Normal Never Changed

Navigating Perceptions of Normal Bodies

Normal and healthy are tricky words. They provide a reference point but at the same time they have the potential to alienate people. Pressure to conform pushes against a desire for acceptance. The culture imposes ideas about sizes and shapes of bodies that are normal or healthy. From this pressure, weight bias emerges. It is especially acute for teens who are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into their own social circle.

New anthropology research from Indiana University sheds some light on how teens sort through ideas about average and healthy body weight in relationship to their own. In a word, it’s complicated.

Perceptions About What’s Average

Jennifer Cullin conducted research with a sample of 123 adolescents in south central Indiana. The subjects completed questionnaires about their own weight status, average weights, and healthy weights. She used the Stunkard figure rating scale to get reliable responses.

She found that perceptions about what is a normal or average body weight went up with a teen’s perception of their own body weight status. In other words, teens who identified with heavier body figures on the rating scale also tended to rate heavier figures as being average.

Perceptions About What’s Healthy

However, she found a different relationship between the perception of what is average and what is healthy. As perceived average body weight went up, subjects were more likely to identify smaller female figures as healthy. They were also less likely to identify larger male figures as healthy.

To help with interpreting these results, Cullin conducted semi-structured interviews with a subsample of subjects. She obtained descriptions of normal, average, and healthy bodies in these interviews. She found a lot of overlap. One subject offered this description of a normal body:

“I kind of think of it the same way as being healthy, as being normal. That’s something you should not necessarily strive to be, but like that’s something you can look to and be like, yeah, that’s it. It’s the average, the majority. That’s what it usually typically is. It’s like a healthy body weight. Where someone can get out of their chair, they can move around… like they could go hiking, but they don’t have to.”

Bias About What Is Normal and Healthy

For anyone concerned with weight bias and stigma, assumptions about normal and healthy bodies can be quite problematic. Human bodies come in diverse sizes and shapes. So one size does not fit all when it comes to good health. Yet, researcher Ximena Ramos Salas tells us:

“In working on efforts to reduce weight bias, I sometimes hear from health professionals that ‘reducing weight bias would mean condoning obesity.’ This is extremely frustrating.”

In the end, average, normal, and healthy mean very little. None of us are average. Normal is a moving target. But perhaps most important is the realization that all of us live with imperfect bodies that sooner or later will fail us. The best we can do is to accept and care for the bodies we have.

Click here for Cullin’s paper and here for more on how youth cope with feeling different when they are living with a chronic condition.

Normal Never Changed, photograph © Stephen Boyle / flickr

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August 11, 2021