Why the Idea of a ‘Normal’ Body Is So Insidious

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The first dressing room I remember was at Hudson’s, a Detroit-based department store where middle-class people in my town went to get things that were “nice.” It was the place where my mother bought me overalls and hair bows, where she bought herself high-heeled shoes displayed like pastries on wooden pedestals.

On those shopping trips, my mother would gather a pile of clothes, hunting and pecking her way through the various women’s departments. We both loved this part. For me, the initial search on a shopping trip is when optimism is at its peak, the time when all the garments on offer might actually fit, when they still might actually look good. It is during the second act of the shopping experience when it all goes awry.

My mother, always so neat and thoughtful, hung up her garments before changing out of her own clothes. She had once worked in a Hudson’s, and so was aware of all the perpetual folding and steaming that the saleswomen had to do. She unfurled each pair of new pants, stepped inside them, and examined herself in the mirrors.

This was the hard part.

My mom rarely liked clothes once she wore them. The promise she’d seen in each garment on its hanger was dashed once she had buttoned and zipped it onto her body. The hem was revealed to be too long, the waist too wide; the material hugged her too tight. But her language—our language—for what was wrong was never about the clothes. Instead, it was about ourselves. “I’m too short,” she’d say, or, “My arms are too flabby.” And always, always: “My butt is too big.” In other words: The clothes are not flawed. I am.

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In addition to all the other tacit work the fashion industry does to define what different body types mean, clothing offers a frank materialization of rightness. Pants are a physical object you can hold in your hands, reminding you that there are parts of your body that literally do not fit. For everything that reveals itself to be too big, or too small, there is the clear indication that somewhere there is a thing that is just right, a body that is in the middle, a body that is correct.

This middle thing is somehow both an ideal and an average, made perfect by not being too much of anything. But what is this middle thing, this normal thing? My mother always said her butt was too big. I often say the same thing. But “too big” compared to what?

“Normal” is an insidious concept—and one that the fashion industry has long tried to define. Bodies are bespoke, yet most clothes made since the 1920s are mass-produced industrial products: when the pants don’t fit, it’s because the proportions of a body don’t match up to the proportions that the clothing companies imagined for it. But the fashion industry isn’t the only entity that has invested in the damaging idea of “normal”—it has long been used by society at large to other and exclude.

Norma’s butt is 29 inches across, from hip bone to hip bone. It’s round and pert and, because it’s made of stone, alarmingly smooth. It is substantial, a handful, but no one would call it big. If it were made of flesh, it would fill out a swimsuit nicely, but I doubt it would elicit a long second look. Norma has the Goldilocks butt, the Goldilocks body. Everything about her, at least according to the people who designed her, is “just right.”

In June 1945, Norma made her first appearance, at an exhibition hall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. On the other end of the hall stood her male counterpart, Normman. The pair were representations of the “typical” reproductive human adult male and female, and were created by gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson and artist Abram Belskie.

Norma was not voluptuous and she was not skinny. She was strong, robust, and capable of bearing many children—not too sexy, but clearly fertile. As her name suggests, Norma was not, in any real way, exceptional. She was normal.

But just what did that mean? The statue suggests a very specific concept of normal: she was white, heterosexual (Normman steadfastly stood by her at all times in the exhibition hall to reassure us of that), and able-bodied. She was a little dour, offering none of the seduction of classic statuary, and stood perfectly erect, arms by her sides, posed as if in a scientific drawing. She was appealing (as her name suggests) in her normal-ness—and that was the intent.

Norma and Normman were a project of American eugenics, the racial science invented by Francis Galton that had built on the work of Georges Cuvier and other 19th-century thinkers to create and enforce a hierarchy of human bodies. While one strain of eugenicists in the United States was working hard to eliminate the unfit through sterilization, others were busy encouraging the “right” people to have children. Those involved in this branch of eugenics—called positive eugenics—tried to make it as clear as possible which Americans they thought should be procreating.

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Standing in the halls of the most famous natural history museum in America, Norma and Normman exemplified to visitors what kinds of adult bodies, and people, were “fit.” The museum displayed them as singular objects, creations meant to codify the aesthetics of normality in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when normal was what many people very much aspired to be.

In the interests of maintaining a “scientific” approach, Belskie and Dickinson relied on data in the creation of Norma and Normman, rather than subjective preference. The specifications for Normman’s creation had been easy enough to come by: during World War I, the military had measured every drafted U.S. serviceman. There also was data from men who had volunteered to be measured at the Chicago World’s Fair, as well as statistics from the early years of the Ivy League posture studies and insurance company physicals. They just had to be added up, divided, and voilà! The average American man.

