Weird vs. Normal

by Fergus Murray

Weirdness is most often contrasted with normality: someone or something that is weird is seen as a departure from the normal.

But what is normality? Who decided it was desirable, and when?

The idea of normality turns out to be a relatively recent invention, with scientists in the 1800s first applying statistical methods to human beings. The so-called ‘normal distribution’, or bell curve, looks something like this:

A single, smooth hump representing variation in some trait. The peak of the hump represents the 'most typical', while 'less typical' (more divergent) people, or things, are found in the tails on either side.
Figure taken from ‘Neurodiversity is for Everyone’

Having observed that many things in nature have measurable values that are distributed something like this – most measurements clustered near the middle, with a significant but relatively small number of outliers – scientists set about trying to establish what was ‘normal’ for humans. They tried measuring all sorts of things about people, from physical characteristics like height and weight, to tests which were supposed to assess traits like intelligence. They looked at the average values for these things, and how many people fell outside of a particular range – usually basing all their observations on populations in a given country (typically majority-white, ‘western’ countries), or comparing between countries.

The assumption that anything outside of the ‘normal’ range was aberrant and wrong obviously doesn’t follow from any statistical analysis, but it seems to have suited some people to promote that interpretation! Later scientists would come to understand that variety is absolutely necessary for ecologies to function, but by the time the idea of biodiversity had been formulated, the pursuit of normality was already firmly entrenched…

"If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be" - Maya Angelou.

In the 21st century, the idea of normality – and the ideal of normality – are often taken for granted, although members of every minority have had to push against them in pursuit of equality and acceptance. Diversity is increasingly celebrated, and yet people seen as ‘different’ or ‘weird’ are still regularly punished and oppressed.

Here are some resources picking apart ideas of normality and normativity:

Radio & Podcasts



With an understanding of ‘normal distributions’ in mind, you might like to think about what exactly the Weird Pride flag signifies:

In the foreground, a colourful inversion of the normal distribution; behind it, a standard, grey normal distribution can be seen.