Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

The Woman in the Mirror and the Peter Meter

Lynne says:

The latest fat attack suggesting that a woman can be “too fat to be Supreme Court Justices” has set me to thinking about why we measure the worth of women including ourselves by how “attractive” we are, and how contagious those measurements are. Many are speculating that President Obama will nominate a female judge to replace Supreme Court Justice David Souter when he retires soon, and some possible nominees have been attacked on grounds of body size, as Paul Campos explains in his excellent article “Fat Judges Need Not Apply.”

Campos skewers the supposed health concerns and gets to the center of the problem:

Based on photographic evidence, Kagan’s and Sotomayor’s current weights almost certainly do not even correlate with any increased mortality risk, let alone one that ought to be considered in the nomination process (for average-height women, no increased mortality risk correlating with weight begins to appear until weights above 200 pounds). So what’s the real motivation for all the anxiety about the bodies that house two such apparently distinguished legal minds? A glance at the comments at a site such as Abovethelaw.com, which features a number of vicious attacks on Kagan’s appearance, provides one clue. For some men, the only thing more intolerable than the sight of a powerful woman is the sight of a powerful woman they don’t want to sleep with.

Being judged on how closely we approximate some insecure stranger’s wet dream fantasy is bad enough. But worse yet, when I look at my own life I have to honestly say that it is almost an ingrained reaction to judge myself this way, despite years of working hard not to do so.

As a card-carrying, vanilla heterosexual fat woman there have been times when I went seeking male approval to validate myself. The most dramatic example was during the years following my husband’s death. I was 42 when he died and 100 pounds heavier than I had been when we met.

Although I have been considered “too fat” all my adult life, I managed to carve out a sex life in my teens and 20s and find love in my 30s through raw hormones, a sense of humor and force of will. When people tried to pull me into line by attacking my womanhood, which happened surprisingly often, I could laugh and note that I had probably had more orgasms in the past year than they ever had or ever would have, so my womanhood seemed to functioning quite well. Solo orgasms count by the way. Based on Woody Allen’s “sex with someone you love” theory, letting your body know you care helps keep your hand in the game.

But as a much fatter, forty-something widow I knew that the prospects of simply getting laid, let alone finding love again were scarcer. The good news was that this situation made me much more serious about investigating fat acceptance. When I started to look into it I heard rumors that there were men, some said rarer than unicorn herds, who actually preferred larger women. “Fat admirers” they were called, FAs for short.

I now observe with a rueful smile that this is still the first question many fat women ask on encountering the Fat Acceptance Movement, “Are there really men who prefer fat women?”

This should be a simple question, right? We’re talking about measuring ourselves on the Peter Meter, what Screw Magazine founder Al Goldstein described as a “measuring tool for evaluation of porn films,” a meter which was “based on how many hard-ons it produced.” Amanda Hess, blogging about a sexual harassment suit in The Washington City Paper Sexist Blogs comes up with several further definitions that have developed since.

Incidentally when I looked up “peter meter” online, I discovered that a novelty condom was the first entry that popped up.

But nothing about desire is simple. It can be a force of nature as Norman Mailer comments when government censorship of pornography in the 1970s: Sex is a force. It’s like lava. And there haven’t been too many successful engineering projects diverting the flow of lava.

But we are not volcanoes but social critters with herd instincts, hang ups and personal problems. Among men who are self-described admirers of the larger figure, I found find some very nice guys who may or may not be attracted to any given fat woman. I also found predators who find seek out fat women in hopes that low self-esteem will make them easy targets, fat men who are so traumatized by experiences with prejudice that they are too shy to reach out or respond to fat women, and even men who will see a fat woman privately but refuse to be seen with her in public in order to avoid stigma to themselves.

The question I was trying to puzzle out and many women ask when approaching fat acceptance is only partly, “Can I find companionship?” It’s also the sadly wistful question, “Could anyone ever find me desirable, and thus prove that I am valuable?”

What if no one finds us attractive? Are we still valuable?

As a widow I would say that sexual adventures in the fat acceptance community helped me re-enter the world of the living after too much hard time in hospital waiting rooms. But building our house of self-esteem on Norman Mailer’s Lava Flow Estates doesn’t work. The problems are twofold:

(1) It’s addictive. Mutual attraction when it works, makes everything seem deceptively easy and paralyzingly sweet. We can get addicted to wanting to be wanted, and that addiction also makes up easy victims of con games too numerous to list, all based on the hope that the sugar rush can be sustained beyond its natural span.