Norma’s creation, however, proved to be more difficult. Women didn’t serve in the military at the time, and, at first, there seemed to be no large repository of measurements of the female population. But Belskie and Dickinson were living in an age of metrics, a time when it seemed that all things could and must be measured, managed, and known. Surely the female body was of interest to researchers somewhere.

In 1945, they finally found the data set they were looking for. Five years earlier, a group of researchers had measured thousands of American women at the USDA’s Bureau of Home Economics, one of the only places where female scientists and statisticians could find a home in the first half of the 20th century. The effort had been led by a chemist named Ruth O’Brien, who worked to find a way to create standard sizes for ready-made clothes.

The study, funded by the Works Progress Administration and lasting for one year, sought to discover the girths, lengths, and heights of the American woman in all her difference. To do so, O’Brien sent government-employed measurers to Illinois, Maryland, Arkansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, and California. In municipalities across the country, “measuring squads,” as she called them, recruited volunteers from local women’s clubs. Each was asked to wear cotton measuring shorts and a not-too-tight-fitting bandeau bra and was invited to step onto a measuring platform, where they were weighed using a government-issued scale. Then, the measurer took 58 additional measurements, including “sitting spread girth,” “anterior crotch length,” and “maximum thigh girth.” The squads brought in 15,000 surveys, but O’Brien ultimately only used 10,000. She discarded the other 5,000 for one of three reasons: there had been a gross error, there were too many young people in the data set, or the volunteers weren’t white. The truth was, O’Brien wasn’t interested in data for all American women; she wanted data from all American-born white women.

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In his article about Norma and Normman, “A Portrait of the American People,” which ran in the museum’s magazine in 1945, Harry L. Shapiro, the curator of physical anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, praised the statues for helping to codify the “White American”—a category of person he feared was in danger of being sullied and diminished through racial mixing. Shapiro, who would go on to be the president of the American Eugenics Society, also emphasized how the average could be an ideal. “Norma and Normman, although they were designed to conform with the average adult before the onset of the ravages of age, exhibit a harmony of proportion that seems far indeed from the usual or the average.” Their averageness was notable and, paradoxically, unique. Shapiro said, “Let us state it this way: the average American figure approaches a kind of perfection of bodily form and proportion; the average is excessively rare.”

When I first read Shapiro’s conflation of the word normal with perfection, I found it to be a bit of a stretch. Perfection, after all, suggests an apex rather than a middle, a singular kind of human who is, in some sense, above all others. The way I’d always understood it, a perfect human woman would be smarter, more beautiful, thinner, and more graceful than the rest. She’d be special, not typical.

And yet, Shapiro’s formulation does make intuitive, if not actual, sense. I had often found my own body to be, in some small sense, abnormal. My large butt, my slightly crossed eye, and my poor performance in any and all sports always felt like defects when, in fact, they were characteristics of mine that were surely quite common. And yet, those characteristics never felt normal, because the notion of normal is not about averages or commonly occurring traits, but instead about an unattainable ideal.

The idea of normal, it seems, always comes with some kind of agenda. In the case of Norma, the minds that collated her measurements were enthusiastic eugenicists, motivated by a desire to effectively eradicate insufficiently white, disabled, and queer people. They were openly attempting to engineer a race of perfectly normal Americans, equating full citizenship with having this decisively average, yet demonstrably unattainable, body. By codifying normal, the Norma boosters were also codifying abnormal, which is always the implicit project of the creation of an ideal.

But if the creation of Norma proves anything, it’s that no body actually is normal. Despite all her rigorous measuring, Ruth O’Brien’s study failed—even after measuring thousands of women and crunching and tabulating all the data, there were too many variables for her to create a meaningful set of recommendations for ready-to-wear clothes. She failed to find the superlative normal that she craved, because creating something singular inevitably separates it from the group. Her project couldn’t work because bodies aren’t standard.

It’s tempting to think that we have outgrown Norma, that we have transcended the pernicious fantasy of an empirical and enforceable “normal.” But the truth is that while the material of normalcy is a moving target, the concept of “the normal” is extraordinarily durable, even if there are no scientists and sculptors openly regulating it. It may not be staring us down in a museum of hygiene, but it is always lurking—in dressing rooms, in magazines, in the endless scroll of Instagram.

Copyright © 2022 by Heather Radke. From the forthcoming book BUTTS: A Backstory by Heather Radke to be published by Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

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