What the heck is a normal body? I look at myself in the mirror a lot, mostly because I make ridiculous faces and crack myself up. I’m also sort of a narcissist. But enough about me (not possible!), let’s talk about the above picture. Via the amazing tumblr of cartoonist Yuko Ota, I discovered Nina Matsumoto’s reference photos of Olympic athletes. Yuko used the photos to draw the cast members of some of her comics, male and female.

Close your eyes and imagine an archetypal human body. Chances are you’ve imagined a European adult male, probably around 5′ 5″ at about age 30 and physically fit. This image is a bizarre one. It is bizarre because, by no means, is that an average person considering a) half the global population is not male and b) that the vast majority of people are not European, young, or fit. This tendency to distort our species is part of why I must admit I love the wikipedia picture for Homo sapiens, which is an elderly couple from rural Thailand.

Perhaps more bizarre than our general tendency to picture healthy European males as the standard barer of the species is who we don’t automatically picture. Why, when asked to picture an archetypal human body, don’t we think of ourselves? I certainly didn’t. I thought of a Ryan Reynolds clone, then my political filter kicked in and I pictured lots of varieties of people, but certainly not myself. But we should. When we think of what a normal person looks like, we should imagine ourselves, because our very existence contributes to the definition of normal.

The reason we should think of ourselves as the definition of normal is because as we change and modify our bodies, we are redefining normal. Among the athletes in Matsumoto’s reference photos is Aimee Mullins, who is a champion sprinter and jumper whose legs are prosthetic below the knee. She is also a fashion model. Let me repeat that, she is a model, as in idealized representation. Something of a paradox forms when the semiotics of an amputee (i.e. abnormal) is held up as an ideal (super-normal). And that is the point.

If you put the abnormal in place of the ideal, it breaks the discursive power of the normative structure already in existence. This process is often described as “reverse discourse.” My favorite example is from my NYU professor (now at Occidental) Heather Lukes. At a small restaurant in the Castro, she saw a waiter with a shirt that read, “That’s Mr. Faggot to you, bitch!” In short, what ever the narrative is, flip directions to destabilize the power structure.

So keep the human paradox alive: you are normal by virtue of your uniqueness.