What is “normal”?

As I’ve been reading the Disability Studies Reader edited by Lennard J. Davis (you can find this under the Bibliography tab, however I am using the second edition), I’ve learned how normalcy has been constructed by society. Here’s a brief history:

During the seventeenth century, the word “ideal” begins to gain popularity. The “ideal” standard of being was the Roman gods. An example would be Aphrodite as the ideal standard of beauty. So what does this mean? This means that NO human could actually reach this ideal standard. Davis gives an example of the painting by Francois-Andre Vincent called Zeuxis Choosing as Models the Most Beautiful Girls of the Town of Crotona (1789), where all the beautiful women of Crotona line up for Zeuxis to choose the ideal feature of each of their bodies in order to create the figure of Aphrodite (4).

On the other hand, the grotesque represented “common humanity” (4). The grotesque didn’t have the same connotations as it does today. It was only a signifier for commonality.

Later, the French statistician, Adolphe Quetelet contributed the notion of the “normal as an imperative,” creating the concept of the “l’homme moyen” or the average man (4). With the creation of the average man, came the way to represent the middle class as normal, making the “average” an ideal in itself. This did not only apply to class.

Think of how many times we use the word average to describe everything. Average height, average weight, average time, average looks… average EVERYTHING. To be in the average weight category for a certain age and gender is to be within the normal margins, right? This concept of average equaling normalcy is problematic, right? Because what happens when we don’t fit within the average or normal margins? We become different, we get labeled, we become marginalized. This is why disabled persons are marginalized at all. Because we as a society have created this idea of what it means to be normal and it only isolates those who don’t fit into that mold.

So what? So what is that we need to help others understand that “normal” isn’t the end all be all way to exist. To have a disability, be it a physical impairment or a learning impairment doesn’t equate to a subpar standard of being, just a different one.

After all, none of us reach the ideal according to seventeenth century logic, so let’s talk when you reach the standard of a Roman god, okay? Okay.

Zeuxis Choosing as Models the Most Beautiful Girls of the Town of Crotona by Francois-Andre Vincent (1789)

Davis, Lennard J. “Constructing Normalcy.” The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd Ed. Edited by Lennard J. Davis. New York, NY : Routledge, 2006.


3 thoughts on “What is “normal”?

  1. Very thought provoking posts, Dallas. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience on the topic. As I was reading through it, I found myself reflecting that society currently seems to display a great deal of “sympathy” for the disabled, but as is the case with individuals, our actions as a culture speak louder than our words. Two specific things jumped to my mind: the growing legitimization of doctor assisted suicide/euthanasia and the hotly debated issue of abortion.The two are closely related, and the formation and evolution of our laws relating to both of them reveal the way that our culture actually views the lives of those with disabilities.

    I’m sure there are multiple sources, fiction and nonfiction, that illustrate the point about euthanasia, but during my lifetime, one movie in particular brought this topic sharply into the limelight. “Million Dollar Baby” came out in 2004 (spoiler alert!) featuring a financially and culturally disadvantaged, but strong, determined, athletic woman who becomes a champion in the boxing ring. She rises to a level of extraordinary success, achieving fame as well as financial independence, and pulls her family out of poverty. A severe accident in the ring, however, leaves her with quadriplegia. She ultimately finds that life is no longer worth living and begs everyone to let her die. When they will not, and will not kill her, she tries multiple times in increasingly desperate ways, to do it herself. Finally, her best friend and mentor, an aging boxing coach, brings himself to do what she requests and slips her a lethal dose of medication. It is given and accepted as an act of mercy.

    While the movie encourages deep thought on some very difficult topics, including the realm of advanced medicine and whether or not we should use extreme measures to extend life when it would not otherwise be possible, the overarching message is that a life of severe disability is too difficult, too painful, and too miserable to be worth living. Doctor assisted suicide had already been a widely discussed issue, and this movie really brought the issue of “quality of life” as a determining factor to the fore.

    As I left the movie theater ruminating on these things, I at first felt fully in sympathy with the characters. After all, would I want to go on living if I were to suffer full paralysis? Is life worth living if one is helpless and completely dependent on others? My initial feeling was no – and that viewpoint was and still is reflected widely by our society at large. I have spoken to many, many people who feel this way. But soon enough the thought edged in that her decision represented a weakness and signified a sad loss, not only to her friends and family, but to all of society. As a woman of such tremendous strength, she could have lived a beautiful life and gone on to inspire others – and there are many in real life who have. Joni Eareckson Tada, Stephen Hawking, Travis Mills, and Nick Vujicic, to name a few.

    This movie forced me to address the assumptions in my own worldview, exactly as you are bringing up here, about the value of life and whether or not every individual contributes something valuable and unique to the time and society in which they live. I was startled to find these assumptions tucked away in my own heart, and I have since seen that mindset reflected very widely in our culture. We speak with admiration for people who overcome tremendous difficulty, but underlying that admiration is a great deal of “feeling sorry for” those whom we perceive as disabled, coupled with a large dose of relief that “it’s not me.”

    And I think that ramifications of a worldview in which it is understood that a disabled life is painful and dreary and not worth living can be seen in one specific corner of the abortion debate – the almost universally accepted “exclusion” that is tagged onto every mention of restricting abortion – fetal abnormality.

    On the face of it, this would seem to address conditions that are so severe that stillbirth or fetal death immediately following birth are guaranteed, but it also encompasses any genetic or physical abnormality that will detrimentally affect “quality of life” for either the parents or the child. All too often, this argument is couched in terms of sympathy and consideration for the child – it is better to die in utero than to experience an hour or a day or a lifetime of suffering or pain, followed by death.

    To be sure, the issue of advanced medicine and our increasing ability to use extreme measures to extend life comes into play here as well, but there is a significant difference in choosing not to extend life and in deliberately taking it. And in many cases, this reasoning is used to justify the termination of fetuses with disabilities that are not incompatible with life. Iceland, for instance, has “eliminated” Down Syndrome – by aborting nearly 100% of fetuses that test positive for it during genetic testing. Questions have been raised, even outside of pro-life circles, about the ethics of this, and some are sounding the alarm that creating a situation in which a person or group of persons have the power to determine whether or not another individual’s life is worth living is a slippery slope indeed.

    All of that to say – thank you for creating a blog to examine these issues in more detail and shine a light on what are, perhaps, not fully examined principles that are increasingly common in our society. The difficult issues we grapple with as individuals are also issues that determine the course of the future and who we allow to exist within it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment, Ms. Jolene! I agree that these are some tough issues to grapple with! I hope this blog can be a useful resource for those who just want to learn or are looking to challenge their misconceptions about disabilities.


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