13. You’re Not Normal

IMPORTANT: This blog represents just PART of a WHOLE journey. You’ll get the most out of it if you start from the beginning.

I just briefly want to travel back to the 1980s.  Back to when I was a little kid.

One of my first memories is at three or four years old at the local GP surgery and hearing the doctor say to my mum, “I’m sorry Mrs Geary, but Dominique (that’s me!) is unlikely to grow more than 5 foot tall.”  And I remember thinking, “And?!!”.  I didn’t see being short as any more of a problem than being blonde or having fingernails.  It just… was.

I also remember being about ten, and my mum was a respite carer for kids some of whom happened to have additional needs like being deaf, autistic, or with different mobility capabilities.  But as a kid, I don’t remember thinking of any of them as anything other than ‘normal’.  Some of them I let play with my Lego, and some I thought were annoying AF and wouldn’t even let them in my room let alone touch my toys.  But each play decision was purely based on how fun they were to play with, none were made based on this adult scale of how ‘normal’ they were.

I was like most kids, I reckon.  I saw everything as normal until I was told (consciously or subconsciously) by an adult that it wasn’t. 

Back to my timeline and it was 2020(ish) when I happened across a book called, “The End of Average” by Todd Rose.  Remember in my last blog when I used the history of money to show you how a million little stories all fit together to form what we know as “culture” and our beliefs about how we think the world is?  Well, this book showed me how the story of ‘normal’ fits into our culture and how that story changed our perception of humans forever.

‘Normal’, essentially, is how closely a person fits our culture’s view of what a person should be.  But how did we decide what that ‘should’ should look or be like?  How do we define normal?

The dictionary defines “normal” as conforming to a standard; the usual, typical, or expected.  When we look at a dog, for example, we know the standard is for it to have four legs, waggly tails, fur, and a tongue for important jobs like panting or licking.  Apart from those pretty typical features, we accept every other deviation as part of the standard – we accept that dogs come in big, little, brown, patched, big floppy-eared, little pricky-up ears, short legs, skinny legs, huge muscular hulks, chubby little floof-balls, etc, etc… you get what I mean.  What I’m saying is, there really is no standard dog.

When you look around, it should be just as clear that there is no such thing as a standard person either.  And our culture was happy to accept that.  At least we were up until a guy called Adolphe Quetelet introduced the idea of one.

This belief of a normal or standard person came from work done during a crazy phase in the 1800s when the whole of Europe seemed nothing but revolution and war.  Governments and citizens were exhausted by the constant unrest.  Rather than blaming poor government decisions and the shitty living conditions, the responsibility for the chaos was laid solely on the premise that the general population was irresponsible, unpredictable, and needed to be better disciplined.  So pretty much exactly the same as what happens now!

Enter the astronomer, Adolph Quetelet to try and solve this ‘instability problem’.  He was convinced that you could use maths to predict human behaviour, thereby stopping anti-social behaviour before it happened.  He had already discovered that applying different maths and geometry equations to an up-until-then unpredictable universe made things like the movement of planets suddenly easily predictable.  So it seemed only logical to Adolphe that if maths could be used to understand the mysteries of “God’s” entire universe, then the same methods should be able to decode something as simple as a person.

Quetelet’s methods of prediction came from his personal belief that such a thing as a “normal human” existed (in terms of both appearance and personality traits) and that this normal human represented the ideal or perfection.   He believed that the way to work out what the standard person came by taking measurements of many personality traits and appearance measurements and finding the mathematical average of them.  He thought that the further a person deviated from the average, the further away from being perfect and predictable they were; more error-filled with less predictable behaviour.

But this approach had two massive fallacies baked into the method:

  • That it’s possible to compare similar but not identical things (like people) to each other and that the centre point between the differences represented a standard. That’s like saying that if you took the height of a Great Dane, and the height of a Chihuahua, then the correct height for a dog is whatever height is in the exact middle of those two breeds.
  • That you could make assumptions and predictions about people based on how far from this centre point they were. An example would be predicting that all Great Danes will live shorter lives or be more aggressive or [insert any other prediction here] than an average dog just because they’re all taller.

Quetelet and a whole bunch of government fan-boys of his work set about finding averages and making predictions of as many things about people as they could to try and find ways to control their citizens.  It became the standard way of putting people into categories.  And all that was inaccurate and crazy enough, but shit got a whole lot worse when a guy called Galton got involved.

