Perceived as Normal

By Jean Halley and Amy Eshleman

To be perceived as normal means to have power and privilege. Queer and feminist movements help us to see that all of us fail at passing for normal in some way. Heterosexual, cisgender, and queer individuals can benefit from challenges to normative assumptions that limit self-expression and social interaction.

 

At the age of three, Isaiah sat on his mother’s lap, gazed lovingly at her, and said sweetly and in all seriousness, “Mommy, you have a beautiful mustache.” At age four, Isaiah’s sister Lena expressed vocal admiration for her mother’s “great, big hiney”.

These children meant to give their mother sincere compliments on admired aspects of her appearance. They did not yet know that women in our mainstream culture are not meant to have facial hair or great, big hineys and that indeed, the compliments were actually insults in the normative culture. Children have to learn these cultural norms. They are not born knowing them. These examples help us to see that our contemporary mainstream ideals for beauty in women are not “natural” but social and constructed.

To be perceived as normal means to have power and privilege. Yet ultimately none of us fully fit – or forever fit – in the binary frame of normal, good, and correct. Queer and feminist movements help us to see that in the end all of us fail at passing for normal in some way.

Idealised females in our mainstream society are small, thin, even frail. They have no body hair, wrinkles, or flab. They hold themselves in a controlled manner that folds the body inward, legs pressed together or crossed, instead of spreading their limbs and taking more space. Girls and women learn to pick at their food and, especially in public, eat tiny amounts. Sex educator and body image activist Melissa A. Fabello identifies ways that thin women experience privilege, such as fashionable stores stocking clothing in their size and being able to enjoy a high-calorie treat without fear of open scoffing from bystanders. Inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s seminal work that identified unfair privileges awarded without merit to people socially understood to be white, Fabello similarly lists advantages afforded to thin women that are denied to fat women.

While women are expected to be thin, men are pressured to be muscular. It is okay in the mainstream, and even cute, for girls and women to cry, to not know how to throw a ball or land a punch. To achieve hegemonic masculinity, boys and men are encouraged to internalise expectations to act in ways opposite to female caretakers and girl peers. Indeed, many people refer to male and female as “opposite sexes”, thereby promoting binary thinking. In contrast, social constructionists reveal that male and female sexes as well as masculine and feminine genders are not actually opposite, rather, social expectations work to produce seemingly opposing behaviour. Young children learn social assumptions as they grow up and interact across their life-span within social contexts that expect everyone to conform to these norms. Girls and boys, men and women who do not learn these rules or who choose to deviate from them often suffer consequences, and those can be severe.

Social constructionists reveal that male and female sexes as well as masculine and feminine genders are not actually opposite, rather, social expectations work to produce seemingly opposing behaviour.

The perspective of intersectionality focusses on how different parts of a person’s identity interact, such as gender, sexuality, wealth, education, and race, in other words, how aspects of identity intersect. Sociologists Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins identify that a matrix of domination occurs when an individual is stigmatised on multiple levels. Similarly, Barbara Smith’s definition of feminism acknowledges the intersections of race, socioeconomic class, disability, and sexual identity.

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Jean Halley is Associate Professor of sociology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. She has taught extensively in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. She is the author of several books, including Boundaries of Touch: Parenting and Adult-Child Intimacy and The Parallel Lives of Women and Cows: Meat Markets.

Amy Eshleman is Professor of psychology at Wagner College, where she regularly teaches courses on gender, sexuality, race, social class, and prejudice. Together, Halley and Eshleman have authored two books: Seeing Straight: An Introduction to Gender and Sexual Privilege (2017) and Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege and Race (2011).

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