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Singletons, childless, transgendered, gays…: what can we do to make ourselves feel normal?

November 9, 2014
How should I cope with feeling 'not normal'?

How should I cope with being ‘not normal’?

This post is inspired by the transvestite ceramicist Grayson Perry’s recent TV series about identity Who Are You? on Channel 4 – and I do mean inspired.

Are you single? Gay? Childless? Transgender? Transvestite? Medically obese? Learning-‘disabled’? Visually or hearing-‘impaired’, physically ‘disabled’ in some other way, black in a largely white community, Aspergers, or a member of one of many more distinctive categories…? Many of you, no doubt well adjusted, happy, careless, carefree, are possibly bridling, objecting stridently now to the phrase ‘feel normal’ in the title of this piece, ‘But I’m confident in my own identity; believe that I am normal, in my terms.’ Deny if you dare though that you occasionally experience twinges of societal alienation and identity self-doubt – and if you daren’t, bear with me for a while.

Maybe you didn’t see Perry’s thought-provoking visual-sociological meditations. Over several weeks he interviewed a variety of people about their self-perceptions and those of society to them – a disgraced politician, a gay pair building a family by adopting two ‘mixed race’ children, a Northern Irish Unionist family, a man suffering from Alzheimer’s and his wife, a group of ‘larger’ women, a Christian community, a hearing-‘impaired’ group who communicated by signing… – ; then he interpreted their social and self-images by creating his own works of portrait art, from posters to ceramics to artefacts.

Society considers – and often treats – each group within Perry’s case studies not as abnormal, which has extreme pejorative connotations, but certainly beyond ‘the norm’. So how, Perry considered, do we sometime ‘outsiders’ define and see ourselves – one could almost say, survive and thrive emotionally and psychologically – given our minority status?

Of course the statistics have us: they reduce us to a ‘smaller’, and therefore somehow ‘less significant’, less acknowledged, less regarded social set (I say ‘us’, ticking as I do at least two boxes: single – one of the 29% of the UK population living alone in a household – and post-menopausally childless -one of the 1 in 5 in this position in the western world). But it’s not just about statistics: because of them, we minorities all deviate from the norm.

Actually, Craig Michael McNees (2012) explains that there are two kinds:

‘[There] are injunctive norms and descriptive norms. Injunctive norms are people’s perceptions of what behaviors are approved of or disapproved of by others, and descriptive norms are people’s perceptions of how people actually behave (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2010).’ (http://www.personal.psu.edu/bfr3/blogs/asp/2012/11/two-kinds-of-norms.html)

People naturally gravitate towards, feel safer, with their own kind; this tends to render society forgetful, or even wary or abusive, of us: there are ways, I suppose, that descriptive norms can morph into injunctive norms. Numbers of us will experience some degree of isolation, maybe downright marginalisation – perceived or real; others of us, outright disapproval of our lifestyles, physical appearances and/or more.

Before going on, you absolutely must read this helpful piece by Stanley Fish (2008): http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/06/01/norms-and-deviations-whos-to-say/?_r=1

Read it? Don’t believe you. I’ll wait a little longer till you have.

Tum-ti-tum, thumb twiddle.

Done now? Interesting, wasn’t it? Fish’s last comment, as you’ll remember, is this:

‘The struggle between the impulse to normalize — to specify a center and then police deviations from it — and the impulse to repel the normalizing gaze and live securely in a community of one’s own will never be resolved.’

Groups from Perry’s TV series – the two gay family men, the BBWs (a community of friends calling itself the ‘Big Beautiful Women’, who meet and support each other and keep virtually in touch), and the ‘culture’, as the filmed group liked to call themselves, of the deaf – had their own ways of repelling the normalising gaze.

The BBWs have two main strategies. They meet periodically and communicate in between times, offering each other support and enjoying activities together. Their real and virtual gatherings empower them: by building and enforcing this dedicated family, they feel confirmed by a sense of mass in numbers and shared experience. Second, they’re learning to celebrate what society might consider their negative attributes, for instance learning to strut the catwalk, to actually flaunt and enjoy their size.

