Saturday, March 9, 2013

What "Normal" Is

As some of my readers may recall, I've been taking a graduate school class with my husband over the past couple of months. I'm able to do this because his school graciously allows partners to audit (take part, but receive no official credit) one class per year. The experience has been an emotional one for me on many levels, but has failed to significantly challenge me intellectually for the most part.

The "emotional" aspect has come from being faced with the various personalities of the participants (of which there are about a dozen) and the perspectives they present. All of them are younger than me, and have significantly different (and more limited) life experiences. Sometimes, I'm very frustrated at the myopia they exhibit, but much more frustration is elicited by the lack of critical thinking that is displayed.

The dearth of critical thinking is shown in a variety of areas, but one in which many psychology students struggle is with the notion of normality. At my husband's school in particular, an institution which is more expansive, open-minded, and embraces a holistic approach to living, healing, and mental illness, the idea that "normal" can be defined is more resisted than among the population at large. These are people who are in that place because they reject conventional thinking on multiple levels, and that means they do not want to pigeonhole or embrace concepts that are as limited as a notion of "normal".

While I think it is important not to try to reshape everyone into a round shape so they can be placed in the corresponding round hole, the notion of "normal" is of value and embracing it should not be viewed as a destructive pattern of thought. The idea of defining it should not be seen as an effort to marginalize, isolate, or pathologize people, but rather to understand states which create the greatest functionality and healing.

I'm talking about the concept of "normal" here because, in terms of body weight, the idea of "normal" is very controversial. Often, it is medically determined in a manner which simplifies rather than rationally explains why body size matters. That being said, I don't believe the concept of a "normal" weight has to be considered a toxic means of straitjacketing the populace into fitting into socially or medically determined forms. A more complex and nuanced notion of "normal" in terms of all things, not just weight, is of value. To that end, I have been pondering the idea of "normal" as of late.

The first thing that is important to keep in mind is that "normal" is a relative state. What is more, it is relative within various "systems". For example, hearing voices, taking hallucinogenic compounds, and sacrificing animals is normal within some tribal systems that have shamanistic practices. That being said, though these activities and experiences are generally normal, they are only appropriate (and therefore "normal") in certain settings. Even in societies in which hearing voices is a normal part of ritual experiences, it is not a normal part of everyday life. A person who is actively psychotic and hears voices outside of the ritual setting (and who is not an appointed individual for whom such experiences are considered part of their role) are definitively deemed abnormal and will be socially isolated, rejected, or marginalized.

Similarly, certain types of dress are utterly normal within a certain system, but would be considered inappropriate and "abnormal" in more mundane ones. If I were to wear an evening gown to an orchestral performance, it would be seen as "normal". If I were to wear one to work, it would be considered "abnormal". Context matters. The system you are operating within determines whether or not you are "normal".

This leads me to talk of body size and appearance. Part of what got me intro trouble recently on Facebook was talking about one of the more zealous fat activists and how she looks. I asserted that her appearance, which is far outside the mainstream in ways unrelated to her weight, muddles her ability to represent the oppression that fat people endure. In no way did I say that the obese and especially the super obese (so-called "death fats", of which I have been a part of for the vast majority of my life) are not treated abysmally and with great cruelty. However, what I said was that her extremely atypical choice of style of appearance muddled the picture significantly and made her a poor choice of example for how fat people are publicly humiliated.

The truth is all people who appear "strange" will elicit abuse, and I cited an article in a psychology journal in support of this notion. Unfortunately, I can't link to it here because it's an academic article behind a pay wall that I could only access via my husband's academic account, but you'll have to trust me when I say the study exists and that what I say about it is true. That study was conducted with normal weight people who dressed, styled their hair, etc. in highly atypical fashion. They wore large polka dot prints or other "loud" patterns and displayed unusual hair coloring. The purpose of the study was to measure the responses of strangers who encountered these unusually groomed and attired people in public. The results showed that, quite overwhelmingly, "abnormal" appearance elicited aggression. This happened when weight was not a factor.

So, I think if you are going to hold your treatment out there as a fat person and say that you are abused, you have to "control" for this factor. It muddles the picture if you are both very fat and dress in a manner which the society you are operating in deems "abnormal". If your clothing and style choices are far outside the norm, it will be very difficult to tell whether you are treated poorly because you are fat or because of your unusual style. Beyond confusing the true motivation among bystanders for their negative attention, it also undermines the sympathy of others when hearing your story. They will look at the strangely dressed person and not think, "she's abused because she's fat," but rather, "she's abused because she dresses so weirdly." It undercuts the potential for empathy and harms the cause of fat activism.

My talking about this is not to be confused with condoning the abuse of anyone based on appearance. I don't care what people dress like or look like. I spent more than enough years of my life being treated like a walking pile of fat garbage to condone the abusive behavior people heap on others for their appearance. What I'm doing here is talking about the reality, not making an excuse for it.

The reality, very likely, is informed by evolutionary forces. Our distant ancestors that responded aggressively to those who appeared markedly different very likely survived. Those who were tolerant and accepted likely did not. Conformity promotes recognition among the tribe and means that you will see the enemy as the enemy and a friend as a friend. Bystanders who see a stranger who looks weird (or acts strangely) are therefore fearful and become aggressive and they probably don't give a second thought to whether or not the response is rational.

