Meet the DUFF, also known as the Designated Ugly Fat Friend.
It’s a new term for an old idea. When I was growing up she was known as the ‘last resort’ or ‘the one who should feel grateful’ – grateful if a guy bypassed her prettier friends (however ‘pretty’ is defined) to extend her the charity of his attention.
To creepy pick-up artists, she’s the gatekeeper – the bodyguard who must be out-manoeuvred in order to score with her hotter friend.
The DUFF’s role in a friendship group is to make everyone else feel more attractive in comparison.
At 17, self-identified DUFF Kody Keplinger penned a novel with the title The DUFF after a guy asked who was the DUFF in her group at school.
While the book’s staggering success – over a hundred thousand copies sold and a film that opened in US cinemas last weekend – is a triumph for this young author, it’s a depressing indication of just how many girls relate to feeling this way.
“When I first heard [the term DUFF] I thought, ‘That’s hilarious and super clever,'” Keplinger told the New York Post. “Then, I thought – ‘Wait, that’s super mean.’ And then: ‘Oh crap, that’s me! I am the DUFF of my group!'”
Keplinger soon discovered that within her social circle everyone thinks they’re the DUFF.
“I realised that everyone is insecure and thinks they’re the DUFF,” she said.
It’s not surprising that girls identify so readily with a social role that is the definition of self-loathing and insecurity. It’s a natural consequence of girls being trained to compete with each other over beauty, but doing so in a completely passive way.
From Bonds’ ‘Baby Search’ to teen modeling competitions to ‘Who wore it best?’ rankings in magazines, girls are taught that their beauty exists in a strict hierarchy that depends on the relative attractiveness of the other girls around them.
At the same time, girls and women are never permitted to own beauty on their own terms. To do so would be considered vain or ‘up yourself’. From the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue to boys bandying around hurtful terms like ‘the DUFF’, girls are conditioned to defer to other people to determine their worth.
The end result is the ultimate in disempowerment: girls’ and women’s beauty is the sole measure of their worth, yet they cannot claim it for themselves. It can only be bestowed upon them by others. In this vicious bind, every woman loses. Even the most genetically-blessed girls and women can have their blessings devalued with a change of season.
One possible way out of this bind has been for women to take matters into their own hands and reclaim the label. Hence, the hashtag #Iamtheduff which has begun trending on Twitter. The New York Post reports that Hollywood starlets have been spotted wearing ‘I’m somebody’s DUFF’ T-shirts.
While universalising and neutralising this derogatory label is a nice ‘I’m Spartacus’ moment, it does little to challenge the original problem.
It is merely appropriating the terms of one’s own self-loathing and poor self-esteem, as if that’s all that can be achieved.
It’s a lousy kind of liberation when women only have the power to determine their own worth so long as they degrade themselves.
It’s also telling that the closest male equivalent to the role of the DUFF in dating rituals is the ‘wingman’, who assists his male friend pick-up. Unlike the DUFF, a wingman isn’t a derogatory term and nor is it based on physical attractiveness or a man’s perceived worth. It’s also interchangeable: any man can assume the role of a wingman. By comparison, being the DUFF is a permanent state of inferiority.
The relatability of the DUFF label among women points to an epidemic of low self-esteem in girls. If this is the case, then it’s not a brave new social movement. It’s a bloody tragedy.