‘Normal weight’ is a bloating target. The BMI of an average American is creeping upwards, one double cheeseburger at a time. An elusive aspiration which governs consumer habits and incites everyday angst, normality sets a standard from which a person’s risk of weight-related disease is calculated. But haven’t we lost sight of what we mean by this familiar word? Are we using ‘normal’ as a label to describe what’s average or prescribe impossible perfection? If you’re not ‘normal’, does that make you abnormal? Such a framework of binaries and its normative assumptions are problematic when mapped onto a living, breathing, eating population.
One person’s notion of ‘the norm’ is variable and contingent: it is shaped by when, where and with whom they live. While individuality might be prized and sameness scorned, this doesn’t stop us looking over to see what our neighbor is loading onto their plate. But if you live in Texas, what’s considered average weight doesn’t necessarily tally with the opinions of New Yorkers. So, is there a better way to get a sense of what’s really normal?
Meet Normann and Norma: a couple who are ‘perfectly average’.
In 1943, Robert Latou Dickinson created a pair of anthropometric models to overcome the bias of geographical variance. These standards, he hoped, would speak authoritatively as statistical composites of the “average” American male and female bodies. As both an obstetrician and an artist, he was the man for the job. After nationwide data-collection amongst college men and women, Dickinson’s anatomical atlases and the Normann and Norma sculptures were presented as an aggregate portrait of the nation. In 1945 ‘The Harvard Study of Normal Men’ was also launched to find that elusive ‘everyman’ and his vital statistics.
Was ‘normal’ in the 1940s a more attractive proposition than it is now, 70 years later? How do Normann and Norma c.2012 measure up to their predecsessors?
For a transatlantic comparison, London’s Science Museum ran a competition in 2010 to find two individuals who had the measurements of the mean man and woman in the UK. He had to be 5ft 7in and 13st; she had to be 5ft 3in and 11st. After Mr and Mrs Norm were revealed, Dr Ralph Sullivan, advisor to the NHS Information Centre, went on record to say:
‘From a medical point of view, the average man and woman in Britain today is overweight, which is a concern. If they were any larger, they would be at higher risk of many health problems including diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease – including raised risk of stroke – fertility problems and cancer.’
The pair of ‘winners’ could be forgiven for taking offense when Sullivan went on to add that:
‘Hopefully, the public will look at these two individuals, and think about their own weight, inspiring them to make a change.’
The original sculptures and the Dickinson papers are available for view at Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard. For more information about these items and related ideas on normality, see Anna G. Creadick, Perfectly Average: the Pursuit of Normality in Postwar America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010).
Special thanks to Kathryn Hammond Baker from the Center for the History of Medicine at Countway Library for collaboration with this piece.