A long time ago I came across one of the quotes that has struck me the most deeply a quote could strike me:
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
It is exhausting living in the Western world. Yes, I realize I may sound like some spoiled little white girl given the advantages of the society I live in. It’s almost like since we don’t have to worry about food to the same degree and we are labelled as more ‘developed’ we had to come up with something else to worry about. And we came up with some pretty stupid stuff in my opinion.
In psychology we love the normal curve, it guides everything we do. When someone is diagnosed with say, a learning disability – their performance in one or more areas must be more than 2 “standard deviations” below their measure IQ. Translation – there has to be less 2.5% chance that you would have scored what you did assuming you are “average.” We judge intellectual disabilities based on standard deviations in IQ. Researchers hope and pray to the gods of statistics that their results fall above the significance cutoff that says that the results they found are unlikely enough to have occurred on their own if they weren’t right about the connection.
I am now in my second psychopathology course of my university career, and the word normal comes up almost every lecture. We judge whether or not someone has a psychological disorder depending on how “normal” the behaviour is for the individual, the situation, the culture. Which, I bring up not to criticize, it definitely has it’s uses, but what is normal, as I’ve talked about in my cross-cultural psych class, varies.
When it comes to humans, normal is relative.
With such diversity how can we honestly say what is the absolute norm? (and don’t worry I’m not going off on a History and Systems rant)
But now I am at a point where I’ve really come to question what exactly normal is? I hear normal all the time – normal distributions, normal BMI, normal weather, normal schedule, apparently there is actually a city called Normal in Illinois, and in the 16th century there was a thing called “normal schools” . But we kind of seem to throw normal out there willy-nilly. I looked into it – apparently it is at least partially originating from carpentry in reference to the carpenters’ square, though since the 1500s it has referenced “typical, common.”
Fast forward to 2013 and we have a culture where it is the social norm to diet. Where it is perfectly “normal” to say “Oh I shouldn’t!” To a chocolate bar. Like giving in is some massive, and almost daring splurge. I live in a society where dieting is becoming the norm, where a ten year old saying they think they should diet is becoming progressively more logical. And self-criticism is the normal response when someone either criticizes themselves or tells of someone else criticizing them.
Any deviations from the norm are sharply brought back into the normal range.
Saturday I went to get a manicure ahead of grad photos Monday, and my manicurist told me about how she had managed to lose 100 pounds through changes to her eating habits and exercise. Which is in my opinion the only way to do it – no starving, no fad diets aimed at causing drastic weight loss, no “cleanses” (don’t even get me started on that one). But so she had done this amazing thing – she still wanted to lose more weight, but she was committed to the lifestyle and massively enjoying it, and weight loss wasn’t her whole life. We talked about how I run and how last week some random person called me a slut as I ran up the canal in my dry-fit. She then told me about how she can’t run outside because people make fun of her too much. And my heart broke. She told me the story of how her boyfriend had to go back and give “two twigs” shit because they were calling her “fatty” and making fun of her. Here is this woman, doing a fantastic thing for herself, and two random strangers felt the need to make sure she knew she was “heavier than normal” in less than kind terms.
I’m not saying that obesity isn’t a problem, but we have to recognize the flip side of the coin exists, and since when does someone being overweight require the peanut gallery to alert them of it?
Can you imagine how confusing it must be for a young girl growing up today? With the flood of diet foods, the wide array of diets marketed via all possible sources, the obsession with exercise? Young girls are growing up and developing – yeah this means gaining some fat, it’s what triggers puberty – and they are being told to fight biology. Maybe not directly, I am sure that no responsible mother would put their 10 year old on a diet, unless their doctor advised it due to health concerns. But every time their mother refuses to eat something on the basis that it’s too fattening, or they don’t eat carbs, or they shouldn’t eat sweets – they learn. They learn that dieting is normal, and there is no such thing as “too skinny”
And then those with eating disorders are labelled as attention-seekers, because they have pathologised what is the norm. They took it one standard deviation too far. But can you just stop and think for a second how confusing that would be for someone recovering from an eating disorder? They are “normalizing” their eating (this is the actual term for it), and learning what normal, balanced eating looks like, but everything they hear is in direct contradiction to society’s attitudes and belief systems. For every time their dietitian tells them that eating peanut butter is normal, and cake is okay to eat as part of a healthy lunch, there is someone to tell them about some great new juice “cleanse,” or how they have salad for lunch, or they didn’t eat lunch because they were going out for dinner, or how they have to go to the gym because they had cake at the office party. Can you imagine how tough that would be? I can.
Society is the great professor of life, and we are the ignorant pupils, waiting to be enlightened on the ways of the world – who are we to tell the professor off for being a crazy nut job?
I am actually afraid of the day I begin bearing children, which I am told is part of the normal sequence of events for a female in pretty much any culture. I am afraid that I will have a girl, because Lord knows, I couldn’t manage it, I would hate to see my daughter pressured into the self-hate and dieting cycle that seems to be the norm these days. Yes, I would try to be the picture of healthy living, but would that be enough?
What if I had a son? Would that be better?
Not really, society has another set of norms for boys – the rough and tough – don’t cry, you are the strong one norm. If I saw two guys haul off an punch each other outside of a bar, I honestly don’t know if I would really bat an eye. If my nephews come running up to show me their robot they built with their legos I would laugh and tell them it was cool. I like to think I’m a pretty chill and anti-norm in-a conventional-way sort of woman, but would I have such a positive reaction if they came up and asked me to play Barbies? Honestly? Probably not.
From the moment of conception we start gender-typing, and get totally flustered when someone doesn’t tell us the gender. Ugh, I guess I’ll try and buy a neutral present for the shower then. It’s also why things like the story of Baby Storm garner such attention.
The genders aren’t the only normals we have – we have normals for everything – how you dress, how different professionals conduct themselves, how you conduct yourself at different events, how you grieve, how long you grieve, how you handle break-ups, how you eat your food, how we sleep, what is basic hygiene, EVERYTHING. And I mean there’s no harm in the norms – to a degree I think that if we didn’t have norms it would be chaos, there has to be some degree of conventions for a society to function. Except who gets to decide these norms? If someone has to be different for anything to change, how do we decide to give up and change the norm? And what about when these norms make no sense and hurt the members of it’s society?
And this is why I love the quote that started this. Yeah all this emotion stomping, and body bashing is the norm – but that doesn’t make it healthy. Doesn’t make it right. Yes, some of the norms we adhere to actually are healthy, but stop and think about what you class as normal and whether that makes sense.
A few weeks ago I posted at Thanksgiving about how different my life is here in Ottawa compared to back home, and I have realized how much my concept of normal has changed. How quickly I have learned how to not bat an eye at things that in my hometown would have caused significant alarm. How quickly I have given up behaviours that in a larger metropolitan area are almost weird, but in a small town make sense – like saying hello to people as I pass them on the street. Maybe it’s normal, but who’s to say it’s right?
I’m not out to spark some sort of massive revolution, nor am I telling you to go out an hug the homeless people and bring cookies to the bus driver. But just stop and think about what you consider to be normal and whether or not that is necessarily healthy or right. And stop and think if your quirks are necessarily a bad thing.
Also, if you have a quick moment – read this: http://melroze.com/mayjune2012/lifestyle0506/what-is-normal/