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not just used to assess how well Harvard first-years carried themselves
July 7, 2013 1:17 PM   Subscribe

"Posing For Posture"
"Posture photos," as they were then called, were taken of every incoming student at many prestigious colleges in the first half of the 20th century, as a part of the registration process. George L. Hersey '51, now a professor of art history at Yale, says, "I was told to show up at the swimming pool, I took my swim test and posed. We were expected to show up and do this." Students acquiesced in the days of single-sex colleges because nudity was a normal part of the college experience, Knight says. "We never wore bathing suits in the swimming pools, it was considered more hygienic that way," he says. "The House [swimming] races were in the nude." And so posture photos were snapped and collected--and saved for later research which was intended to link physique to temperament. This practice--led nationwide by a Harvard researcher--remained widespread through the 1950s and 60s.

The case of the Ivy League posture photos, previously. That link is broken, but it probably pointed to the New York Times Magazine : The Great Ivy Leage Nude Posture Photo Scandal, which exposed the long-term collection of "posture photos" taken at schools like Harvard, Yale, Vassar, Brown, and others, to facilitate anthropometric research and place the students into posture-correcting classes.

"At Harvard: Campus Affairs; The Naked and the Nude" (1995)
The students in the so-called "posture photographs" probably had no idea that the photos were used for outside purposes. Indeed, many of them probably collected dust in library or athletic archives for years. A few schools, including Yale, destroyed part or all of the photographs when they were rediscovered in the 1970s. Ron Rosenbaum's search for the remaining photos led to his New York Times Magazine article earlier this year. He discovered hundreds of them in the Smithsonian Institution's Anthropological Archives. Currently sealed from public view, the photographs remain in storage, capturing the stiff poses of hundreds of college students who did not realize that they were guinea pigs for a new breed of pseudoscientific experiments.
posted by the man of twists and turns (41 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I own a copy of Atlas of Men. It's a beautiful and strange book, in its way, the author is clearly quite obsessed with his idea of somatotyping. It's a fascinating bit of accidental pornography. The way genitals are cut out is very creepy.
posted by Nelson at 1:28 PM on July 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


I wonder what pseudoscience we'll be shaking our heads at in 20-30 years that seems DEADLY SERIOUS now
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:34 PM on July 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Evolutionary psychology seems DEADLY SERIOUS to some people.
posted by fatehunter at 2:01 PM on July 7, 2013 [7 favorites]


Came for cock and buttocks, was disappointed.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:04 PM on July 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


Double-ish?

http://www.metafilter.com/34303/The-case-of-the-Ivy-League-posture-photos
posted by slater at 2:08 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sometimes I open the main link in an FPP in another tab and forget about it and come back and go, "whoa, this would make an awesome MeFi post." So yeah, great post.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:09 PM on July 7, 2013 [3 favorites]



Came for cock and buttocks, was disappointed.

story of my life man
posted by The Whelk at 2:20 PM on July 7, 2013 [28 favorites]


It happened at Wellesley too. Judith Martin, AKA "Miss Manners", who attended Wellesley in the fifties, wrote about it back in 2004 when Mona Lisa Smile came out.
posted by orange swan at 2:26 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


A weird thing about getting older: I read this and thought "I remember reading about this a while back" and then realized it was the original articles I had read, not something recently on the internet.
posted by bongo_x at 2:26 PM on July 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


None of these links has any photos. I am disappoint.
posted by fancyoats at 2:29 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always suspected that if the posture photos had been collected at schools beginning with "University of..." rather than at the Ivies, they'd probably be all over the Internet. But because they were taken at the Ivies, and because they presumably contain more than a few bits and bobs of Americas' ruling class, those in a position to do so have managed a quite surprisingly impressive bit of retroactive censorship and evidence-disposal. It is a particularly interesting example of the upper class reacting essentially as a unit and with a united front in the face of a threat, even one as relatively trivial, in the scheme of things, as an affront to their dignity. Those who wish to depose them should take note.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:34 PM on July 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


This is so fascinating.

