Normalizing the Abnormal

When talking to women looking to meet a man, they frequently say to me, “I just want to meet someone normal.”

The problem is who gets to decide what is normal? My definition may be very different from yours. My views of normal certainly differ greatly from the views held by many of my fellow citizens. What actually makes us decide what is normal and what isn’t?

Society does not change in lightning bolt moments but in gradual incremental steps. Novel ideas first appear as shocking concepts that merit almost universal condemnation and derision. Later, they reappear as “fringe” ideas taking hold among the young or other subsets of society. At this stage, those ideas show up in minor roles in movies and books. After still more time passes, they become mainstream and those who still feel about them the way the overwhelming majority previously did, are viewed as amusing dinosaurs or bigoted haters, depending on what the change entails.

That second stage is very insidious. Frequent, seemingly minor and insignificant references subtly turn the extreme into the normal for the next generation. Let me give you an example from my life.

Among the virtues that my parents and my friends’ parents modeled and taught, was respect for the property of others. Did we want to see what was written in an article on the checkout stand? We could buy it or we could remain curious. Thumbing through and then putting it back was wrong; whoever purchased the magazine expected a crisp, unread copy. If we carried a box of cereal from a supermarket shelf a few aisles over, in order to ask our mothers if we could buy it, and the answer was no, we didn’t just put it down among that aisle’s canned vegetables. We carried it back to its original location. Need I say that, in our personal lives, shoplifting wasn’t on our radar screen? Our young souls would have rebelled at the idea.

Yet, shoplifting wasn’t alien to us. With the best intentions (I think), “wholesome” TV shows of the day might sometimes feature an episode where a young miscreant took something from a shop. By the end of the show, he or she would confide in a wise mother or father, return the object, and feel honorable once again. While the message being conveyed was that shoplifting was wrong, and perhaps some children did need and heed that message, for my friends and me it was an introduction to an alien concept. Down the road a bit, more “edgy” books from our adolescence might include a shoplifting dare among schoolmates—nothing more than a prank. That wouldn’t have been the theme of the book, but rather a passing incident in a teenager’s life. It was a step to the normalization of the activity.

Fast forward to today, where many municipalities have declared shoplifting a non-crime. As long as you don’t take too much (let’s say $900 worth of merchandise), you don’t need to skulk. Simply brazenly walk in and take what you like. Will children growing up in this reality feel the same revulsion at the idea of shoplifting that I did? Can they possibly have the same respect for the property of others as my friends and I? I doubt it. Shoplifting is almost today’s version of window-shopping.

Did you follow the progression? I’m sure you can think of many activities and lifestyles that were unmentionable a few decades ago that are now lauded. They are so common that it is difficult for an adult to even look at them with astounded eyes.

This brings me to Kira Bailey, the American Girl doll of the 2021. In 1986, a retired schoolteacher began the American Girl company to help American history come alive for young girls. While rather expensive, each doll came with accompanying books that told her story in a period of American history, such as Revolutionary War or World War II days. They were charming and popular. With era-appropriate outfits and accouterments, the business was a huge success.

Not surprisingly, today, mothers whose budgets didn’t stretch to American Girl dolls for their own daughters, along with those who did and their now grown-up little girls, think of one of these dolls as a lovely gift. Although the official site suggests the dolls are for girls of eight or so, mothers and grandmothers tend to buy them for a much younger group. This is how a friend of mine found herself reading a book about the above-mentioned Kira Bailey to her very young granddaughter. All was well until a picture of Kira’s aunt’s wedding appeared, featuring a bride and bride rather than a bride and groom. Was this the main focus of the book? Not at all. It is a small, seemingly innocuous reference. What it is, though, is normalization. As this little girl grows, it doesn’t matter if her elders explain this wedding to her through their own value lens. To her, it will be normal.

Do you want to marry someone normal? Would you like your friends or children to marry someone normal? Would you like them to grow up to be normal? Be careful not to succumb to society’s thundering shouts or pale whispers and to surround yourself with like-minded people. What is your yardstick for normal? This word has no durable and unchanging definition.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments on this Susan’s Musing article.
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