Columnist Joanna Buoniconti: What is normal?

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Because I was curious and bored one recent afternoon, I looked up the definition of normal. The definition, according to a quick Google search, read: “conforming to a standard: usual, typical, or expected.”

Then leaping fully in the research rabbit hole, I looked up the derivatives of the word, which originates from the Latin word “normalis” — a word that was historically used to describe geometric angles.

Surprisingly, neither the word’s origin nor its definition was applicable to what we commonly associate the word with today: human behavior. I wondered as I was Googling why I had never looked this up before, given that the word normal and what I thought it meant had been ingrained in my mind for years.

The interesting thing about the whole concept of normalcy is that when I was young, I didn’t see myself as abnormal. I was a very precocious and outgoing child — back when I was considerably stronger, before time and muscle atrophy had placed its vice-like grip on me — and I truly believed that I could do anything my able-bodied peers could do. I loved to dance, which mainly consisted of moving my left arm and wheelchair in movements that loosely resembled the ones I had seen actors do in my favorite movies, and to play games like tag or hide-and-seek with my classmates during recess.

Even though the methods I used to participate in those activities was different, you couldn’t tell me that they weren’t normal.

Because it was my normal.

I didn’t know a life without my wheelchair and the other life-sustaining medical equipment that I needed to survive the day, and the fact that those things were unusual never occurred to me. I don’t remember how or exactly when that bubble burst, but I distinctly remember in my early adolescence becoming incredibly self-conscious about the way people treated me because of my physical limitations and the things that made me “different.”

Through taking sociology and psychology classes in college, I had become acquainted with the concept of normalcy, or societal norms, as a human construct. Yet, while I was studying it, I never fully grasped the breadth of what it meant because for the majority of my life I have been fixated on the idea of normalcy — something that was so innately unattainable for me, as a disabled young woman.

But my brief research led me to question: exactly what is normal?

No one is handed a rulebook outlining what is normal and, more importantly, what is not. But we all have internalized what each of these very abstract principles means and how could we not because they are ingrained in us subconsciously. We are privy to what is considered normal based on the images that flash into our minds through the media, whether it be novels, TV or social media feeds.

While social media has allowed me to connect with people who have similar conditions to mine, all it takes is for me to open Instagram and see a photo of a toned girl in a bikini to make me look at my own body with resentment because its curves and scars are not considered to be normal, or beautiful, at all. In fact, societal norms teach us that anything different about ourselves, anything just outside the small scope of normalcy, is abnormal or just plain ugly.

I spent the majority of my adolescence and young adult life thinking that nothing about me was normal, and I yearned more than anything to just find somewhere where I could fit in and be accepted. It wasn’t until years later that I would realize these feelings, in it and of themselves, are perfectly normal and that the edited images that we are fed by society as normal are rarely anyone’s reality. It has taken me almost 23 years to learn to stop beating myself up over my failure to live up to those unrealistic measures.

It has taken me over 10 years to reacquaint myself with my childhood philosophy, that I am my own normal.

Gazette columnist Joanna Buoniconti is a freelance writer and an editorial intern at INCLUDAS Publishing. She can be reached at columnist@gazettenet.com.