don’t be cute
If you’ve ever thought I look younger than I am, you’re not alone.
Recently, at a hotel, the woman behind the counter asked me my age.
“Twenty-four,” I said.
“Really?” she said. “I thought you were fifteen or sixteen!”
When I’m with my sister, who’s four years younger, people regularly mistake her for the older sister. She’s tall and thin; I’m short and have the same cheeks that I had as a toddler. Without fail, the person who comments (always a woman) reassures me that I’ll be grateful for my youthful looks when I’m fifty.
Yeah? Well, I’m not fifty. I’m twenty-four and I’m going to be a pastor.
We young seminarians are sensitive to our age and its disadvantages. We look inexperienced, naïve, even foolish. Our smooth faces give no indication that we know anything beyond what we’ve read in our textbooks. We have no silver hairs to hint at even one speck of wisdom. Our demeanors do not suggest maturity. To search committees whose members are on the other end of life, we look like children.
My male colleagues grow beards when they start interviewing, adding maybe five years to their age. What are we women to do?
I got advice from a college English professor, when I TA’ed for her: Don’t Be Cute.
She told me that cuteness is an obstacle. It’s fine when you’re going on a date, but when you’re teaching a class (or preaching), cuteness is not what you want. If you want the respect that an intelligent, professional person deserves, you can’t rely on innocence and eyelashes.
(Mind you, this is all coming from the sexiest professor I’ve ever had. She’s blonde! Gorgeous! She used to be a model! She pronounces “analogical” as “ana-lowh-gical” and uses words like “Faulknerian” and “fin de siècle.” Coming from her, “cute” was practically an insult.)
Since then, I have determined not to be cute.
So when I preach, I never wear a skirt. Always pants. I work to stay in the lower registers of my voice, avoiding the screech that sometimes accompanies my earnestness. I stand tall—none of the bashful, pigeon-toed posture that my inner self wants to sink into. I refer to myself as a woman, even though I think of myself as a girl. I do all the things that will, I hope, make me not look sixteen. If I can get my perceived age up to my actual age, I’ll be happy.
I don’t always succeed. Soft speech takes over; I start to mumble. My thank-yous take on a saccharine flavor. Or, worse, I fall into daughter-mode around men my father’s age. I get easily intimidated, weepy. I back down and yield to their powers of reasoning. Avoiding conflict like the plague, I turn into Miss Compliance.
But other times, I do all right. Like these last two Sundays in the adult education class, which Dan and I are leading. We’ve asked a hard thing of the group: to read the Bible and to listen to each other. As a group, we do okay with the first; we’re a little rusty at the second. Still, I insist that we stick to the form, unnatural as it feels. It’s like strength training, I tell them. We’re lifting about three pounds right now. In two months, though, we’ll be up to ten. And if we keep it up, who knows?
All the delicate, cute bones in my body are crying out for me to let the class do what it wants. Let them talk as they usually do, the chatty ones chatting and the mumblers mumbling and the taciturn ones sitting in silence. Let them entertain their tangents. You can’t tell an seventy-eight-year-old what to do!
Because I’m not Jillian Michaels, I’ll go easy on them for now, but I do encourage them to follow the given structure. I tell them we’ll get the hang of it as long as we keep it up. Without abandoning cute altogether, I tell the seventy-eight-year-old what to do.
Later, one of the members of the class tells me that she has never heard one of the other member speak in class, but that he spoke the previous week, when we introduced the practice.
I know that he didn’t speak up simply because I refused to back down. (In fact, I let quite a bit slide.) But I’m convinced that my presence had a greater effect than I realized. And his words gave me some strength for the journey. If these are the results of appearing commanding rather than cute, I can let my skirts go.