As a childless, single woman, I’ve used these strategies too. I belong to http://www.gateway-women.com, a secure online community for women childless by circumstance that helps us all rediscover our strengths and special qualities; and I’ve joined various social groups that attempt to do the same for us singles. So you might guess that out of all the groups, I’d identify with Perry’s bold and outsized women.

But the gay men adopting ‘mixed race’ children alerted me to look harder at what’s needed to self-express positively. For a start, they highlighted the difficulties of language: how quickly we – yes, even we – ‘normalise’ terms for our own minorities so that maybe they don’t help us. Why call myself ‘gay’? one of the gay pair asked. He felt that ‘queer’ better represented him, and would reinforce an obvious universal truth: that all humans, whatever their behaviour, appearance and inclinations, are individuals: that in a sense, and to some degree, we all deviate from some norm. As for his new child, why describe him with the politically correct and anodyne label ‘mixed race’? Wouldn’t something else be better: a unique statement about that child’s origins, and thus more true?

Deaf 'culture' and the language and visuals of difference; from Grayson Perry's 'Who Are You?', Channel 4

Deaf ‘culture’ and the language and visuals of difference; from Grayson Perry’s ‘Who Are You?’, Channel 4

The deaf group studied by Perry was even more telling. They rejected the communication methods of the hearing world for sign language, despising its value-laden language about deafness – ‘poor hearing’, ‘hearing loss/problems‘, ‘hearing-impaired‘. Their semantics diverge wildly from the lingo of the ‘hearing majority’; for instance they refer to their ‘marginalised minority’ as a culture: a powerful, positive term. In the Channel 4 programme, one family were delighted when they discovered that their little daughter, too, was deaf: thank goodness she could play a full and fulfilling part in their world of communication through signing, they explained.

McNees (above) spotlights a further way in which we minorities can swing self-esteem and positive values our way:

‘Descriptive norms work better in influencing behavior. An example of this is staying in hotels. If a hotel has a sign asking you to reuse your towels to help with environmental resources, this was shown to not work as well versus using a descriptive norm. In one study, it was found by adding the words “Join Your Fellow Guests in Helping to Save the Environment,” 75% of guests reused their towels (Aronson, et al, 2010). Using a descriptive norm and relaying what people actually do, works much better.

These descriptive norms work great in social change situations. They are excellent in changing or influencing environmental issues such as littering, saving energy, conserving water, and many others. So, if you want to see some kind of social change, use descriptive norms. Just make sure that people know what other people are doing, and you can change anything.’

The more we publicise what actions we are taking, and how we live and behave, by subtle, tactical means, the more the insensitive majority might appreciate who we are, and maybe even in some ways emulate us, bending their lives a little our way.

A further thought. Minorities tend to be studied, ‘helped’, ‘supported’ (i.e. often patronised); majorities, more rarely. We may not be able to invent a whole medium of communication, as the deaf have; but perhaps we can re-shape how we talk about, and perceive, the groups who so outnumber us. As a woman childless by circumstance, I’m used to spewing out self-justifications for the minority of women like me: we’re on this planet to support our friends who are parents and grandparents; to mentor young people; to be leaders; and blah blah blah.

Let’s try instead seeing parents and other majority groups as human categories who should self-justify, like us. Thus parents could express their main function as procreators of the human species; individuals in a couple could represent themselves as partner of one member of the human race; and heterosexuals might see their purpose as representing one gender… and so on.

Such semantic re-shapings might give us minorities more ‘space’ to express our own reasons for being on this planet:

A childless person, unlike parents, as someone freed of the duty of procreation to do a multitude of other amazing things;
A singleton, unlike individuals in a relationship, as a whole person, not, potentially, only a half of a couple; and
A transgender person, unlike a heterosexual, as someone free to self-express in a multitude of gender roles…

and so on.

I fear that all minorities need to go way beyond self-celebration in order to feel ‘normal’. Like Perry’s deaf community, we need to develop a whole self-sufficient culture, and re-shape our language and semantics. Radical, but maybe it’s the gigantic step we need.

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