Why Normal Is a Myth

When we start defining “normal,” we head down a dangerous path.

The myth of normal tells us that that being within the range of what is considered “normal” is a core feature of successfully being a member of society—and that is simply not true. The myth of normal is very strong and very wrong. 

Being “normal” is usually assessed by one’s being in or around the average for any given trait: height, weight, body type, sexuality, physicality, sociability, etc. And we largely assume that, with a few exceptions, it is best to be as normal as possible to fit in with those around you. In this notion, the average for any given trait, and maybe one, or two, standard deviations from that norm is fine, but once you get far away from the average, there is something wrong—you are not being human the right way.

This premise results from two misconceptions:

  1. A very poor understanding of the range and patterns of actual human biological and behavioral variation.
  2. An assumption that the average in any population or group is more or less a measure of the “right” biological and social way to be. 

The insidious social practice that emerges from these two misconceptions is the tendency of social groups, and societies at large, to punish or peripheralize those individuals who fall outside of what is considered “normal”—often with serious psychological and social impacts on those consequently labeled/recognized as “deviant.”

Many have argued that this tendency to ostracize those outside of the norm is just a reflection of our evolutionary ancestry—our tendency to be more comfortable with those more “like us” and to be wary of those not “like us.” This may well be the case, but what if the modern myth of normal has overshot our basic evolutionary history of wariness toward the unknown? What if it has inserted an overly narrow vision, by defining what is “normal” and “right” within groups and populations in much too constricted a range?

The current myth of normal tries to extinguish the very variation (biological and behavioral) that is core to our species’ ability to evolve and adapt to so many different challenges.

There are some extreme variants in human biology and behavior that are truly problematic in serious ways (neurological defects and pathological psychoses, for example). But those are few and far between. Here, in tackling the myth of normal, I am talking about our overemphasis on constraining the range of human variation into too narrow a band—mistaking “average” for a value statement, and forgetting that it is merely a statistical description.

For example, we often think about things like “normal” weight, height, and gender-specific behavior as indicators of physical, psychological, and social health, but are they? What is “normal” in this context?

Let’s use a straightforward example: Height and weight. Humans as a species are enormously variable, with some populations averaging under five feet in height and others averaging over six feet; and, on average, men are about 10-15 percent larger than women. So there is a huge range in our species and some patterns, based on sex. Within any single population we expect to see less overall variation in height than in the whole species, but the same pattern based on sex. However, even within a relatively homogenous population there can be substantial variation in height.

Consider: If you line up all males and female adults in a population, there is usually about a 70 percent overlap in height—meaning that the statistically average male is taller than the statically average female. However, if you actually go out and select thousands of individual people at random in this population and just look at their heights in he absence of any other data, you are going to be able to accurately determine their sex by their height alone only about 30 percent of the time. Yes, the tallest are likely to be men and the shortest, women—but this does not get you anywhere near 100 percent of the actual variation. This means that being a tall woman or a short man, while statistically out of the norm, is not by any means uncharacteristic—or abnormal. It is a regular part of the distribution of variation. Tall women and short men are normal.

Weight is even more complicated. Currently we use BMI (the relationship of height to weight) as a measure of overall health. This assumes that there are easily identifiable, and normal, relationships between height and weight in regards to being a healthy human. But weight and health, while related, is not a simple relationship, and BMI does not differentiate between a body builder and a couch potato whose height and weight may be the same but for very different reasons. It is very apparent that while BMI does work for those at the very extreme of the height/weight relationship range, it is not a great measure of health in most of its range.

If we are getting “normal” so wrong for things as easy to measure and understand as height and weight, what about things like gender identity, sociability, imaginative interests, etc.? Is there one average (and thus “right”) way to be a boy or a girl? No. Gender is a highly complex and broad spectrum with individuals being a mix of a range of elements from across the feminine-masculine spectrum—average patterns exist, but they are statistical measures, not assessments of happiness, success and contentment. Should everyone be expected to feel more or less the same in social situations, have more or less the same number and types of friends? Of course not—there are many feasible options for sociability, and most people within that broad range do just fine. Is it evolutionarily, socially, or psychologically better to force oneself to be interested in the books, movies, themes, and ideas that are held as “normal” in a given society? It might make some people more comfortable, but it does not necessarily lead to flourishing and happiness in most individuals.

It is the very human ability to range far and wide in body and mind that has enabled us to do so well as a species, and the myth of normal cuts that range down to a minimal “norm.” Again, I am not arguing that anything goes—rather, that by continuously imagining that there is a direct connection between the statistical norm and the “right” way to be, we are making the lives of many people, across the range of variation for any given trait more difficult, and denying them a seat at the table. 

Humans are remarkably diverse—it has served us well in the past, it is with us in the present, and it will benefit us in the future. Don’t deny variability: Enjoy your spot at any place on the continuum and know that being different is in fact a normal part of being human.

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