What is normal?

I saw something on Twitter that made me think back to a billboard ad I saw back when I worked in Southampton, around 2001.

What made me think of it? Well, how about I tell you about the advert first. It showed, on something like a 50ft wide / 20ft tall billboard at the side of the road I cycled past everyday, a woman’s face, close up. She was attractive, wearing make-up (but not heavy) and her hair tied back, out of her face. The advert had a solid single-colour background, which didn’t detract attention from her face. On one side of her was the question “Is this face normal?”. You were meant, I think, to look at her face and think about her facial features (nose, eyes, laughter-lines, make-up, etc). Was she ‘normal’, based on your own preconceived notion of ‘normal’ (and attractive, no doubt). Most people would probably say yes, she was.

On the other side of the advert, however, were statistics about what people thought would be considered skin ‘abnormalities’, like freckles, pimples, beauty-spots, laugher-lines, visible facial birth marks, scars, etc. Statistics like “50% of women have freckles” or “20% of women have visible facial birth-marks’ or “25% of women under the age of 30 have laughter-lines”. That kind of thing – nothing out of the ordinary, nothing scary or abnormal in the slightest. But it challenged your preconceived notion of what is accepted as ‘normal’.

This advert had such resonance with me as it made me question ‘what is normal?’ It made me question my own preconceptions of normal, of accepted ‘beauty’, but also about not taking someone else’s instruction on what normal should be. You looked at the advert and thought, probably, that this face was normal, when to be without any kind of facial ‘feature’ like freckles or pimples or beauty-marks or anything meant you were (according to the sum of the statistics) among the 0.5% of the population with ‘perfect’ skin. Therefore, nowhere normal, in any meaning of the word (“Conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern”). Therefore, what you think is ‘normal’ is the total opposite. What is normal is actually abnormal, outside the norm.

This is why I don’t like it when I hear about a student profile, or any kind of ‘normal’, attributed to those we work with or work for. There isn’t a ‘normal’ profile for a student on your course. Even if you have a highly specialised course with a small group of students coming from a small specialised industry and background, I’m betting their individual experiences and backgrounds that brought them to you. They will still be varied and interesting, reading at different speeds, taking notes (or not), questioning you or accepting without question. Not one will have the same ability to be critical, or to research at the same speed, or to write. They are not the ‘normal’ you’ve prepared for.

Let’s not design for an accepted ‘normal’. Let’s embrace a new ‘normal’ which is as varied as the number of people out there. The new ‘normal’ is everyone. It’s a challenge and not one we can do in isolation, rather in collaboration with our audience.

unsplash-logoKyle Glenn