Posture photos

From Chris Ambidge yesterday, an Ivy League nude posture photo — an image from an odd moment in American collegiate history. Here’s the photo with the naughty bits fuzzed over:

From Wikipedia:

The Ivy League nude posture photos were taken in the 1940s through the 1970s of all incoming freshmen at certain Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges (as well as Swarthmore), ostensibly to gauge the rate and severity of rickets, scoliosis, and lordosis in the population. Harvard had its own such program by the 1980s. The larger project was run by William Herbert Sheldon and Earnest Albert Hooton, who may have been using the data to support their theory on body types and social hierarchy. What remained of the images were transferred to the Smithsonian and most were destroyed between 1995 and 2001.

The NYT Magazine of 1/15/95 had a nice piece on these events: “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal” by Ron Rosenbaum. Some excerpts:

One afternoon in the late 1970’s, deep in the labyrinthine interior of a massive Gothic tower in New Haven, an unsuspecting employee of Yale University opened a long-locked room in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium and stumbled upon something shocking and disturbing.

Shocking, because what he found was an enormous cache of nude photographs, thousands and thousands of photographs of young men in front, side and rear poses. Disturbing, because on closer inspection the photos looked like the record of a bizarre body-piercing ritual: sticking out from the spine of each and every body was a row of sharp metal pins.

The employee who found them was mystified. The athletic director at the time, Frank Ryan, a former Cleveland Browns quarterback new to Yale, was mystified. But after making some discreet inquiries, he found out what they were — and took swift action to burn them.

… When I first embarked on my quest for the lost nude “posture photos,” I could not decide whether to think of the phenomenon as a scandal or as an extreme example of academic folly — of what happens when well-intentioned institutions allow their reverence for the reigning conjectures of scientific orthodoxy to persuade them to do things that seem silly or scandalous in retrospect. And now that I’ve found them, I’m still not sure whether outrage or laughter is the more appropriate reaction.

… While the popular conception of Sheldonism has it that he divided human beings into three types — skinny, nervous “ectomorphs”; fat and jolly “endomorphs”; confident, buffed “mesomorphs” — what he actually did was somewhat more complex. He believed that every individual harbored within him different degrees of each of the three character components. By using body measurements and ratios derived from nude photographs, Sheldon believed he could assign every individual a three-digit number representing the three components, components that Sheldon believed were inborn — genetic — and remained unwavering determinants of character regardless of transitory weight change. In other words, physique equals destiny.

I was at Princeton during the relevant period, but I don’t recall physique photos.

3 Responses to “Posture photos”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    When I was an undergraduate at Harvard (graduated 1959) this indignity was not inflicted on us, but it was on our Radcliffe sisters. I imagine a lot of lizards got stroked looking at those pictures.

  2. Nelson Minar (@nelson) Says:

    Sheldon’s book “Atlas of Men” is relatively available. It contains an enormous series of these photos categorized by a body type system that he claimed predicted psychology. Lots of images of attractive naked men, but the whiting out of the faces and genitals gives the whole thing a creepy serial killer vibe. All in all it’s a pretty fascinating book. Some more info:

  3. H.S. Gudnason Says:

    And I didn’t experience it at Harvard either (’71), but my wife did at Oberlin (’69).

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