Sir Francis Galton saw the idea of an average a little differently from Quetelet.  Rather than the average being ‘perfection’, he saw the average as meaning ‘normal’ and he didn’t want to be seen as just normal.  That potentially put his upper-class ass in the same category as a poor person based on things he couldn’t control like height, or the number of kids he had, and he didn’t like that at all.  He, being a firm believer in the superiority of certain races and classes, decided that being different from the average in certain qualities could be used as a way of scientifically ‘proving’ a person’s superiority over the masses or those from ‘lesser’ backgrounds. 

For Quetelet, any deviation from the average showed a person was imperfect.  But for Galton deviation could be a good thing as long as it was the right kind of deviation.  For example, a person who ran faster than the average was superior to someone who ran slower than the average even though technically both fast and slow are equally unaverage.  He obviously picked qualities that he and his rich white buddies were more likely to naturally have and made them into ‘superior’ traits.  Whereas anything they sucked at suddenly wasn’t a desirable quality to have anyway.

But, I hear you say, of course you can use maths to work out an average of things like height and weight and the number of kids a person has, etc.

Well, of course, you can.  Remember what we said about dogs.  Maths can totally find an average height, weight, colour, tail and ear length, tongue wetness, and pantiness level… but does that make any dog that doesn’t fit that average a worse dog?  Of course not!  And we only think a deviation from the average is bad because of knobheads like Quetelet and Galton.

Here are a couple of how stories from The End of Average book that show how stupid applying average is when talking about people in real life…

Story One: Norma

The Health Museum in Cleveland, US, had a statue of a woman called Norma.  The figure’s dimensions were based on the averages of size data collected from 15,000 young adult women.  She was created by a gynecologist called Dr. Robert L. Dickinson who was obsessed with showing the world what the “average” US woman looked like.

In 1945, the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper held a competition to find a real-life Norma. Women were asked to submit nine of their own physical dimensions and the competition’s winner would be the woman whose measurements came closest to the Norma (Norma… Normal… get it?!!) statue.

Three thousand women entered the contest, yet no one came close to hitting all nine measurements. The winner only managed to meet five of the nine averages.

Story Two: Planes

In the late 1940s, the US Air Force was concerned with the number of their planes that were crashing despite there being no mechanical problems with them.

It was happening so often (17 times in one day on one occasion) that they commissioned a study to figure it out.  One theory was that maybe pilots have gotten bigger since the 1920s when the cockpits were first designed.  They measured 140 dimensions of over 4,000 different pilots and planned to use the average of the new measurements they collected to design a new standard aeroplane cockpit.

However, one of the folks doing the measuring – Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels – was skeptical that using the maths equation of the average was the right approach.  To test his assumptions, he took the averages of the 10 physical dimensions believed to be most relevant for design (height, chest circumference, sleeve length, etc) and found that ZERO of the 4000 plus pilots fitted the average.

“One pilot might have a longer-than-average arm length, but a shorter-than-average leg length. Another pilot might have a big chest but small hips. Even more astonishing, Daniels discovered that if you picked out just three of the ten dimensions of size — say, neck circumference, thigh circumference and wrist circumference — less than 3.5 per cent of pilots would be average sized on all three dimensions. Daniels’s findings were clear and incontrovertible. There was no such thing as an average pilot. If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.” – Todd Rose 

To cut a long story short, the Air Force believed Daniels and rather than making one average cockpit, instead made things like the seats and steering wheels (is that what they’re called in a plane?) adjustable.  Overnight the number of crashes drastically reduced.

So back to where we started today, with little Dominique sitting in the GP’s office.  That doctor didn’t see me.  He saw a little girl who was not only less than the average but enough underneath it that he saw that as important enough to warn my parents about.  But he wasn’t making a judgment about me, he wasn’t even seeing me as an individual. He was seeing me as a marker against a number, a single metric, and used that number to make a prediction about my future.  And in his opinion and according to his charts of cold, emotionless numbers, it was a future that meant I’d either be negatively judged for being short or one in which being short meant I would eventually get sick.  And so far, he’s been wrong about both.

