Friday, July 13, 2012

Defining "Normal" and "Adult": A Declaration of Being Yourself

When I was a teenager, I struggled with the concept of normalcy and my feelings toward it. I wanted to fit in with the crowd, which at many times resulted in angst over whether or not I was able to be or was being myself. I participated in some activities I didn't feel particularly interested in, because the friends or classmates I wanted to impress or imitate did them. I didn't know what to contribute to group conversations, because many of the things I felt comfortable speaking about--books, the experience of being a minority in the US, my frustration with academic competitiveness--often led to conversational dead ends. I was constantly struggling with being just good enough to be recognized and given opportunities for further personal development, and not receiving the sneering condemnation of my peers.

I'm sure many can relate.

The concept of "normal" was a mystifying one, made even stranger when I took AP Statistics. In studying averages, I thought about how arbitrary "normal" is. One of our main concerns in our teenage years is to be accepted by our peers--to be "normal." But this "normalcy" to which we strive rarely exists in a pure, attainable form: it is an invention of the faceless mass of society that conforms our expectations, goals, and perceptions of ourselves as inadequate. Much as the mean of a set of numbers (that's the number you get when you add up all the numbers in the set and divide it by the number of numbers in the set) sometimes doesn't even appear in the set itself (example: the mean of 1, 2, 9, and 10 is 5.5, which isn't a number in the set), so the norm is basically nonexistent if you try to point to a single individual as a exact representation of the norm in a crowd. (That last part is basically what applied statistics is all about. Don't you wish I had written this post before your AP test?) I'm sure most of us can think of the high school classmate whose social grace and overall peer acceptance we envied--but there's a good chance that that classmate would think of someone else if asked to do the same, and so on. No one thinks of him- or herself as the norm.

In effect, I was trying to be a concept that rarely ever existed in a crowd. I was part of the 99.99% trying to be the 0.01%.

If so many people are unique, not "normal," how meaningless it is of us to wish to be the norm.

At 23, I have long passed my teenage years, even if I didn't know when it happened--but I struggle with another concept now: that of being an adult. I don't feel like an "adult" at all. What does that mean, anyway? Does it mean working a passionless day job and saying a passionless prayer for the fact that I have a job? Does it mean marrying my long-time partner because marriage is what you're supposed to do at or by a certain point? Does it mean Sunday night spaghetti dinners, dinner talk about how work or school went, and routine sex on Friday nights? How does society define an adult, and how can I define the term myself so that I am comfortable with it?

The concept of being an adult is just like the concept of being normal--societal pressure to conform to a standard that no one can exactly define--which is why I find the idea that people will "outgrow YA in time" so laughable. Again and again I make the point that being an adult isn't necessarily better than being a teenager. I've met a lot of adults who I think are a waste of space, and many teenagers who I think should be heard by more people. If you replaced all the US Congressmen with a similarly powerful group of teenagers, I think there's a chance that a lot more things could be done.

This is what critics of the genre of YA lit don't get. "YA" is not a measure of quality. Your lifestyle is not necessarily better than mine; what right do you have to try and impose your lifestyle on mine? Don't tell YA readers that they're just going through a phase. Don't tell John Green and Melina Marchetta they'll be legitimate authors when they finally write adult books. Don't say people can't learn anything from reading escapist literature.

Why aspire to be "adult," to be "normal"--to be "them"--when it's better to strive to be the best me that I can be?

While I use terms such as "teenagers" and "adolescents" in my reviews, in no way would I consider myself its figurative antithesis, the adult. I am simply me, and I am on an ever-changing spectrum. Sometimes parts of me overlap with parts of others, resulting in similar interests and values. Other times parts of me differ from parts of others, and those are called unique qualities. That's my definition of personhood, irrespective of age labels. As long as I don't kill people and treat my fellow human beings like human beings, and as long as I remember that at no point in my life will I have learned everything there is to learn, then I'm proud of being myself and not trying to be someone else.

