Fat/Slut Shaming and the Meritocracy Myth

Yesterday, a post on Feministe by guestblogger wickedday sparked an entirely fascinating and important conversation on  the connections between slut-shaming and fat-shaming, and, later, on the effects that capitalism has historically had on this process, and continues to have. I was hipped to the conversation via the contributions of a dear friend of mine and prolific feminist blogger Katie Loncke.

In the original post on Feministe, wickedday made really interesting and valid points about the relationship between the slut-shaming and the fat-shaming that take place so persistently in today’s society:

Food and sex share certain characteristics. Notably, they are both strong instinctual drives – eat or die; fuck or die out – that (most) humans find pleasure in, as well as simple satiety. Both have innumerable variations. People’s tastes vary wildly: in both kitchen and bedroom, what makes X swoon will make Y vomit…

…Perhaps because of those similarities, modern society is weird about food in the same way as it’s weird about sex

Fat-shaming is precisely as ridiculous, precisely as vile, as slut-shaming. It betrays exactly the same kind of weird, voyeuristic, judgemental concern with the details of what other people are putting in their bodies, with the same cavalier disregard for other people’s right to decide to prioritise one good (pleasure) over another (health).”

Wickedday’s succinct response to both (slut-shaming and fat-shaming) was essentially summed up by the mantra (and accompanying venn diagram) “My body: not your business.

Katie Loncke picked up on these points and continued the conversation on her blog. She writes:

“At the moment I’m more curious about bigger-picture causes.  The macro-relationships.  Because… as much as we might argue that our bodies are none of their business, as long as we live under capitalism, their business is precisely what our bodies are…

…from a point of view of class struggle in a capitalist context, “my body” as a vehicle for the commodity of labor-power (and/or the reproduction of labor-power; i.e. childbearing and domestic work) is *precisely* “your business” (“you,” the capitalist class) — in the sense that it is the source of the surplus value that capitalists (who are almost entirely men) extract as profit. No wonder the state (largely synonymous with the capitalist class) monitors the bodies of its labor force a.k.a. profit machine.”

Katie goes on to offer some examples, both concrete and theoretical, of the ways in which women’s bodies have historically been slut- and fat-shamed for capitalist gain. The whole post is really great and worth a read.

I think both wickedday and Katie make good points, about the relationship between fat- and slut-shaming, as well as the ongoing ways in which capitalism supports and in fact demands the continuation of these oppressive and anti-feminist forces. In addition to thinking about this from the individual perspective (i.e., I am being shamed and that is not ok) as well as the  systemic perspective (i.e., there are people and systems that regularly benefit from my oppression), I’d like to look at this from what I guess I’ll call a psychological-spiritual-cultural perspective, and particularly the ways in which a pervasive concept- the “meritocracy myth”- operates to both justify fat- and slut- shaming and prop-up capitalistic inequality and injustice.

Many before me have addressed the meritocracy myth, most notably Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr., who published a book of the same title in 2004, and Lani Guinier, acclaimed author of the groundbreaking book “The Miner’s Canary“, who gave an interview in 2006 on the subject to Dollars and Sense magazine. The idea being that modern society promises a system that distributes resources—especially wealth and income—according to the merit of individuals, but this promise is false.

The perpetuation of this meritocratic promise is crucial for capitalism to function, because it acts as an incentive to work hard. The idea being that if you didn’t think you stood to gain anything by working, you wouldn’t. I also believe it is almost entirely false, most notably because it fails to take into account the existence of privilege that makes some people prone to gaining wealth and income based on factors completely separate from their merit, but also because it fails to acknowledge the possibility of incentivizing work without appealing to a totally self-serving objective (aren’t there other reasons one might go to work every day other than to gain an edge on someone else, i.e. social betterment?).

Regardless of why it’s wrong, it’s certainly pervasive. In fact, the myth of meritocracy is such a psychologically necessary principle of capitalism that I would argue that it’s no longer restricted to the most obvious tenants of capitalism- wealth and income- but has come to apply to most “goods” in our society, including pleasure, love, and beauty. Meaning that many people in today’s society have extended the meritocracy myth to mean that these things are also distributed according to the merit of individuals.

Why is this relevant? Because this is the basic psychological and spiritual component of both the slut- and fat- shaming that wickedday describes, as well as the capitalist perpetuation of oppression that Katie describes.

I think the myth of a meritocratic society drives fat- and slut- shaming directly because it serves as a worldview in which people get exactly what they “deserve”. So if someone is fat or slutty or unloved, they MUST have somehow brought that on themselves. Because according to the meritocracy myth, we live in a society where everyone gets what they deserve, so most people would experience cognitive dissonance if pre-established social goods such as pleasure, beauty, and love turn out to be constructed, complex, or even overrated, and are therefore “distributed unevenly”. And it doesn’t take much to see how this serves the capitalist system. We spill major [proverbial] INK here at Feministing deconstructing and uncovering many of the highly profitable capitalistic industries that profit off these meritocratic myths, such as the beauty and fashion industries.

