Am I Normal?

A mish mash of curved neon lights
Photo by Joes Valentine on Unsplash

I read an article today in Psyche called “Worried you’re not normal? Don’t be – there’s no such thing” by Sarah Chaney. The gist of it is what it sounds like, there’s no such thing as normal. She takes the reader through the history of normality. Apparently, normal has only been a word used to describe people for about 200 years. A Belgian named Adolphe Quetelet started comparing people to a statistical average. The average being “normal”.

Chaney then goes through the myriad problems with this approach. The samples used were biased. They only used white, upper-middle and upper class people. They only used young people. Men were considered more normal than women. They took no account of things like disability, nutrition, and environment. Another problem was that normal became associated with ideal. Anyone who strayed from normal was considered in some way defective. This is a bit of the genetic fallacy. There’s no reason why we can’t study normality without making all of these mistakes.

She then goes on to point out that no one fits all of the criteria of normal. There’s no one in existence with the right height, weight, chest size, neck size, foot size, and waist size to get started. And, even if there were, that person would need a perfect 100 IQ, a regular body temperature of 98.6, a certain resting heart rate, blood pressure, and on and on. It’s statistically impossible to be normal in every way.

Chaney draws from this the conclusion that there’s no such thing as normal. Variation is the only thing that’s normal. I’m inclined to agree with her about variation being normal, but I think she makes two mistakes with the concept of normality.

First, Chaney is too stringent in her definition of normal. There can be a range of normal for any particular trait. For example, a normal body temperature doesn’t have to be 98.6. It can be anywhere from 97 to 100 degrees. Second, no one means what Chaney says when they ask if they are normal. They aren’t asking if they fit a statistical model. Nor are they worried about things like body temperature. When someone asks if they are normal, they are asking if they fit in or if they stick out. And it’s perfectly normal to want to fit in in some ways while sticking out in others.

The thing is, normal is a useful concept. Medicine would be next to impossible without some idea of the normal functioning of the human body. And, just because we didn’t use the word normal throughout most of history, we have always compared ourselves to others. Normal is just the baseline by which we compare.

As for the titular question, I think I’m pretty normal even though I don’t fit Chaney’s definition of normal. I’m a little taller than average. I weigh a bit more than average (and a bit more than I should). I suffer from depression. I also seem to suffer from more than my share of bad luck. All that being said, I do fit in in most situations. That’s what makes me normal.

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