Now, averages can be useful in some circumstances, say if you’re making medicine for a population.  After all, Big Pharma (for all their flaws) cannot make us individualised medication based on our every trait, gene variation, and social, economic and geographical situation.  They, therefore, have to make something that’ll fit most people.  And so far, using an average has proven to be the best way to find cures that’ll fit most people. But let’s not pretend that this method works for everyone.  Knowing a cure is effective for 99 out of 100 people is little comfort if you’re the unlucky 100th

But let’s equally not forget that, as with Norma and the pilots, using an average is often the least helpful way of finding something that works for most people.  Look at the fitness and diet industry as an example of that.  On making something that on paper and according to science should work for the masses, they’ve actually made something that fits very few of us.  But instead of admitting the possibility that their method is wrong (as the air force did with their cockpit design), they’re blaming us for not being average enough to fit their system.

Humans are highly complex systems and are made up of a million traits all of which can be compared to an average: Height, weight, income, gender spectrum, how religious we are, anxiety levels, how many times a day we smile, how much grass we touch, how many people we touch, how loved we feel, hair length, toe length… I could go on forever.  But do you see the point I’m trying to make? 

How could we possibly know, amongst all of those possible averages, which are the ones that will affect our health and life span?  We also don’t know how each may affect any of the others because we rarely look at things holistically (I’ll go into why in a future blog, as it’s a fucking fascinating story too).  So many of our health predictions are made according to a choice of what average is worth testing and which ones are deemed unimportant.  So the question we need to be pondering is why did they pick one average to study over another and who decided which end of the average scale was the “superior” end and which was the “inferior”, and more importantly why?  The books I’ve read had started to teach me that the answer can normally be found in the origins of our cultural story and the biases (both positive and negative) and assumptions that story created.

For example, the white colonialist European was on average thinner than the average black African, so it was no wonder that being fat found its way into our cultural story as being an undesirable trait.  Thin is good, fat is bad was nothing more than a story rich white guys invented to find as many ways as possible to ‘prove’ themselves superior to their slaves.  And then hundreds of years later, when the story of being-fat-is-a-bad-thing-for-everyone was firmly embedded in our culture, a 1950s insurance company used weight and health correlations as a predictor of when people might die.  Weight as a  predictor of health only being studied because someone chose it to study over how many times people touched grass a day or how many nose hairs an average person had.  There’s no denying that being very fat is correlated with ill health, but so are many other things.  It’s just that ‘excess’ body weight being bad neatly fitted a cultural story the West was already conformable with.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you the names of the cultural stories that Quetelet and Galton are infamous for… Adolphe Quetelet invented the BMI scale, and Francis Galton is the man who invented eugenics (the ‘science‘ of ‘improving‘ the human race, famously adopted by the Nazis in order to justify their treatment of Jews, disabled people, and other minority groups.) 

If there’s anything that you must start to understand is that culture is simply a way of saying “People like us do things like this”.  It doesn’t represent any kind of rational or objective truth about the world.  Once we get that, it’s then up to us to choose to learn more about the origins of our cultural stories and then decide if we want to continue to use those stories to dictate the way we behave in the world and the values we live by and see as important.

So much of my life radically changed once I found out that I didn’t have to take the whole of our Western cultural story as my own.  The more I learned, the more it became apparent that even though I’m part of a wider dominant culture, I didn’t have to accept all of its values or take all of its stories as my own.  My own story was starting to take shape and grow.  And I was beginning to love the huge variation of beliefs and values that I got to pick from to live by.

This is my call to you to very gently begin to do the same.  Because whilst the fitness industry seems OK (or ignorant enough) to base its stories of health and what is the ‘standard’ body shape on the values of racists and bigots like Quetelet and Galton, you don’t have to.  Culture – both a nation’s and our own personal culture – doesn’t change in a moment, but it does change because of thousands of little moments.

Bonus cool, very short blog by Seth Godin

As always, I thank you so much for your company today.  I try to keep things concise, but I also struggle with my burning desire to tell you everything I know, so I do really appreciate your time.  I know it’s precious and is something that almost everyone seems trying to steal.

Just a quick reminder that if any of this journey feels useful to you and you think it may be valuable to others then please do share it.  This is how culture changes.  By sharing what we think might make things better. 

And if you happen to want to chuck me a few quid then I’d be appreciative as I don’t sell anything through the Anti-Fitness Project, but PLEASE don’t feel as if you have to.

Much love, you glorious weirdo!

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