Average Oppression

no such thing as average

Image: Vince Alongi CC by 2.0

“Nature is busy creating absolutely unique individuals, whereas culture has invented a single mold to which all must conform. It is grotesque.”  ~Krishnamurti

When one of my sons got a physical for his first full-time job, the doctor informed him he was in the “overweight” category and handed him a pamphlet about weight loss. Tall and well-muscled, my son was in no way overweight. In fact, shirts that correctly fit his shoulders and chest were so oversized at his waist that they billowed out. But BMI charts rely on a standard weight/height ratio to determine what people should weigh. At six feet tall, the chart showed he’d be at a normal weight as low as 140 pounds but was overweight at a strong and healthy 190 pounds.

The logic train derails when we start standardizing anything in nature, whether potatoes or people.

Fresh produce deemed “ugly” (in other words, deviating from average) is tossed out. The United Nations reports that retailers’ “high cosmetic standards” exclude somewhere between 20 to 40 percent of fresh produce from going to market. That translates to 800 to 900 million tons of crooked carrots, asymmetrical apples, lumpy potatoes, and other perfectly edible foodstuffs wasted worldwide.  Terribly wrong, but common practice in today’s consumer market.

We’re doing what we can to standardize humans too. Babies are measured against averages even before they’re born. That’s not always helpful. For example, one study shows up to 30% of pregnant women are told they’re carrying large babies, making them five times more likely to end up with a scheduled c-section. That continues even though 90 % of those babies are born weighing less than the medical definition of a large baby. We judge the birth process by averages too, although the very methods used for evaluation can result in more intervention and greater risk.

As we grow up, the metrics defining what’s average come with a built-in expectations that we should surpass them. Parents eagerly compare first steps and first words, as if these milestones are somehow predictive. Preschools introduce academics, often at the expense of free play,  even though there’s known harm from using this approach.

Education has never been more test-heavy, starting with timed tests in kindergarten all the way up through SATs, ACTs, and GREs. This too is illogical, because better test scores don’t correlate with later success. A decade and a half (or more) of testing for what, exactly?

Each student has what’s termed a “jagged learning profile.” As Todd Rose explains in his TED talk The Myth of Average, we design education for the average student when there is no such thing as the average student.

If you design learning environments on average, odds are, you designed them for nobody. So no wonder we have a problem. We’ve created learning environments that, because they are designed on average, cannot possibly do what we expected them to do — which is nurture individual potential.

Think about what that really costs us. Because every single student has a jagged learning profile it means that the average hurts everyone, even our best and brightest… Designing on average destroys talent in at least two ways. First, it makes your talent a liability. We all know kids like this. So unbelievably gifted in one area that their educational environment can’t challenge them. They get bored and a shockingly high number of them drop out. The second way that designing on average destroys talent, is that your weakness makes it hard for us to see let alone nurture your talent.


(I urge you to read Todd Rose’s new book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.)

We’re ranked throughout life by metrics like income, educational attainment, weight, cholesterol level, fitness level, and age although such numbers can’t possible describe who we are, how we treat others, or what our lives are like. We know we’re individuals, heck, if it weren’t for variability in facial features we wouldn’t recognize each other. But being measuring against the average is so thoroughly accepted that we don’t call it what it is, oppressive. This kind of ranking is one of the main instruments keeping us separate, disconnected, competitive, busy, and unhappy.

As Rose writes, “Typing and ranking have come to seem so elementary, natural, and right that we are no longer conscious of the fact that every such judgment always erases the individuality of the person being judged.”

Nature shows us the principles inherently necessary in living systems:  cross-pollination,  diversity, self-assembly, interdependence, adaption, balance, and an undeniable tendency toward beauty.  Anything less is limiting and oh so wrong.

15 thoughts on “Average Oppression

  1. It’s an almost built-in instinct to reject what’s not ‘like us’. I could read and do simple arithmetic when I started school aged 5. It resulted in bullying by both my classmates and by teachers throughout my school years. We had no TV until I was 14, and I was a deeply immersive reader, generally finishing class assigned books 3 days after they were handed out. It did not make me popular with my teachers, who felt I should wait for them to ‘teach’ me how to read the books. Fortunately my school days have not been enough to make me compliant!
    Oh, and the supermarket I favour has a produce section called ‘The odd bunch’ where you can buy perfectly good fruits and vegetables which do not conform to average standards of beauty, but which taste fine!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As gardeners, we’re regularly amused by the whimsical varieties of fruits and vegetables that grow in the garden. Tomatoes with noses, carrot twins twined together, strawberries with “ears,” well you get the idea. If you grow such things too, take a picture and post on Twitter to @UglyFruitAndVeg, or just head over there to enjoy nature’s variety.


  3. My wife shared this blog post with me (she always shares the very best things!). What you wrote is so important, Laura. When I was a teenager some 30 years ago I was keenly aware of this sort of oppression, and it seems to have only gotten worse what with the standardized testing in almost every area of life (from primary school factories to the now ubiquitous “wellness exam” of our employers that are meant to squish us all into some kind of actuarial table compliance).

    I wrote a poem about this dynamic when I was 19 that went something like this (please forgive its obvious teenage-ness):

    If beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, then why are we bent on conformity? Perhaps somebody doesn’t approve of what’s held by those beholding me. Do you think it an ugly thing, my love of human dignity?

    We laud the seity of individuals as long as they pass a litmus test for what the kind cognoscenti say is proffered for our very best. But value is not in the eye of the beholder and I’m curious if it may be true that your sales campaign is a veiled disdain for my choosing not to be like you…. etc.

    I’d rather eat a crooked carrot any day of the week. Keep up the good words!

    Liked by 1 person

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