What's normal anyway?

Image: Adam Jones//Flickr

Amid all the recent talk about what it means to be Australian, you might have heard that the typical Australian is now a woman, according to the 2016 census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Australia’s “new normal” is a 38-year-old married mother of two who has completed Year 12, lives in a house with three bedrooms and two cars, does five to 14 hours of housework each week, and is the daughter of Australian-born parents with English heritage. The typical immigrant’s country of birth is different depending on where you live in Australia, but she is also a woman.

While those who know stats have assured us that the way they calculate what is typical is not a particularly meaningful way of describing the majority of Australians, it got us thinking about what counts as normal.

At our NETFA conference last month, the issue of what’s normal arose in the context of women’s body image, particularly in relation to women’s genitalia. As Dr Amy Webster explained, the desire to feel ‘normal’ or ‘attractive’ were two of the key reasons women reported they had visited the wonderful online labia library: an important resource which presents a range of photos of women’s unaltered labia and gentialia. Designed by Women’s Health Victoria, the purpose of the labia library is to show women the natural diversity of women’s genitalia, in response to the demands we often feel to conform to Australia’s cultural beliefs and expectations of beauty.

As Sasha Sarago, editor of Ascension lifestyle magazine, noted, clearly the media has a hand in shaping these attitudes. Increased demand for labioplasty and other forms of cosmetic surgery reflect the pressure on women to see unrealistic ideals about our bodies as the ‘norm’ instead of the exception (or fabrication). This cultural pressure is not the only reason a woman might choose to undertake surgery (and we definitely think it’s her right to do so). However, as Dr Odette Kelada pointed out, by internalising these ideals women and men can become desensitised to the influence that culture and media has on our choices.

For many women from cultural backgrounds that are not represented or celebrated in mainstream Australian culture, the ‘norm’ is not only unattainable, but hurtful and harmful. Skin lighteners and hair straighteners take on different meaning for women whose natural beauty is framed as being ‘not normal’. Because of our visible difference to the invisible ‘norm’, some women’s bodies or beauty practices are seen as exotic or oppressed. As a recent case at a Victorian secondary school showed, immigrant women’s ‘non-conformity’ to mainstream beauty ‘norms’ can even be taken as bad behaviour.

What is normal anyway when it comes to gender? In a recent article about intersex people, author Alice Dreger wrote that “People tend to assume that everyone is born simply male or female. But nature shows us otherwise.” As Dreger notes, while each baby is assigned one of two genders at birth, there is much more genital and other sex-development variation that occurs naturally. Male and female standard genitalia are but two points on a varied continuum. By taking natural beauty as the standard, perhaps we can start to move away from some of the rigid gender norms that stop us from appreciating women’s diversity.