There were only four sentences on the sheet of paper in front of us. My classmates and I sat there stumped for a moment, struggling to answer a few questions. Floating among all the white space we weren’t entirely sure how to fill was the question “What is normal?”

Tossing aside my initial (and mildly sarcastic) reaction to ask if the prompt was a trick question, we were able to jot down a few phrases and a few words to complete the exercise. This particular question, though, resurfaced when I traveled back home for Thanksgiving break. Home had always had its own definition of “normal” — a respective series of expectations about how to act, what to do and the “proper” order to perform these actions. I — for 22 years — had disagreed with the vast majority of them. I didn’t tend to fit home’s definition, and more often than not, I wasn’t necessarily sure I wanted to.

Yet as I returned to a place where I continually felt I was deviating from the norm, my mind suddenly became preoccupied with the notion of normal. Given the ambiguity of what the next year — or even the next few months — will hold, a prescribed route with some sort of direction to follow was an attractive option. Normal promised a degree of certainty and stability. Normal would provide a measure of where exactly I “should be.” However, as I began to worry whether I was falling behind or making a mistake, I began to really consider what has actually constituted normal up to this point in my life.

Throughout the years, it was normal for me to be highly aware of my status as a woman, and if I ever began to forget about this label — and all of the limitations society entwines into it — I was promptly reminded. “Because you’re the girl” was the customary response whenever I asked for any explanation as to why my parents hesitated to let me do certain things my brothers were able to do without question. With this phrase came the acknowledgement that I needed to follow special precautions in order to obtain a certain degree of independence my brothers and male friends seemed to acquire easily. Going to a party, walking back from the library late at night, jogging in a secluded area, spending a day in a bigger city, going for a run in the evening, going to a concert or driving across the state were endeavors that filled those around me with visible discomfort if I mentioned I was going alone. These endeavors typically required a great deal of negotiation and reassurance beforehand, and an even greater degree of self-awareness and vigilance during the time. Both then and now, my friends and family display some anxiety at the idea of me venturing out alone in these scenarios. But it’s still a fairly common phenomenon for concerns about these excursions to instantly evaporate whenever I mention I’ll be in the company of my male best friend.

Each time I open my laptop or turn on a television, I’m bombarded by what the media portrays as normal. Normal is constantly questioning and critiquing numerous forms of media because I’m tired of hearing my body compared to some variety of amorphous fruit, especially when the bushel depicted in society still looks pretty homogenous. Searching through Photoshopped images on various platforms for one with familiar proportions is an all-too-common activity — one that regrettably produces few results. And as I do this, my friends struggle to find valid representations of their race, sexuality or disability in the media they watch, listen to and read.

I’ve read innumerable articles about “leaning in,” “having it all” and alleviating the wage gap. In my column, I’ve argued for initiatives to diminish gender inequality. Despite all of this, I know any hurdles I encounter as I try to navigate the professional world as an individual from a lower socioeconomic background will only be magnified by my identity as a woman. Accepting the norm involves the realization that until things change, I’ll most likely find myself smashed up against a glass ceiling holding onto about 77 cents where a dollar should be. Normal is knowing that dressing in more androgynous clothing over the years is not merely a style choice, but a potential strategy to avoid being classified and stereotyped by my gender in the workplace.

One particular norm permeating each of my days is the continuous internal debate between saying too little and saying too much. At points, it’s simply holding my tongue during a conversation when it takes a turn toward the reasoning “that’s just the way things are,” and when a dissenting opinion will most likely be dismissed as a “feminist rant.” It’s swallowing my anger and frustration when a passing car volleys catcalls as I walk across an intersection on my way to class. Conversely, a sort of insecurity sets in the moments when I feel like I haven’t contributed enough to a conversation. It leaves me wondering whether my silence was perceived as shyness, a lack of knowledge on the topic or just a cold, judgmental persona. Then, in rare moments with certain people, I begin to worry I’ve monopolized the conversation, and an unnecessary apology follows. In fact, the word “sorry” has assumed a prominent place in my vocabulary, acting as a preface to far too many questions and as an entrance to far too many conversations.

While these instances and experiences define the norms in my life, normal is a subjective concept, where some definitions are undoubtedly far more privileged than others. Normal, in my experience, has been presented as society’s agreed-upon codes of what’s acceptable.

Looking back at the question from class, the idealist in me wants to say normal doesn’t exist. As much as I want to point out that the concept is socially constructed, I can’t deny that women are held up to various definitions of what’s normal — very often ones we’re never given a say in at all. In class, we focused on two approaches one can take in regard to normality. Either you can embrace the notion of normal, or you can combat it. If these norms and expectations are just a few examples of what women can expect if they embrace and accept it, society seriously needs to defy its own definition of “normal” and start redefining.

Melissa Scholke can be reached at melikaye@umich.edu.

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