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12 August 2022

Who wants to be “normal”?

Often what we consider “normal” is, statistically speaking, abnormal. And wouldn’t most of us prefer to be extraordinary anyway?

By Sophie McBain

The historian Sarah Chaney’s first book is written for anyone who has considered themselves an oddball or a misfit, or who has anxiously googled “Is it normal to…”. People have always worried about fitting in, she observes, but “normality” is a more recent concept: before the 19th century, “normal” was a term used in geometry to describe right angles, not something you’d apply to people.

In the 1830s, Adolphe Quetelet, a royal astronomer whose career was derailed by the Belgian Revolution, began applying his statistical methods to charting society instead. By measuring the population and plotting figures such as height and chest circumference on a graph to create a bell-shaped curve, he determined the proportions of the “average” man. He invented an equation now known as body mass index or BMI, used to calculate a healthy weight for a given height. Quetelet saw average man as a kind of Platonic ideal, a standard by which others should be judged. His work set in a motion a trend in medicine and social science for defining what is “normal” – almost always by sampling a small, hand-selected population (of wealthy, straight, white men) – and then assessing everyone else accordingly.

[See also: Typical! – How statistics mislead us]

Our ideas about normality and abnormality are still shaped by the problematic assumption that what is average for a small subset represents a universal ideal. Quite often what we consider “normal” is, statistically speaking, abnormal. Defining normal is a way to exercise power. It is no coincidence, Chaney notes, that the history of normal is entwined with that of eugenics. Victorian researchers used their studies of human facial features and other characteristics to reinforce their racist, sexist and classist assumptions. For anyone who has worried whether they are normal (which is probably everyone) Chaney hopes this historical perspective is liberating.

Chaney, a research fellow at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions, has often felt like an outlier herself. She was a “shy and awkward child” (what writer wasn’t?) who was given the nickname “Creepy Phoebe” by her classmates, after a character from Neighbours. While her peers wore make-up and listened to pop music, she wore her socks pulled up and her backpack straps on both shoulders like a square. She read NME and Melody Maker and listened to bands no one in her school had heard of. Occasionally, one of her admired bands would make the charts and she felt a sense of achievement because, finally, other people liked something she did.

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This personal history is revealing, because it hints at the psychological complexity of our relationship to “normal”. Surely alongside our desire to be “normal” there is a competing desire to be unique and extraordinary. I know few people who would describe themselves as “normal”, but almost everyone believes they are, to a certain extent, exceptional. (One of my favourite stats is that two-thirds of Americans consider themselves to have above-average intelligence.) To be described as “normal” can be belittling or vaguely insulting. Many teenage music fans, for instance, seek out the obscure: their tastes are tribal, a way of forging a communal identity that defines itself in opposition to the mainstream. They see themselves as more sophisticated than their vanilla classmates. The most unusual – or abnormal – part of Chaney’s anecdote is that she wanted her beloved bands to become commercial hits. And maybe that’s why she struggles fully to account for our conflicted relationship with normality, the messy interplay between what is normal and what is ideal.

In a chapter titled “Do I Have a Normal Body?” Chaney attempts to tie together several disparate issues: the evolution of beauty ideals, the challenge of finding well-fitting off-the-rack clothing, changing attitudes towards fatness and the treatment of those with disabilities. She didn’t convince me that there was a meaningful relationship between modern beauty ideals and ideas about “normal” bodies – surely beauty has always been more directly concerned with privilege and rarity?

She is right to observe, when discussing clothing sizes, that consumer culture changes our relationship to our own bodies and what we perceive as normal. She writes of her struggle to find shoes to fit her size-nine feet: statistically, her feet are not abnormally large, but her shoe-buying trips make her feel that way. But while she also sees this as an example of how cultural expectations shape our ideas about normality, I suspect more mundane forces are at work: mass-market companies and shops have fewer incentives to supply less-popular sizes.

[See also: Why Gone with the Wind is American culture’s original sin]

Far more interesting is her exploration of how moralistic attitudes towards fatness have coloured research into the health consequences of being obese, and how the current guidance around what counts as a healthy BMI doesn’t suit everyone. Black people (who remain underrepresented in research) tend to have higher muscle and bone density than white people. The current guidance suggests that having a BMI over 30 counts as obese, but one study suggested that black women only experience significant health risks once their BMI rises over 37. Her writing about disability culminates with the wise and humane conclusion that it is society’s job to adapt to the needs of disabled people, rather than their job to fit in – but what a lot of very different arguments she has crammed into just one chapter.

Another chapter – “Do I Have a Normal Mind?” is more focused, exploring how our understanding of mental illness is shaped by our ideas about what kinds of behaviour or emotional reactions are normal. In the 19th century, for instance, promiscuity was often upheld as evidence of madness in women. Today hallucinations are thought of as a trademark symptom of serious mental illness, but this is a reflection of our cultural attitudes. It is not uncommon for people to occasionally hallucinate, and in some communities hearing voices or seeing visions is not only accepted as normal but seen as desirable. People from marginalised groups are more likely to be labelled as mentally ill, because their perceived transgressions are judged more harshly.

Chaney describes an intriguing 1967 study comparing what trainee psychiatrists and people diagnosed with schizophrenia considered “normal” reactions to various scenarios. How would a normal person react if their boss called them a “stupid idiot” in front of their colleagues, one question asked. The people with schizophrenia tended to veer towards milder reactions: 10 per cent thought a “normal” person wouldn’t care about being called a “stupid idiot”, but no psychiatrists agreed. Chaney suggests this is because those with schizophrenia have more to lose, or gain, from being seen as “normal”. If the asylum patients screamed or shouted this would be seen as evidence that they were still ill, while the psychiatrists would simply be seen as stressed and angry.

It is commonly asserted that one in four people will experience mental illness in their lifetime, but when in 2012 the psychiatrist Stephen Ginn and neuroscientist Jamie Horder investigated the origins of this popular statistic they found virtually no scientific evidence for it. Chaney notes that lifetime estimates of mental illness from a range of countries suggests the figure is closer to one in two. “In other words, mental illness is actually pretty normal, statistically speaking,” she writes. Her conclusion surprised – and slightly disappointed – me. Having discussed how frequently behaviour is pathologised simply because it is seen as “abnormal”, I wondered if she’d take a more critical approach to how mental illness is diagnosed. How can we assert with any confidence the real prevalence of mental illness when the line between illness and health is so arbitrary and culturally determined?

Am I Normal? is nonetheless ambitious in scope and rich in revealing historical detail. It is a perspective-changing book, an invitation to readers to question the unspoken norms that have shaped their lives and their self-perception and to reconsider the boundaries we erect between normality and abnormality, health and pathology. Chaney doesn’t expect that people will stop asking the question “Am I normal?” – but she’s right to imagine that on reading her book, they might give more thought to whether that’s the right question to ask.

Am I Normal?: The 200-Year Search for Normal People (and Why They Don’t Exist)
Sarah Chaney
Profile Books, 336pp, £16.99

[See also: Elif Batuman and the art of a real life]

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