It's easy now to poke fun at ideas like somatotyping, but really it's totally understandable that people would take it seriously; not only is it an intuitive step, it's ingrained in our culture. The good guys are rarely ugly and the bad guys often have features that indicate their badness. We're more likely to believe someone is trustworthy if they are attractive. I'd have been fascinated to read the results of these archives, and just because it seems to make sense i'd have been prone to believing it. I mean, there is a relationship- a whole host of relations- between our bodies, our mental states, and how that might affect our actions. And those relations are so poorly understood, I mean, why shouldn't tall people be naturally less fearful or something? It seems perfectly plausible, it's just not true. The only reason we know for sure that the relationship between vody type and temperament is much more complex and multifaceted than "all short people are naturally friendly" is crazy experiments like this which proved wrong, and otgers which proved right.

The really interesting thing to me is that these ideas aren't 100% wrong. They are, say, 98% wrong- but someone who is overweight due to thyroid dysfunction might also be irritable or depressed, so if you don't know about the thyroid aspect, or don't know enough to factor it in correctly, it could be easy to make the jump to "overweight people have irritable temperaments".

Anyhow, really fascinating articles. I didn't realise swimming naked was the norm! Ah, the good old days. It's a shame that the photos of notables have largely been destroyed, they'd be fascinating in another however many years.
posted by windykites at 2:59 PM on July 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also apparently people with my body type say "fascinating" way tooo much... sorry.
posted by windykites at 3:01 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Evolutionary psychology seems DEADLY SERIOUS to some people.

Give it a few generations and it will be gone.
posted by srboisvert at 3:07 PM on July 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


George Bush snr. is one of those featured iirc
posted by longbaugh at 3:25 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


"We never wore bathing suits in the swimming pools, it was considered more hygienic that way," he says.

This is one of those quotes that makes you stop and realize how many invisible changes have taken place between yesterday and today. Not simply clothes, or manners, or attitudes, but little intangibles. A time traveler could study very hard and yet miss a detail like this, and at a socially awkward moment, display anachronistic shock ("argh everybody in the pool with their UNWASHED GENITALS argh ick ew").

Come to think of it, is that why the "please shower before entering the pool" rule still appears on signs today? I always thought it was odd, what with the boatloads of chemicals in the water already and the clothing requirement, but perhaps it is a holdover from a more tender age.

I doubt Hillary Clinton's naked posture photo -- if it ever existed -- still does today, for the simple reason that an agent of Rupert Murdoch would have offered some retired functionary thousands of dollars for it long ago. It would have been splashed all over the news probably before Clinton left office.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:33 PM on July 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I occasionally come across posture photos (which is to say I occasionally discover them; they are in fact quite remarkable in their utter unsexiness) on eBay, usually from military sources. So while Harvard may have destroyed their collection -- way to stick it to history, Harvard! -- that doesn't appear to be the case across all institutions.

"We never wore bathing suits in the swimming pools, it was considered more hygienic that way," he says.

This is one of those quotes that makes you stop and realize how many invisible changes have taken place between yesterday and today. Not simply clothes, or manners, or attitudes, but little intangibles. A time traveler could study very hard and yet miss a detail like this, and at a socially awkward moment, display anachronistic shock ("argh everybody in the pool with their UNWASHED GENITALS argh ick ew").


Yeah. Because bathing suits are airtight. Especially men's. Smegma is no match for that loose mesh!

(Sorry to break it to you, but you are totally swimming in dick soup.)
posted by Sys Rq at 3:37 PM on July 7, 2013 [10 favorites]