There's probably some part of their brain in the amygdala (the home of our aggressive and fearful responses for the most part) that activates. In order not to have those feelings, they must engage in active suppression and process cognitively. Such processing requires awareness, energy, and the taking of an advanced perspective that people are unlikely to do simply to benefit a random stranger. The question of whether they "should" do it is another one entirely. Of course, they "should", but we do not yet live in a world in which children are taught to question and mitigate this response at a young age, and that is where the process should start.

My purpose in broaching this topic is not to explain what happened on Facebook and upset someone else. This is actually only part of the picture and, as I said before, I was at fault because of how I characterized the individual in question (in a manner which was uncharacteristically derogatory and which I apologized for twice). This is just the start of my talking about conclusions I've reached about the "fat mindset" and my feelings about obesity as a mental disorder. The reason I'm talking about "normal" and how "abnormal" is to set the stage for what will no doubt be a series of posts about the topic that will lead up to my conclusions.

The bottom line is that being super fat is not "normal" within the current systems in most societies. Aggressive responses to abnormal appearance are, unfortunately, a part of human nature regardless of the reasons or shape of that "abnormality". Well-meaning and self-serving attempts to "normalize" atypical behavior across the board will not change the reality of human biochemical responses to that which is markedly different and one cannot control the behavior of others, particularly when they are operating in line with societal norms and biochemical responses beyond their control. Just as they cannot easily regulate their heart beat, they cannot stop the rush of chemicals that create an aggressive response when they experience something which is not normal within their system. This is, in essence, where the seeds of what is considered pathological are sown.


LHA said...

What a very, very interesting post. I really admire your scholarly and thoughtful approach to the issue of weight, appearance and acceptance of differences in our society. What you have said is very thought provoking.

From my own experience I can say that I have been treated very differently at various stages in my life depending on how overweight I have been at the time. As an adult, my weight has fluctuated from slightly overweight to morbidly obese, with most of my adult life being spent in the "obese" category. When I am in the range of just "overweight" or "mildly obese" I am treated with much more respect and interest than when I am morbidly obese. It is a very distinct difference and it would be impossible not to notice the reaction of others.

I own a small business and have to present myself to clients on a daily basis. When I am interviewing with a potential new client it is always harder to impress them with my competence if I am much beyond "overweight". I can verify that if I added in any type of unusual dress or grooming I would have no chance to be hired or taken seriously at all. I have to be very careful to dress extremely conservatively and be very well groomed in every regard to have any chance to make a good impression. You have explained the basic fear of someone who looks "different" and I can attest that I have seen it in action. If I was a normal weight, I still could not get by with any type of extremely odd dress or grooming, because in my business I have to be perceived as business-like, competent and trustworthy.

As usual, your post has given me a lot to think about. Thank you for the interesting report on the research and for the insight you have given.

screaming fatgirl said...

My experiences mirror yours exactly in regards to weight. You can "get away with" being overweight or slightly obese, but once you hit a certain range, you will be treated disrespectfully or abusively. I think that weight that is perhaps one standard deviation outside the mean or at the edges of the mean aren't perceived as abnormal enough to initiate an aggressive response, but those which are further outside the mean will garner an abusive reaction.

Your comment brings about an interesting point and that is about the aggregate effect of multiple factors that contribute to a sense that one is "abnormal". Being super obese is enough by itself to bring on abuse. Being strangely dressed is enough to bring on abuse. Being both is a near guarantee of a very high level of abuse. You can mitigate the possibility of being super obese and bringing on abuse by dressing conservatively just as you can mitigate the value of being of a normal weight by dressing or grooming yourself very atypically.

The main difference is that one factor is much easier to control for (grooming and clothing) than the other (weight). That is not to say anyone is obliged to dress conservatively, but it's disingenuous to dress very atypically within a system (society, community, etc.) and then cry that it's merely abuse based on weight alone.

Thanks so much for your comment.

LHA said...

Thank you for your response. I as knew I would, I did think quite a bit about your post and what it meant to me and other obese people in their professions. Two things came to mind.

First, I am extremely outgoing and meet people easily. This, combined with being well educated and well spoken, as well as being an empathetic listener, are also factors that help me overcome people's negative impression due to my obesity. Combining this with being conservatively dressed and very well groomed do help me maintain my professional life.
It is a lot of work to emphasize my positive qualities enough to overshadow my size!

Second, though, I was reminded that I had an employee who was very attractive. She was naturally slender and had a pretty face and very nice hair. She also dressed attractively. The interesting thing about this employee is that she was very popular with my clients when she first worked for them, although she is by far one of the worst employees I have ever had! She wasn't very bright, was overly emotional, and had to be closely supervised. People assumed she was intelligent and well educated or somehow just desirable to have working for them because she was so attractive. Isn't that almost laughable? Eventually I had to fire her because she used such poor judgement on the job. If she had been obese, or slovenly, or dressed oddly, my clients would have noticed that she wasn't very bright either, but her attractiveness seemed to outweigh everything, at least in their initial impressions.

Thanks again for the thought provoking post. I'm sure I will continue to think about it even more.