Rethinking What “Normal” Is

In 1945, two sculptures named Norma and Norman were unveiled at the American Museum of Natural History, heralded as the epitome of the average American man and woman.

This event, coupled with a subsequent contest that failed to find any real-life counterpart to Norma among thousands of participants, presents a fascinating entry point into a broader discussion about the concept of “normal.”

Despite the term’s prevalence in everyday language, the quest for a living Norma underscored a paradox: the so-called “normal” is far from common. This anomaly opens up how we understand normalcy, especially when applied to human traits and behaviors.

Statistical Illusion of Normalcy

At the heart of the discussion is the statistical concept of a normal distribution—a bell curve where the bulk of values cluster around a mean, creating a pattern of diversity rather than a pinpoint definition of normal.

While many human characteristics like height exhibit this distribution, the societal application of normalcy often distills it to an oversimplified average. This simplification strips away the inherent diversity captured by the normal distribution, reducing complex traits to a singular, often unrepresentative standard.1

The story of Norma and Norman illustrates this disconnect, as their proportions, derived from averaging measurements of thousands, failed to match reality.

This statistical misrepresentation highlights a broader issue: the frequent misapplication of averaged norms to individuals, which can obscure the rich variations that define human existence.

The Problematic Nature of Averages

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Beyond statistics, the societal interpretation of normalcy leans heavily on averages that eliminate the nuance and diversity of human experiences.

This is evident in the case of the Body Mass Index (BMI), which classifies health based on a narrow range of weight relative to height.

Despite its widespread use, BMI overlooks crucial factors such as body fat percentage, distribution, and individual health markers like blood pressure.

The reliance on such a flawed measure underscores a larger trend: the inclination to apply a one-size-fits-all standard of normal to the multifaceted spectrum of human health and well-being.

WEIRD Norms & Global Perspectives

A significant portion of behavior science research relies on samples that are WEIRD—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic—resulting in norms that may not be universally applicable. This is exemplified by the Muller-Lyer optical illusion, where susceptibility varies dramatically across cultural backgrounds.

The assumption that findings from WEIRD populations are normal can skew our understanding of human psychology and behavior, reinforcing the need for a broader, more inclusive approach to research that reflects the global diversity of human experiences.2

The Dark Legacy of Eugenics

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Historically, the concept of normal has been wielded as a tool for exclusion and discrimination, most notoriously through the Eugenics Movement.

Coined by Francis Galton in 1883, eugenics aimed to improve human populations through selective breeding, favoring desirable traits and discouraging those considered undesirable.

By weaponizing normalcy, this ideology justified horrific acts against those deemed “abnormal,” including people with disabilities, mental health issues, and those who diverged from mainstream sexual orientations or gender identities.

This dark chapter is a cautionary tale about the dangers of rigidly defining normal, highlighting the urgent need for a more compassionate and inclusive understanding.3

Embracing Diversity as the True Normal

The quest for a living Norma and the broader examination of normalcy reveal a fundamental truth: diversity, in all its forms, is the real normal. The variations in our bodies, minds, and perceptions are not deviations to be corrected but rather the essence of human experience.

Recognizing and valuing this diversity is crucial in moving beyond narrow definitions of normal that fail to capture the complexity of human life.

Towards a More Inclusive Future

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When divorced from its statistical roots and applied indiscriminately to human traits and behaviors, the concept of normal can be misleading and potentially harmful.

By challenging these narrow definitions and embracing the diversity that truly characterizes humanity, we can foster a more inclusive society that values individual differences not as abnormalities but as integral parts of humankind.

Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.