I’m not saying that merit doesn’t matter, that we should all feel guilty about our successes, or that we should be consumed by the guilt of our privilege. But I do have serious reservations about the absolutism of the meritocratic worldview, and view its scrutiny and deconstruction as a crucial step in the fight against fat- and slut- shaming, consumerism, and the hegemonic oppression that characterizes modern capitalist systems.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted September 9, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Hey Lori! Thanks for this wonderful recap and extension on the analysis! I’m glad you brought in the meritocracy myth piece, because I think it’s a key ideological cornerstone of our current messed-up society.

    At the same time, though, I wonder about the primacy of ideology versus material reality. (Not that they’re directly opposed or totally separate.)

    Here’s an example. You write,

    The perpetuation of this meritocratic promise is crucial for capitalism to function, because it acts as an incentive to work hard.

    But I actually think that the incentive to work hard comes from a need to survive, and be able to support oneself and a family.

    Because, I mean, do we (especially working-class people) really have a choice?

    As you know, contrary to racist and sexist welfare-leech myths, working-class and poor people work extremely, extremely hard. “Just to get by,” as the Talib Kweli song goes. And even though the meritocracy myth does have significant traction among the working-class (though probably less so than among working-class, elites, and capitalists), I actually don’t think it’s what motivates them to keep working. Rather, I think it’s more like trying to eat, live, and love (a.k.a. survive) outside of the traumatizing conditions of very poor, unemployed, and extra-legal workers.

    So even though I agree that the meritocracy myth is super-powerful and pernicious, I think there’s an important causal distinction between a myth that *drives* the social relations of an economy (a.k.a. class struggle and oppression), and a myth that *justifies* those relations.

    But of course, you’re right that the analysis is important! We do need to expose and see through the myths and psychological propaganda. That’s the “Why we revolutionize;” and the economy, with all of its mystified and effed-up social relations, is the “What we revolutionize.”

    And the “How” is a great big ol’ question that I’d love to talk more about, with anyone interested. :)

    You are great! Thanks again, lady!

  2. Posted September 9, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    I have been doing a lot of reading about this topic and this is my first comment. Its started with the Jaclyn Friedman Craigslist article and that led to a site called hookingupsmart. That site is so verbose and quite frankly, overly analytical and critical. There is quite a bit of cross attack between bloggers there as well. I do not know why all this is such a big deal. Men and women have been having sex before marriage all along and Western society has not collapsed. So why in just the last 10 years or so has this become a media topic?

    But no matter the cause, it seems to come down to a war of words and meaning. It is VERY confusing. I cannot pin down the real issue. There is this notion of slut shaming in the media and it happens on a more personal level among people who shame one another. There is also something that is discussed on other websites but never in the wider media – something called slut rejection. The latter is what heterosexual men who seek a life partner supposedly engage in. I have personal experience with this. My ex did not try to shame me but upon knowing more about me, he just sort of faded away. Its so wrong that women may have to lie or not say anything and either strategy is prone to backfire. I believe that if men had less alternatives, that is if most or many women had a fruitful sexual history, then that would become the norm and therefore acceptable.

  3. Posted September 10, 2010 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I am an avid feministing.com reader, feminist and reproductive rights and maternal health activist but I was also trained as a biologist. There is nothing that can be said in the defense of slut- or fat-shaming. But there is something to be said about the objective negative consequences of obesity. I’m not talking about “curvy” or “big” – I’m talking about a medical condition that impairs physical mobility, the proper functioning of practically all of the body’s organs and significantly shortens predicted life span. Humans evolved is an ecosystem where food was practically always insufficient – and our bodies know how to cope with that why better than with the excess of calories that (statistically speaking) over half of the people in the developed world are currently ingesting. It is YOUR body and you should get to do what you like with it and shouldn’t be judged but I don’t think that promoting a healthy lifestyle and tackling obesity is by any means something bad (if done in an appropriate sensitive way – I know not everybody can afford organic veggies from the farmer’s market…).

  4. Posted September 10, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    “No wonder the state (largely synonymous with the capitalist class) monitors the bodies of its labor force a.k.a. profit machine.””

    There is a lot to criticize about the beauty/vanity/insecurity industries, especially as regards advertising and overconsumption, but I disagree that capitalism has a strong interest in the health of workers. If a worker is not healthy enough to perform, a capitalist can just fire them and hire someone else. If a whole nation is unhealthy, a capitalist can outsource to another.

    What you are suggesting is far more likely to happen in other political or economic systems. Consider authoritarian environments: why do you think the military forces you to do all those push-ups? They consider that your body belongs to them, not to you. Likewise slave societies. If you own a slave, you have a strong interest in making sure that they aren’t unable to work because they’re drunk or pregnant. You can’t just fire them because they are a valuable asset.

    Consider also command economies. People are doing mandatory, mass calisthenics in Beijing right now (well not right now, it’s the middle of the night there). That’s because those bodies are considered the property of the state. Likewise Japan, which is far more like a command economy than America’s. Since many Japanese companies offer lifetime employment, they have to take care of “their” workers. Under capitalism, there’s no such stewardship over people, since they don’t belong to the company.

    I would say that capitalism is among the most liberal, individualistic of economic systems, which gives people the most choice over how they use or abuse their bodies. That’s because most other economic systems own people, while capitalism merely rents them.

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