The Ivies and the elite liberal arts schools always had a very strong bias in favor of the fit and well-proportioned, and frowned rather heavily upon bookish schlubs. The bias is as a strong as ever, although reconfigured a bit as a powerful admission preference in favor of recruited athletes and powerful admission discrimination against Asians. (Many East Coast private schools field the same number of varsity athletes as do state schools with ten and twenty times larger student bodies, and cap Asians at 20% or less of their student body.)
posted by MattD at 3:39 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lanier's defense of Sheldon's more racist comments and Hitler apologia as obvious jokes calculated to upset the establishment rang pretty false to me, I've gotta say. Racial political correctness was not a big worry of scientists in the 20s, when Sheldon was casually making stomach-turning statements about the maximum intellectual age of the Negroes.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:40 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The finger on the scale for athletes is absolutely real, BTW, and is echoed all the way up through the industries that prefer to hire from the Ivies, like investment banking and consulting. It's very much papered over nowadays with an emphasis on academic achievement. At least, it certainly wasn't so shockingly obvious to me when I was applying to college (though in retrospect it certainly brings a lot of things into focus).
posted by en forme de poire at 3:54 PM on July 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Though to triple-post, it's not just about athleticism but about looking "normal" and buying into a certain orthodox culture, of which an emphasis on athleticism is one aspect. At first I thought the link on the right of the Crimson article to the Fifteen Hottest Freshmen (believe it or not, an actual thing the Harvard Crimson magazine does every year) was just kind of a funny coincidence, but actually, I think it kind of makes this point for me visually. My intuition is that this is not something the culture at, say, MIT or Caltech would celebrate to the same extent - and if you asked them to make the same list you might get a very different-looking group of people.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:15 PM on July 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Eh, in the fall of 1969, I was in one of the first co-ed swimming classes offered at then Memphis State University (now, University of Memphis). It was two "lecture" classes a week, and 3 swim sessions a week, toward the mandatory physical education requirement for all undergraduate degrees. We had to have "pool admission identification cards" made, and I remember that those photos were waist up shots, in our swim suits, to which several of our female classmates verbally objected. I remember getting 3 mimeographed pages (who remembers mimeograph?), with diagrams, constituting what was an acceptable bathing suit, for men, and for women, and the acceptable method for taking a pre-class shower. Before that memorandum, I understood that various male and female physical education classes, while segregated by sex and race, had been taught au naturel. To be honest, my 17 year old undergraduate, 2S deferment, ROTC enrolled because-land-grant-college, college self kind of hoped they still would be taught, non-segregated, but still in the buff, but I also kind of knew that they wouldn't be.

We were also separated, by sex, for one or two lecture classes devoted to personal hygiene and "presentation," before the first actual swim session. I can only imagine the topics the women got in those sessions, but in our all male sessions, we were reassured that erections were normal, and sometimes uncontrollable, that short haircuts were preferred for swimming and other athletic classes because they cut down, dramatically, in winter on colds and flu, but we were also admonished that peeing or farting in the University pool was never cool. And it was suggested that overtly ogling female class members in their bathing attire might not lead to the outcomes we otherwise might have hoped to achieve with those classmates.

As a Navy brat, I'd swum for years and years in Naval Air Reserve base pools, before coming to school at Memphis State, without any thought of how most human fecal matter gets introduced into swimming pools, and took hundreds of pre-swim "showers," already wearing my bathing suit, with dozens of Navy Air Reserve seamen and Marines around me, showering nude, getting ready for swim qualification practices, or open swim sessions. And since then, I've never needed photographs to understand what "average" and "exceptional" male physiognomy might encompass. But after that Memphis State class, I've never again gone swimming in artificial pools without wondering how careful all my fellow swimmers have been about their pre-swim pool hygiene, and more than once, I've silently thanked the Baby Jesus for otherwise eye watering amounts of pool chlorine.
posted by paulsc at 4:20 PM on July 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


Metafilter: you are totally swimming in dick soup
posted by localroger at 4:38 PM on July 7, 2013 [11 favorites]


Students who were photographed at Harvard say University officials deceived them about the true purpose of the photos, telling students they would be used to evaluate posture for anatomical research.

"We were told they were taking a posture photo," Knight says. "We were told Professor Hooton was designing a new railroad seat," he adds.


wow.
posted by arnicae at 4:46 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The human brain is unique among the world's biological organs in being immune to the fundamental biological force of evolution.
posted by DU at 5:06 PM on July 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


This was one of the many things my grandmother failed to mention about her Wellesley experience until I happened to ask her last year. Truly bizarre little episode.
posted by fifthrider at 6:06 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


A sample page from Sheldon's Atlas of Men. (NSFW; dude-butt, but no 'nads)
posted by Tube at 7:12 PM on July 7, 2013


A blog post about the Atlas of Men I wrote some time back and forgot about. Again, NSFW for butt photo.
posted by Tube at 7:16 PM on July 7, 2013


Wow, my mind is absolutely boggled at en forme de poire's link to the Fifteen Hottest Freshmen at Harvard. Like, that's for real? It's not satire?
posted by forza at 7:35 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sys Rq wrote: Sorry to break it to you, but you are totally swimming in dick soup.

Ah yes, the Brothers Marks.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:42 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Like, that's for real? It's not satire?

