Last week the 17-year-old reality star/model/queen of the bold lip known as Kylie Jenner stepped out into the world wearing something far from haute couture. Adios Zac Posen and Valentino — hello $15 slogan t-shirt. Celebs have worn slogan tees before, and they will wear them again I'm sure (because sometimes one just needs to feel like a normal human or whatever). I'm thinking of Taylor Swift's "No its Becky" top, or Lena Dunham's "LENA" tee, for instance. And when they make these moves, swapping silks and lace for 100 percent cotton, we pick apart any and all profoundness that we can find in their actions. T. Swift was demonstrating her social media prowess and her self-awareness — she knows how others perceive her (especially how negatively some perceive her), and feels strong enough to LOL about it. As for Lena, perhaps she realizes her power. She knows she's got the whole "voice of a generation" thing basically down, and doesn't have to be ashamed of recognizing her own merits — despite that an impossible balance of power and humility is what Millennials are taught to aspire to. And now I guess it's time to delve into T-shirt messaging yet again, because Kylie Jenner wore a DUFF shirt. And I can't help but feel this has some profound implications of its own for the plus-size community.
There's no telling when the term DUFF (acronymous for Designated Ugly Fat Friend) originated exactly, but it certainly reached a seemingly climactic moment in 2010 upon the release of Kody Keplinger's novel The DUFF — a body positive book exploring the subjectivity of beauty and desire. And five years later, we're seeing something of a resurgence of the word due to CBS's February 20th release of the novel's film adaptation starring the fabulous Mae Whitman. With Kylie's newfound ownership of the term, well, my guess is it's not going anywhere, anytime soon.
I realize that Jenner wearing such a slogan is slightly problematic, on several levels. The first being, quite simply, that she is just not fat. If anything, she is a poster girl for the majority of the First World's standardized definition of beauty. How, then, can she possibly relate to what it is like to actually be a fat woman in America? Well, the thing is, she can relate to what it's like to be a woman in America. Being in that shiny spotlight doesn't just mean the aforementioned haute couture. It also means constant scrutiny and unavoidable self-critiquing based on said exaggerated scrutiny. I'm also sure she knows all about the pressure to "have it all," which encompasses the now-taught mission to have everything from fortune to success to love to sex to friendship. Provided, of course, that you are not ugly.
I suppose one could also argue that Kylie's donning of "the Duff" is offensive to plus-size humans. Is she being condescending toward those who are — or have felt like — the designated, ugly fat friend? Is she mocking how serious a complex this phenomenon can be for men and women branded with that "fat" label... a label that we're still so taught to detest? The reality is that most people — especially, I would imagine, in Hollywood — would never want to be fat. They would cry at the smallest sign of side boobs or a heart-shaped overhang, and proceed to schedule extra personal trainer time. Even some of the most vocal body-positive people — who feel passionately about size acceptance or fat pride — still have qualms with their own bodies, after all. But color me crazy: I just don't think Jenner was mocking anyone. I know I don't feel personally mocked, nor has my body image suffered at the hands of her poly-cotton blend. Rather, I kind of feel pleased. Pleased that someone in a position that allows for the vocalization of issues so often thrown under the rug was able to own the word "fat," in — let's face it — a non-attacking manifestation.
In this world, we very often go above and beyond to avoid that three-letter word. A word that, ultimately, signals the flesh on our bodies. A word that, ultimately, signals the majority of bodies — because even the most slender of people are not immune to body fat. It's a word we're taught is OK when it makes an appearance in the form of boobs or "dat booty," but not if it makes its way to our thighs or (god forbid) our stomachs. So we craft euphemisms to get around it — the worst of which might be something like "husky" or "queen size," and the best of which might simply be the term "plus-size." Straight-sized people — even ones who are body positive in theory — will only ever use the word as a direct insult or as a joke and source of self-deprecation. "I ate so much over Christmas and I feel so fat," "I can't smoke weed everyday. I would be 300 pounds," "You're not fat, you're beautiful," "That fat bitch is on my list." Our hatred of fat is so ingrained, that most of use the word without even realizing it, but time and time again it's in a derogatory fashion. Of course, "nice" straight-size people don't tend to use it to describe others. Because they don't want to be offensive. And even "nice" plus-size people will avoid it when describing the bodies of others — for the exact same reason.
So here's the thing. Words have power. They just do. With words we can sing our love songs, proclaim (or try to proclaim) our innermost workings. With words, we can express our adoration, our loathing, our sadness, our glee. But with words, we can also be malicious. We can hurt those around us deliberately. We can be cruel. The only way to disavow our antipathy toward certain words, however, is to reclaim them. And this is what Kylie Jenner did in wearing a shirt that reads, "I'm somebody's DUFF."
It doesn't matter, really, that Kylie isn't fat. She shouldn't have to be in order to own the word. I don't believe that she meant to offend anyone. Not because I don't believe that she's an exception to the "everybody fat shames" clause of 21st century living, but because I do believe that she's a 17-year-old woman trying to figure out the kind of person she wants to be. Although one of my favorite phrases to throw around is "I hate humans," I don't truly believe that most of us are that hideous (internally or externally). When it comes to the way in which we perceive weight, I think there are several divides. There are those who have taken taught fat shaming and evolved into truly shaming policers of the bodies of others. These are the people who laugh, bully and torment under either the guise of faux concern or under no guise at all. Then there are those who understand the body positive movement because they know that they should know that all bodies are beautiful. But they still wouldn't necessarily want to be fat. And finally, there are those who genuinely adore their fat bodies, who sometimes even explore the lesser-discussed aspects of fat sexuality with open hearts and open minds. And who find beauty in every bit of "excess flesh." Most people tend to fall into the middle group — and I think Kylie's usage of the DUFF tee proves that she is one of them.
When Petra Collins designed and released the above "Period Power" tee for American Apparel, the Internet — and the world — truly did seem to break. The very strident opposition was infuriated because Petra dared to depict not just a vagina (that would have been bad enough given we live in a patriarchy that teaches us to shun our female sexuality, obviously), but a menstruating, masturbating vagina. But... women don't masturbate! Let alone when they're on the red! People were truly, truly shocked. And this sentiment is one echoed when women — and men — take similar ownership of the fat on their bodies. A lot of people still don't like it. A lot of people still don't understand it. And subsequently, a lot of people get angry at fatkini photos or at plus-size women in lingerie.
If we're ever to reach a point of size acceptance, fat acceptance, or fulfilled body positivity, we need to start taking back this three-letter word. We can't avoid it or fear it or hate it. Fat pride isn't about claiming that everyone in the universe should be fat, or should like being fat. But it's definitely about the freedom to have the choice. To be able to embrace every roll and "excess" curve if one so desires. To not associate fatness with ugliness, because they are not one and the same. For DUFFs everywhere, this is a fact that has remained clouded by the homogenous representations of aspirational beauty we're presented with in the day-to-day. But it doesn't have to be. And I don't know: Perhaps the first step lies in the openness to perceiving fat as beautiful. First in others. And hopefully, ultimately, in ourselves.
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