Age categories and other black-and-white labels are becoming more and more archaic. One's maturity lies on a spectrum, not in a series of stiff, unidirectional stages. YA literature can be read, enjoyed, and respected by anyone. If you tell someone they can't do or read something because it's not "normal" or it's not what an "adult" would read and that doing or reading so will limit my thinking or being, well, besides for thinking that you are a close-minded being, I am not really limited at all.


  1. I'm almost 28, and I still feel, mostly, like I did when I was 19. I always thought that adults were different on the inside somehow. Surprise! Not true.

  2. I turn 31 tomorrow & often wonder when I'll "become an adult". I definitely don't fit the norm. It's been a year since I've started back to school. Yup, this 30 year old enrolled in college amongst many 18-20 year olds seeking a degree in Education. It may have taken me a decade longer, but I finally realized what I wanted to do career wise. As for the other "norm" at my age that I do not fit into: I am single. I am not in a long-term relationship, therefore marriage is not something I see happening any time soon. And you know what? I am OK with that. Forget defining yourself as an adult or being normal. Find happiness. THAT is what I strive for. Happiness can be found whether you're 16 or 36. I think that's why I love YA so much because underneath all that teenage angst is depth. Something we can all relate to.

  3. My family's motto is "Why be normal?," so normalcy was never really a problem in school -- I was taught from a really young age that it doesn't exist (and that it would be rather dull if it did).

    GREAT post, Steph!

  4. "YA literature can be read, enjoyed, and respected by anyone. If you tell someone they can't do or read something because it's not "normal" or it's not what an "adult" would read and that doing or reading so will limit my thinking or being, well, besides for thinking that you are a close-minded being, I am not really limited at all."

    This is my favorite part of your post. I absolutely love the thoughts you've expressed and I completely agree. We don't have to be limited to one norm or the other - it's best to just strive to be the best version of who we are! It doesn't matter if we don't fall into a category that society has imposed on us; all that matters is that we're happy and we're comfortable and we're embracing ourselves.

  5. Great post about norms, categories, and books! I'm going to be 26 this year, but I still don't feel like "an adult." I wonder if I ever will.

  6. I'm going to be 18 next year and my friends are always joking about me becoming a legal adult and how I'm going to have to start acting like a "normal adult" and not a teenager anymore and I often, like you, wonder what is a "normal adult" at 18? My sister is 23 and she often says she doesn't feel like a "normal adult."

    Great post Steph. You bring up great points that are really though provoking.

  7. Wonderful, wonderful post. Thank you for this.

  8. This is a beautiful post. I'm in graduate school now, so soon I have to find a job and launch my career. I want to get married eventually because I like monogamous relationships, but am in no rush. But my friends and I love to be ourselves when we're together, and some people might describe us as immature, but it makes us happy. I think that's what ultimately counts.

  9. I agree wholeheartedly. What's so brilliant about getting older, is that we learn to embrace our uniqueness even more. Those things that made us feel like misfits as a teen, are what make us shine in an adult world of the Jones trying to keep up with the Jones. It's a gradual occurrence, but it happens more and more each year. And I can tell you that at age 38 now, as a middle class woman--a wife with 2 kids, aspiring YA author, and part-time career, I am so completely happy with who I am (with all my faults) and anyone who disagrees is so totally off my Xmas card list. ;) At times, I still don't feel like an adult either. Then there are times, when I do, and it's the mind set that makes all the difference. All that angst fades away, and we adopt a "take or leave it" mentality in regards to our selves and personality. I think we grow so weary of having tried to impress everyone in our younger years, that we come to a point where it's just too exhausting, and in all honesty, we just don't care anymore.
    Brilliant post, Steph. Thanks for sharing it. :)
    P.S. (If you do get married, make sure it's to your best friend)

  10. This was such a great post! Nothing about our existence is "normal" and the idea of "adulthood" vs "childhood" is kind of crazy. We're all just people at various stages of growth, that's all.

    I really loved this post, thanks for this! : )

  11. I think this is relevant to what you're saying, some of it?

  12. Oh Steph. I just loved this post. Especially that last graph.


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