*long laugh, gradually trailing off into a vacant stare into the middle distance*
posted by en forme de poire at 7:49 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sheldon's ideas are not dead in sports science and related fields. My daughter come home from school worried that she's probably an ectomorph. Turns out their phys-ed teacher is into somatotypology. This is in Malaysia, but googling around turned up plenty of recent stuff in bodybuilding, dieting and such in the States and elsewhere. Ick.
posted by BinGregory at 8:39 PM on July 7, 2013


forza: Wow, my mind is absolutely boggled at en forme de poire's link to the Fifteen Hottest Freshmen at Harvard. Like, that's for real? It's not satire?
Click through. It's not, as it sounds, "The 12 Totally Most-Doable Babes We'd Like to Bone". It's a list of interesting, attractive frosh, mostly men (as it turns out, this year at least), posing in tasteful, sponsored, clothing-ad shots.

Martini I. Salander: "Describe yourself in three words: Stronger than you"

Neither sexist, nor very demeaing, the list seems to be a fairly dignified version of what nearly every college student is interested in to some degree: Who is that hottie I see on campus???
posted by IAmBroom at 10:13 PM on July 7, 2013


Nelson: "I own a copy of Atlas of Men. It's a beautiful and strange book, in its way, the author is clearly quite obsessed with his idea of somatotyping. It's a fascinating bit of accidental pornography. The way genitals are cut out is very creepy"

Please make a post about this book. Theng Kew.
posted by telstar at 10:34 PM on July 7, 2013


@Countess Elena: Come to think of it, is that why the "please shower before entering the pool" rule still appears on signs today?

Two reasons: 1. It adjusts your body to the colder water of the pool. 2. It washes off the chemicals that would otherwise collect on the surface of the water, like sun cream.
posted by devnull at 11:11 PM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


They did this at Smith, too.

Back in the early 1980s I was a student intern working on purging (downsizing?) alumnae records from the college archives. One of my fellow worker bees found Anne Frances Robbins (Nancy Reagan '43) posture photo in her file while she was the First Lady. The Reagans not being terribly popular on campus, plus the fact our records showed her real age, led to an interesting standoff between the Administration and the Smith College administration.

I do not know what happened to Nancy's photo after it was displayed for a semester or so in a bathroom in the lesbian cooperative house. Good thing we couldn't easily send image files over the Vaxnet, but it never occurred to us to publicize the photo in any way. The student who purloined it finished school unscathed, too.
posted by Dreidl at 11:13 PM on July 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


IAmBroom, my point in bringing up the photo shoot isn't that it's sexist, or that the pictures are too explicit, or that I have anything against the people depicted. I just thought it was a convenient example of a very specific look that represents a predominant Ivy League ideal -- one that's been adapted to include multiple races and sexual minorities insofar as they otherwise meet the criteria. And I think admissions committees absolutely have a hand in maintaining this cultural environment. They can't see your picture, except of course during the interview, but they can certainly get a pretty good read on your background and aspirations and they definitely take that into account. (Plus the whole legacy thing.)
posted by en forme de poire at 4:11 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


As far as hygiene, it is neither more nor less hygienic to bathe nude. Whatever's in your trunks is getting into the pool anyway!
posted by Mister_A at 7:42 AM on July 8, 2013


Somatotyping is not without scientific support for certain applications. Just to take a sampling, there are numerous peer-reviewed articles published since 2009 alone that use somatotyping.
posted by shivohum at 8:27 AM on July 8, 2013


Let's be clear, though - the vast majority of those "certain applications" seem to mostly be things like analyses of body composition and athletic style, not personality, character, or cause of death.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:44 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've always suspected that if the posture photos had been collected at schools beginning with "University of..." rather than at the Ivies, they'd probably be all over the Internet. But because they were taken at the Ivies, and because they presumably contain more than a few bits and bobs of Americas' ruling class, those in a position to do so have managed a quite surprisingly impressive bit of retroactive censorship and evidence-disposal. It is a particularly interesting example of the upper class reacting essentially as a unit and with a united front in the face of a threat, even one as relatively trivial, in the scheme of things, as an affront to their dignity. Those who wish to depose them should take note.

Yeah, preventing naked pictures of yourself taken when you had no agency in the situation from leaking onto the Internet is totally "censorship and evidence-disposal." I mean, evidence for what? Do you think that the public has some kind of right to see these pictures? I'm not sure I'd want to take part in a revolution that uses nonconsensual body humiliation as a weapon.

Anyhow, I doubt that anybody had to bring much pressure to bear to get these destroyed -- it's basic respect for consent, it's just that these days you have to be rich and privileged to get basic anything.
posted by ostro at 11:08 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


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