No culture is as fond of ‘cute’ as in Japan. The Japanese term ‘Kawaii’ refers to the quality of being cute. The word stems from an archaic word ‘kaohayushi’ which describes a flushed or embarrassed face. Now it is also used to describe anything from costumes to plush toys – think of Hello Kitty. Those who are familiar with manga comics or Lolita fashion can imagine exactly the look I am talking about.
The term is more often used in reference to girls or women. Although boys can also be kawaii, the sought-after look is often less extravagant. Kawaii has connotations of being childlike, innocent, adorability but also vulnerable and helpless.
Why do we infantilize adult women and why is cute so appealing? Why do women want to be cute?
It may have something to do how we have evolved and how different genders respond to stress.
When faced with stress, the body releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. We may be familiar with the ‘fight-or-flight’ instinct where adrenalin mobilizes our energy to deal with threatening situations by fleeing or taking aggressive actions.
In 2000, psychologist Shelley Taylor proposed an alternative response to stressors. While both genders are susceptible to ‘fight-or-flight’, women are more likely to be inclined towards ‘tend-and-befriend. Instead of adrenalin, oxytocin released by cortisol encourages us to socialize and form bonds. By creating and investing in social networks, we ensure our safety by grouping resources together or ‘betting’ that our allies will come to our aid in times of danger. This makes sense as a nursing mother may not be able to run or be strong enough to protect her young on her own.
In evolutionary biology, our instinct is to survive and pass our genes on. That is why we find babies, kittens and puppies cute. Our brain rewards us with dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel happy. Simply looking at them makes us less aggressive and more helpful. It stimulates us to protect and take care of them.
We have judged people based on their looks for thousands of years. Some features we find attractive and likeable include large doe eyes, chubby cheeks, a small nose and mouth, a high forehead. Enthologist Konrad Lorenz defines these infantile physical features as ‘Kindchenschema’.
Consumerism and marketing have capitalised on this unconscious behavioural pattern and amplified this trend to a new high.
While there is nothing wrong with being cute, we should not let it define us.
The snag is that cute is also associated with being sexy and attractive. We are comfortable with women who are helpless and naïve. Strong women are atypical. We are more comfortable with strong women who portray girlish behaviours. Otherwise, we perceive them as threatening or unlikeable. Hence, society further encourages these traits.
Roxy, a well known and popular brand for women’s surf, snowboard, clothes and accessories is redefining ‘cute’ in an original way. In their ‘Welcome to the new cute’ campaign, they assert that while being feminine and approachable is important, cute is also about falling, broken teeth, confidence and winning medals. They wish to challenge perceptions and encourage girls and women to stand up for who they truly are.
It is a positive approach to femininity. Instead of the need to be docile, it is an affirmation that being strong-willed, bold and self-assured is not contradictory to being feminine. And it does not make us less attractive.
Know what makes you happy. Own your success and believe in yourself.