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.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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