The Line Between Weirdness And Normalacy Depends Entirely on Your Point of View

In 1956, an anthropologist described Americans as a people with a “pervasive aversion to the natural body”

Photo: James Vaughan

In 1956, anthropologist Horace Miner published an article, "Body Ritual among the Nacirema," in the journal American Anthropologist. The Nacirema were a fascinating people, prone to strange customs:

Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants. 

But the "Nacirema" were not a strange tribe from a far-off land. Miner's account of the Nacirema—American spelled backwards—was instead a pointed criticism of anthropologists' tendency to hype up the perceived weirdness of other cultures. His aim, as i09 puts it, was to show that "everything that's normal to us seems weird to someone else."

And boy, does Miner capture the American weirdness. Here are a few jewels, taken from his paper: 

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. 

Mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women's breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation. ....

Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves.

Miner gives a visit to the doctor, dentist and psychologist's office a similar treatment, and labors over a trip to the toilet. As i09 concludes, he perfectly captures the anthropological prose of his day, in which "Everything is put in terms of ritual, and very little attempt is made to actually understand people."

While we like to think of ourselves today as more enlightened citizens sensitive and respectful of the cultural differences all around us, plenty of emphasis is still places on the "otherness" of people and cultures outside of our own, both in the media and in common conversation. Picking up where Miner left off, Slate's "If It Happened There" column describes U.S. news as if it were occurring in a foreign country and being described by the American media. Take the Super Bowl, for example: 

Foreign human rights NGOs have often found it difficult to reconcile their respect and appreciation for America’s rich cultural heritage with their shock at the violence, excess, and wastefulness of this event. But however problematic the international community may find the game, it is a rare unifying tradition that binds most segments of a society increasingly divided by class, culture, and geography. 

You never knew you were so weird. 

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