“Are you Norma, Typical Woman?” With that headline, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, an Ohio newspaper, launched a contest in 1945 to discover the woman whose body matched an alabaster statue, “Norma”, sculpted by Abram Belskie and American obstetrician Robert L Dickinson. Their “Norma” and “Normman” statues were based on measurements taken from 15,000 young women and men, almost exclusively white and able-bodied. Nearly 4,000 women submitted their height, weight, bust, hip, waist, thigh, calf and foot sizes to the newspaper’s competition. Not one of them matched Norma’s contours exactly.
As Sarah Chaney notes in her captivating book, Norma, the ostensible epitome of female grace, was a fiction derived from a biased sample. In fact, much of what we believe is “normal” about human bodies, health and behaviour is based on data from a sub-section of the world’s population classified as WEIRD: western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. WEIRD people make up less than 12% of the world’s population, Chaney notes, but 96% of subjects in psychological studies and 80% in medical ones.
How does such a tiny group dominate what we think of as normality? With meticulous research, Chaney traces the history of such narratives back to the year 1800, when the word “normal” was simply a mathematical term designating a line at a right angle. Along the way, she examines how eugenics, racism and skewed statistical sampling have misinformed our ideas about “normal” physical and mental health, child development, as well as sex, gender, and body shape.
Chaney is the perfect writer for this task, describing herself, in the opening pages, as “a shy and awkward child, with thick plastic-rimmed NHS glasses … who spent most of her time buried in books dreaming of a better, more magical world”. Like the author, I spent my early teenage years wearing NHS glasses, my head in a book at every bus-stop, taunted by class cliques. I felt an affinity with her adolescent dread of not fitting in, even though this dread may actually be quite normal.
So when did “normal” become a desirable human trait? The story begins with a Belgian astronomer and statistician named Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1847), who took published data on the chest measurements of 5,738 Scottish soldiers and plotted them on a graph in order to determine the ideal “average man”. “He also set in place the belief that any deviation from the centre of the bell curve was some kind of aberration,” Chaney writes.
Later in the 19th century, “a more sinister chapter in the history of normal began”, as Victorian polymath Francis Galton began to advocate for eugenics to “improve the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally”. Galton’s self-professed “race science” would encourage the “fit” to have more children and the “unfit” to have fewer, “perhaps even preventing certain people from breeding at all”. By the late 19th century, eugenics had infiltrated much of western medicine and, in 1907, the world’s first eugenics law, which made sterilisation mandatory for “criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles” in state custody, was passed in Indiana. German eugenicist Eugen Fischer conducted medical experiments on children born to Herero women raped by German soldiers in Namibia (then German South West Africa) during the 1904-1908 German genocide of Herero and Nama peoples. He concluded that children born from bi-racial unions were “inferior” to their German fathers. His work influenced Adolf Hitler, and lent support to the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws.
Rigid ideas about “normality” still permeate all spheres of life. Homosexuality, for example, has been classified at different times and places as a crime and then a mental illness. It was only in 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association, in response to advocacy by gay rights activists, agreed to remove homosexuality as a disease category from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). As of December 2020, 69 UN member states continue to criminalise consensual same-sex activity, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
Or take the expression of strong emotions, like anger or tears, seemingly universal, and yet, at various times, deemed out of place. Middle-class Victorians believed that self-control was a hallmark of civilised humanity. Suffragists lacked “calmness of temperament” and were derided as “maenads,” and “hysterical young girls”. Western scientists used ideas about “primitive” emotions to prop up racist beliefs and justify colonialism. Some “lower human races”, like the Bushmen (indigenous southern African peoples), were of “a very explosive nature”, according to Victorian evolutionary psychologist Herbert Spencer, and were thus “unfit for social union”.
Chaney also delves into women’s dissatisfaction with bodily appearance (“normative in the western world”); changing ideas about parenting (in 1921, working mothers were the cause of “verminous children”, according to London health visitor Mrs Enid Eve); and perceptions about “normal” and “abnormal” mental health. In the Victorian era, hysteria was the quintessential “female malady”, while men were more often diagnosed with “neurasthenia”, the “disease of civilisation”. Today, according to the World Health Organization, one in every eight people in the world live with a mental disorder, anxiety and depression being the most common.
Am I Normal? includes a number of questionnaires used at various times to analyse respondents’ mental health and sexual proclivities, including the 1949 Mass Observation Questionnaire on Sexual Behaviour, and the 1928 edition of the University of Chicago’s “personality schedule”. To assess my own emotional traits, I filled in the personality schedule, answering “yes” to such questions as “Are your daydreams about improbable occurrences?”, “Are you afraid of falling when you are on a high place?” and “Do a great many things frighten you?” My answers were deemed “neurotic”. According to the standards of 1928, I’m definitely not normal. But who among us is?
July 15, 2022 at 12:27PM Josie Glausiusz