Today I want to talk about two stories of averages from the 1940s and the different responses to them. Both stories can be read about in more detail in the book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose (excerpt here.)
The 1940s were marked by eugenicist thoughts from the last century and the racism and ableism they justified. The field of biological anthropology arose to find racial differences to justify slavery of the black race. By the 1940s the study had shifted to seek correlations between physical appearance with criminality or morality. Statistics was also rising as a field in its own right, and the national appetite for “normal” figures was high.
Against this backdrop, gynecologist Robert Dickinson and sculptor Abram Belskie collaborated to create a pair of figures depicting the average man and woman, Normman and Norma. Dickinson measured 15, 000 white men and women age 21-25 and used the averages of those measurements to determine the proportions of the sculptures.
While the creators had modeled a pair, Norma got all the press. In 1945 the Cleveland Health Museum sponsored a contest to find the real woman who most resembled Norma. Nearly 4,000 women responded, but not one of them matched all the dimensions of the average. A young theater cashier was eventually awarded first prize.
Around the same time, the Air Force was facing high rates of crashes, up to 17 per day. Cockpits had been designed around size averages from the 1920s. Thinking perhaps the modern airman was larger and this accounted for the high rates of non mechanical errors, the Air Force called for new measurements to find new averages.
One of the researchers taking these measurements, Lt. Gilbert Samuels hypothesized that very few airmen would fit the new averages. He’d done prior studies on the hands of 250 white male wealthy Harvard students and found that even among this homogeneous group, the average hand did not exist.
Daniels crunched the numbers on over 4, 000 able-bodied, fit, average-sized looking airmen across ten body measurements. Not one man was truly average across all ten, or even three, dimensions.
So far, our stories are pretty similar. Averaged data didn’t fit any of the individuals in either group. There was no truly average man or woman. Where our stories diverge is in response to this information.
Upon learning that their cockpits were designed for a fictional man, the Air Force required aerospace companies to design cockpits to fit a wide range of airmen. Adjustable straps, seats, and pedals were quickly invented and crash rates declined dramatically.
Upon learning that Norma’s average dimensions were not all found in one woman, doctors and government health agencies chastised women for not meeting Norma’s ideal, and prescribed diet and exercise programs to achieve it. Rather than accepting that the averages combined were unrealistic, the effort was made to make women adhere more closely to that unrealistic average.
This is the difference between the social model of disability, which recognizes the ways society can disable some members through lack of accommodation, and the medical model, which sees disability as originating from the impaired body. And of course, it is also sexism.
When men didn’t fit in their environment, they were accommodated. Rather than forcing men to fit the cockpit, the cockpit was reimagined to fit the men. But when women didn’t meet a standard, one without pilots falling from the sky or other grave consequences no less, they were pushed to alter their bodies.
When disability is accepted and accommodated, it’s like being in a custom-fit cockpit with all the dials and switches within reach. The disability doesn’t prevent agency or inclusion. When disability is not accepted and accommodated, it’s often just as bigoted and unaware as the efforts to make 1940s women look more like Norma (which was often cloaked in concern for women being tempted by tall slender fashion models.)
People are not average, not even young fit white people with similar backgrounds. Disability is farther from average than that. I think that accepting human variety is interrelated, and that embracing an ethics accommodating physical differences will improve life for everyone. Women as a whole never got closer to Norma, but pilots stopped falling. Seems like accommodation is the tactic that works.