On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first of two atomic bombs on Japan, which would eventually bring World War II to a close.

A month later, a major newspaper called the Plain Dealer, announced a contest on its front page for a prize money of $100 in war bonds. The headline of the story written in large, bold font read, “Are You Norma, Typical Woman? Search to Reward Ohio Winners.” [1]

The winner of the contest? The woman who submits body measurements that most closely match “Norma”—a statue of an average woman’s physique displayed at the Cleveland Health Museum.

Norma was designed in 1942 by prominent gynecologist, Dr. Robert L. Dickison, and sculpted by Abram Belskie, based on data collected from fifteen thousand young adult women.

Shortly after the contest announcement, Norma quickly rose to fame. Norma was featured in major national publications, and even made guest appearances on popular television shows.

Thousands of women across the United States, desperate to see how they stacked up against the average woman’s physique, sent their body measurements to win the contest. And countless reproductions of Norma were also sold to doctors, researchers and schools for reference.

At its peak, Norma became the most celebrated and widely publicized model body of the mid-century. [2]

On Sunday, November 23, 1945, the Plain Dealer published a front-page photograph of Norma stood next to the winner of the contest, Martha Skidmore, a slim, brunette, who liked to dance, swim and bowl.

As one would expect—and researchers predicted—Skidmore’s measurements would closely match those of Norma.

Or did it?

Martha Skidmore, ‘Norma’ contest winner, standing next to Norma statue. Image credit: The End of Average.

The Myth of Averages

“All I ever knew is that I never wanted to be average.”

— Michael Jordan

In the early 1840s, a Belgium Mathematician and Astronomer, named Adolphe Quételet, analyzed a data set of the chest measurements of 5,738 Scottish soldiers.

At the time, Astronomers had just discovered a “method of averages,” which enabled them to more accurately estimate the true value of measurements.

Quételet borrowed this idea from astronomy and became the first person to apply it to humans.

He added together each soldier’s individual measurements, and then divided the sum by the total number of soldiers to arrive at a figure of 39 and three-quarters inches—the chest size of what he called the “true” Scottish soldier.

From then onwards, Quételet took average measurements of nearly every facet of human life—divorce, income, murders, suicide and so on—and eventually created the Quételet index, which is known today as the Body Mass Index (BMI).

According to Quételet the “Average Man” is perfection itself, and “Everything differing from the Average Man’s proportions and condition, would constitute deformity and disease.” [3]

In other words, Norma was the ideal female physique women should strive to look like.

Despite his radical ideas, Quételet became a celebrity of his time, and influenced a wide range of global movements including Abraham Lincoln’s military strategy during the American Civil War and Karl Marx’s communism theory.

Meanwhile, a young Mathematician named Francis Galton, who once looked up to Quételet, began to formulate contrarian ideas of his own.

Unlike Quételet, Galton believed that humans who measured above average in any area of life were superior to those who were average or below average.

In other words, Norma wasn’t the ideal female physique. Women should strive to look better.

If figuratively speaking, Quételet lit the match, Galton started the fire.

Today, it’s Galton’s legacy of rank—superiority and inferiority based on average— that has permeated every aspect of human life, from our education system and fitness programs, to organization structures and hiring practices.

Each day, we strive to be above average, yet we can’t quite put our finger on what average looks like. Instead, we rely on others to tell us if we’re above average or not. If we are, we feel good about ourselves. If not, we feel inadequate and inferior.

But what if this reflex judgement of every individual in comparison to a subjective average is an illusion?

Let’s get back to the results of the Norma contest.

Sir Francis Galton (image credit: wiki commons)

Average Doesn’t Exist

When the full details of contestant measurements were revealed, it turned out that not only did Skidmore’s body measurements fail to match nearly half of Norma’s dimensions, but only one percent of all contestants shared any resemblance with Norma’s body.

Despite the contests disappointing results, the media, doctors and researchers stubbornly refused to let go of Norma, and the idea of an average female body.

They concluded that the failed contest had nothing to do with Norma’s design. It was the fault of American women, who they claimed was out of shape due to an unhealthy lifestyle. [4]

Shortly after the contest results, the mass media began to push stories from experts and scientists, who recommended physical education programs to get women in shape.

One story published in the Plain Dealer subtitled “Perfect Norma is High School Goal,” suggested that high school female students be given more strenuous physical fitness programs to look more like Norma.

By the 1950s, Norma’s influence had spread across the world in the shape of new average female physiques: storefront mannequins and Barbie dolls, which would eventually become one of the most popular model bodies in history.

But the myth of averages didn’t stop with female bodies.

Till date, the educational system continues to measure and grade student’s ability based on averages of standardized test results during timed conditions. Subsequently, students who are slow test takers, gifted in the arts and late bloomers, tend to be graded poorly.

Not only does this shatter the self-confidence of children at an early age, but it also eliminates their odds of admission into top-tier Higher Education Institutions that feed into top paying jobs.

The result: students with poor grades earn low middle class wages, occupy a small proportion of leadership positions in society, and are unable to afford to send their children to prestigious and expensive schools that feed into the best Universities.

Each generation, the vicious cycle repeats itself, as the odds of their children escaping the middle class income trap decreases.

Meanwhile, organizations continue to use standardized tests, personality profiling and generic job descriptions based on averages, to hire new employees. It’s no surprise that the vast majority of organizations frequently hire the wrong person for the role, costing an average of $14,900 for each bad hire. [5]

In a nutshell, the myth of averages permeates almost every aspect of the human experience, even though as Norma’s story revealed, it fails to take into account individual differences.

Forget Averages. Focus on Individuality

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Norma materialized the notion of the perfect female body: youthful, fit, white and reproductive. Women who closely meet these above average standards are deemed to be more valuable in society, than those who don’t.

The same can be said for above average standards society imposes on work, relationships, business, finances, health and so on.

But the irony of this is that after over half a century, we are yet to discover a woman who looks exactly like Norma. Likewise, we are yet to discover ‘Norma’s’ in different areas of life where we benchmark against the average.

When we strive to be above average, we inadvertently benchmark ourselves against nothing, because no one is perfectly average. We rely on the external cues from others to rank us and determine our self-worth.

We copy what others do, instead of thinking for ourselves. And ultimately, we limit our potential because our goals are determined by averages.

In a world of averages, everyone loses out except for the few one percent at the top. But in a world tailored to individuality, everyone wins.

Because the only average that captures the full extent of human potential is unique to the individual.

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Footnotes

1. Creadick (2010). Perfectly Average: The Pursuit of Normality in Postwar America.

2. Urla and Swedlund(1995). The Anthropometry of Barbie: Unsettling Ideals of the Feminine Body in Popular Culture.

3. A Treatise on Man and the Development of His Faculties by Adolphe Quetelet.

4. Rose (2016). The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.

5. CareerBuilder: 74% of employers admit hiring the wrong candidate.

 

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