it will end. Until then I let a lot of it slide, I demand respect when needed, and I represent myself they way I would like to be treated. I treat young adults with respect too, because no one should have to put up with judgement based on their age.

  17. I’m 37, 5 feet tall, around 100 pounds, petite. Most people can’t believe it when I tell them my age. I’m a creative director for a magazine and am constantly meeting people, but often have to reiterate my position and authority so they don’t suspect that I’m just an intern. I do still get carded when buying booze, and am SO sick of women younger than me calling me “hon” or “sweetie” at a restaurant. Gah!

    While I do dress (mostly) professional for work, my style is still somewhat quirky, and my go-to casual wear is fun and/or geeky t-shirts and jeans. Most days I don’t wear a lot of makeup or style my hair much, so I suppose I can see how I look much younger than I am. My family has always called me “Runt,” and I’m actually okay with that. I’ll eat off the kids’ menu, no prob (my site explains why, btw)!

    Another than that occasional “hon,” and having a heck of a time finding clothes that fit, it really doesn’t get to me. Career-wise, I’m awesome in my field, outspoken, and my assertive personality can compensate for my small stature. I just roll with who I am and don’t worry about it much. 😉

  18. I am 47. I thought it would end when I began to visibly age, but I still look younger than most women my age and (HORRORS) I’m still considered pretty and (OMG HOW DARE I) I’m in great physical shape The condescending meanness never stops. I’ve become adept at taking the words lobbed my way, turning them positive and lobbing them right back. Then, I avoid the person who tried, once again, to make me their victim.
    I believe women like to eat each other alive. The only cure I can figure? Everyone needs to read ‘Screamfree Parenting” by Hal Edward Runkel and break the cycle of womanly meanness upon our very own daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughters.

    I’m so very tired of mean women attempting to gut my happiness, and I remember it started somewhere after I began to walk. The attacks started with my maternal grandmother. This stuff is passed down from generation to generation and it is a deliberate and cruel way to control a people by manacling the women. Please, please help me stop the cycle. I have a daughter, too, and the meanness among women now begins in 5K and the First Grade.

  19. As a 26 year old, 5’1″, very young looking person, it can be tough being a Mental Health Therapist who works with an adult population. That means that about 80% of the people I work with are older than me. Most of them older by decades. I often have clients tell me they’re not sure if I can help them, I’m too young, or that they don’t think I have enough life experience. Basically any form of “your physical appearance makes me question your abilities”.

    I’ve found that the easiest way to deal with this is to be up front. I tend to say something along the lines of this:
    “My age or personal life experience really doesn’t have much to do with my counseling abilities. I have a masters degree and extensive training, and it’s my job to bring my unique skills to our counseling relationship. It’s your job to bring your life experiences and understanding of what it means to be you. Honestly, if this was all about my life experience, it wouldn’t really be very relevant, because YOU are the expert on your personal mental health.”

    It’s worked pretty well so far!

  20. I can relate. I now think its affecting my career aspirations…
    I became eligible to graduate uni at the end of last semester (I’m 26 now, I didn’t go straight into uni when I was done with high school but travelled and worked). I started with the intention of getting into secondary school teaching, so after I’d graduated, I was eligible to enrol in a postgrad programme for teaching. It involved quite a lot of work, such as attending a school and writing up an observation as part of your application, attaining two references and attending an interview with a panel of two people (and I did all these things). I answered their questions the best way I could, but I was shocked when they mentioned my size, when they said “you’re quite small, I wonder, how would you command a classroom?” I felt like they were degrading me for being of a small stature (all the women in my family are this build, and in fact, I have two aunts and two uncles that are teachers – the aunts are on my bloodline side, and they are small women and I’m pretty certain it doesn’t get in the way of their command over a classroom!). Following this comment, I was told that I didn’t look my age. There was some amazement that I was born in 1990. He tried to turn this into a compliment by saying I would be grateful for this when I was 30 something, but I didn’t feel like it was a compliment. I felt like they were judging me for my size and the fact that I looked younger than I was. And yes, I always get carded and there’s always ‘that look’, like, are you sure this is you?
    Aside from fixating on my size and the fact that I look younger than I am, they said that I was calm and contained but told me that teachers also had to be “larger than life”. They called me three working days later and said they hadn’t decided, but that the main issue was they didn’t think I had the right “disposition” and that I apparently come across as too introverted (do they need to watch “the power of introverts” by Susan Cain – Ted Talk?). They’re giving me a second interview in which I am being asked to teach them something practical. I already feel very discouraged, and all I can take from the comments and remarks is that I am too small, too introverted, too calm, too this, too that… that I look too young… all of their objections reek of discrimination and I’m upset to say the least.

  21. I’m a 22 yo female and my height is 4’9
    I’m soon going to be married but my height has been one of my biggest insecurities. People don’t take me seriously just because of my height
    During this season which is Halloween people ask me as a joke if I will be going trick o treating or if I’m going to get my face painted for exameple or if I go to the market they automatically assume I’m a child and ask my partner if the child would like something to try and that makes me so angry because I don’t like people that assume and say things without knowing
    Like if I see a short person I can pretty much tell their ages if they’re young or old I don’t just assume anyway I would like people to start treating me the same as they treat others
    I just want to be normal at least average height it depresses me and saddens me to the point where I just cry to myself .
    Any tips on how to look taller ?

  22. This is so relatable. I am 23 years old and doing Masters and still people ask me in which school grade I am. Sometimes, it becomes so frustratingly annoying. It shatters my confidence and I feel worthless. But, at the same time, it is truly a sight to see people’s jaw drops when they come to know that I am a POST GRAD xD

  23. LOL, don’t be a fool, record all these clear incidences of discrimination and harassment, drag their a## into civil court and sue them.
    Take the money you get and start a business.
    If you look carefully you’ll see a lot of short people start, run and own businesses, they do it for the very reasons you’re complaining about with regards to your treatment in the workplace.
    As a short man, with a good education and a keen sense of observation I’ve been the victim of this garbage all my life. You can’t change it, and it unfortunately shows that a lot of people in this world are ignorant jerks.

    Count your blessings, at least as a short woman it will have little affect on finding relationships, most women think short men are vermin.

    Any intelligent self respecting person that finds themselves treated in this manner constantly just stops trying to interact with people, I don’t even talk to people anymore I’m so disgusted by it.

    strike out on your own, walk away from it, you’ll never change it.

    heightism, the OK form of discrimination that everyone thinks is all just a big joke

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