(2) Sexual attraction, by its very nature is fleeting. It can be repeated, transmuted into intimacy and nurtured over time, but it’s essentially a flower that is meant to bloom, go to seed and bear fruit.

I don’t own a crystal ball, but I can predict with uncanny accuracy how unhappy someone will be based on how much they depend on other people for their happiness. Even the most attentive lover in the world can’t prop up your ego and convince you that you are worthwhile if you don’t believe it yourself and there certainly is no magic formula or pill that you can buy to help you accept and love yourself.

So how do your come to believe what all the media and lots of “well-meaning” people you encounter tell you is wrong? Ignoring external measures of attractiveness is a skill that can be mastered. The surest way to build a happy life, and even to attract others, is to build self worth on our own terms. My explorations in fat acceptance in my 40s brought me to the understanding that I had to build my self-worth through my own sweat equity. It’s a house you have to build that sometimes suffers storm damage and needs repairs. But once you build it, you own it. Let the Peter Meters fall where they may.

9 Responses to “The Woman in the Mirror and the Peter Meter”

  1. Nif says:

    This is lovely. What it comes down to is that people who like themselves and take care of themselves are attractive people.

  2. shadygrove says:

    Lynne, this is a brilliant essay, not only for fat acceptance, but for anyone whose Peter Meter is not reading the way they want, for whatever reason. I especially love the metaphor of sexual attraction as the flower meant to fade to nurture the fruit. Thanks for this.

  3. Thank you for this.

    It’s really hard to get past the socially ingrained command to judge yourself as a woman by how fuckable the rest of society finds you. I’m still working on it, and seeing posts like these help. They really, really help.

  4. Lizzy L says:

    I hadn’t heard the “fat judges” comments — what insanity. Thanks for this, Lynne. Your conclusion — that you cannot ground your self-worth on the opinion of other people — is spot on. But it’s hard to get to the place where we are free from that. The need for approval (from parent-substitutes or peers) is very deep in us, and often transmutes to near-unrecognizable shapes. Our consumerist culture feeds off of and into this need, trapping us in a feedback loop that is hard to escape.

  5. Brilliant! When I truly embraced fat acceptance circa age 27, it was like any corny, dime store novel analogy — a light went on, a door opened, angels sang. When I truly allowed to myself to believe that someone could be genuinely attracted to me, men seemed to emerge from the woodwork. My social calendar overflowed with dates. Granted, the vast majority were ultimately incompatible. But I had fun (mostly), and eventually found someone who clicked with me like I clicked with him. Our 11th wedding anniversary is this year. :-)

  6. Lynne Murray says:

    I agree, Nif about what is attractive! Thank you Nif, shadygrove and GeekGirlsRule! Often when I guest post at Body Impolitic I find myself opening up more than I had expected to, and it helps to remind myself that we all do encourage one another, sometimes literally in the sense of sharing courage, acceptance and reminders to value the good stuff we all have to offer that needs validation!

  7. Diana says:

    This is beautiful and well said. Also, “Let there be love” by Oasis was playing on the radio while I read this – synchronicity is beautiful.

    When I was at my most conventionally attractive – as a teenager – I had the most difficulty with attraction and understanding it against my own value. And I too have gone seeking male approval. I’ve come to appreciate my size as a sort of filter, keeping away people whom I genuinely wouldn’t want to spend time with anyway. I’m not a person who goes to bed easily, and I’ve learned two things: plenty of men still find me attractive, and I still find a few of them rather attractive, too – and it pays, really and truly, to be picky.

  8. Lynne Murray says:

    Thanks, Diana, I’ve had similar experiences! I remember running into an old lover once who found that my weight gain was most disturbing to him. He assumed that I would do anything to try to get back to looking more like I was as a teenager. Seeing him had the opposite effect on me! It reminded my how unhappy and self-hating I was when I was with him. I winced to think how much B.S. I put up with from him and realized that I had come far enough that I would NEVER let anyone treat me that badly again! I concluded that even if I could perpetually look as good as I did in my teens, I would never trade it for the self acceptance and inner happiness I’ve found later in life.

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