Am I normal? by Sarah Chaney review – it’s okay to be weird | Books about health, mind and body

“Aare you Norma, a typical woman? With this title, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, an Ohio newspaper, launched a contest in 1945 to find 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 of 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 measurements to the newspaper contest. None of them matched Norma’s outlines exactly.

As Sarah Chaney notes in her captivating book, Norma, the ostensible embodiment of feminine grace, was fiction derived from a biased sample. In fact, much of what we think of as “normal” about the human body, health, and behavior is based on data from a subsection of the world’s population classified as WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized , 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 studies.

How does such a small group dominate what we consider normality? Through meticulous research, Chaney traces the history of such stories back to the year 1800, when the word “normal” was just a mathematical term for a line at a right angle. Along the way, she examines how eugenics, racism, and biased statistical sampling have misinformed our ideas about “normal” physical and mental health, child development, and sex, gender, and body shape.

Chaney is the perfect writer for the task, describing herself, in the opening pages, as “a shy, clumsy child with thick, plastic-rimmed NHS glasses… who spent most of her time buried in books to dream 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, mocked by class cliques. I felt an affinity with his teenage fear of not fitting in, even though that fear may be completely 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 to determine “the man medium” ideal. “He also established the belief that any deviation from the center of the bell curve was some kind of aberration,” Chaney writes.

Later in the 19th century, “a more sinister chapter in the history of normalcy began”, as the Victorian polymath Francis Galton began to argue for eugenics to “improve the racial qualities of future generations, physically or mentally”. Galton’s self-proclaimed “science of race” would encourage the “fit” to have more children and the “unfit” to have fewer, “perhaps even preventing some people from reproducing.” By the end of the 19th century, eugenics had seeped into much of Western medicine and, in 1907, the world’s first eugenics law, which made sterilization compulsory for “criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles” owned by the state, was adopted 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 the Herero and Nama peoples. He concluded that children born of biracial unions were “inferior” to their German fathers. His work influenced Adolf Hitler and supported the anti-Semitic 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 as a mental illness. It was not until 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 criminalize 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 inappropriate. Middle-class Victorians believed that self-control was a hallmark of civilized humanity. The suffragettes lacked “calmness of temper” and were ridiculed as “maenads” and “hysterical maidens”. Western scientists have used ideas about “primitive” emotions to support racist beliefs and justify colonialism. Some “inferior human races”, such as the Bushmen (indigenous people of southern Africa), were “of a very explosive nature”, according to the Victorian evolutionary psychologist Herbert Spencer, and were therefore “unfit for social union”.

Chaney also looks at women’s dissatisfaction with bodily appearance (“normative in the Western world”); changing ideas about parenthood (in 1921 working mothers were the cause of ‘wormy children’, according to Mrs Enid Eve, health visitor in London); and perceptions of “normal” and “abnormal” mental health. In Victorian times, hysteria was the quintessential “feminine disease”, while men were more often diagnosed with “neurasthenia”, the “disease of civilization”. Today, according to the World Health Organization, one in eight people worldwide live with a mental disorder, with anxiety and depression being the most common.

Am I normal? includes a number of questionnaires used at various times to analyze respondents’ mental health and sexual inclinations, including the 1949 Mass Observation Questionnaire on Sexual Behavior and the 1928 edition of the “Personality Program” of the University of Chicago. To assess my own emotional traits, I completed the personality chart, answering “yes” to questions such as “Are your daydreams about unlikely events?”, “Are you afraid of falling when you’re in height ?” and “Do many things scare you?” My answers were considered “neurotic”. By 1928 standards, I am decidedly not normal. But who among us is?

Josie Glausiusz is a science journalist who writes for Nature, Scientific American, National Geographic and the BBC.

Am I normal? : Sarah Chaney’s 200 year search for normal people (and why they don’t exist) is published by Wellcome (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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