Words I dislike: normal

Does anybody remember The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle? Great book. During Charlotte’s trial-at-sea, the captain is accusing her of “unnatural” behavior — as a young female passenger, she came to wear sailor’s clothes and take a place in the ship’s crew. They have an extended dialogue where he points out each aspect of her behavior and says “Is this not unnatural for a thirteen-year-old girl?” and she counters with “Unusual, not unnatural.”

“Natural” and “normal” are two words we use to express a dual meaning: what is commonly done, and what is in some way right or healthy. As a society, we equivocate on these two meanings to a shocking degree: we establish that something is “normal” in the sense of “statistically average within our population” and then we breeze merrily along and declare that to be otherwise is a sign of something wrong.

We do it with sexuality: a lot of fetishes, from liking heavier partners to liking to smell maple syrup, are statistically less common, and we immediately ask “what’s wrong with this person, that they’re turned on by something uncommon?” We don’t deem it necessary to ask whether there’s something inherently problematic about the fetish; the fact that it’s unusual is enough to make it suspicious.

We do it with body type. If we read that the average healthy person has a certain height-weight ratio, we assume that that is the height-weight ratio that is healthy for all persons. Someone whose body type differs from the average, particularly in the unfashionable direction (in our culture, of course, heavier is unfashionable), can protest all they want that this is a healthy and normal weight for them, and people will still claim that they need to change their weight in order to be really healthy. Even if, to do so, they’d have to eat less than their body actually needs.

We do it with life choices. If you didn’t go to college at 18, graduate at 22, start working your way up a career ladder, date a while, get married in your late 20s and have two kids in your 30s… well then what are you doing with your life?

We do it with hobbies and interests, though less so than when we were younger. When I was a kid I learned very quickly that the things I loved were “weird” and likely to get me shunned or laughed at. The internet has brought a lot of geek interests within view of the mainstream, and as adults people are less eager to judge you based on the way you play (they’re too busy judging based on the way you work or conduct your relationships), but I’m still shy about bringing forth my knitting or mentioning Battlestar Galactica around strangers, and occasionally I get a reaction that justifies the shyness.

When you think about it, making “normal” normative is really senseless. Do we really think that we’d all be happier and healthier if we looked alike, acted alike, took pleasure in the same things? Do we really think the ideal human being is one that most closely matches the statistical average? I don’t think most people think that. But in their knee-jerk reactions to things, they often act as if they do.

I dislike the word “normal” precisely because it encourages this confusion between what is common and what is good or healthy. We can use it in the sense of “statistically common,” as in, “it’s normal for men to be sexually attracted to women and not men.” (After all, 90% or more of men are!) Or we can use it in the sense of “healthy and acceptable” as in “it’s normal for men to wear lace panties to bed.” Or we can do what I do and avoid the word like the plague, because in most cases there just is no necessary correlation between the statistically average and the healthy and acceptable.

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