In her essay “Physique as Destiny,” Patricia Vertinsky explores how posture photos became the guise for an experiment in eugenics. William H. Sheldon introduced a new kind of somatotypology, which embraced the idea that you can read intelligence, temperament, moral worth, and even future achievement by looking at a person’s body. He classified the body into three categories: ectomorph (thin), endomorph (fat), or mesomorph (muscular). Through thousands of posture photos of college students, Sheldon developed a science that he believed linked character with measurements. But physical educators were not aware that his motivations went beyond teaching good posture. They believed they had an educational responsibility to help their students shape their bodies to promote healthy and successful futures. However, Sheldon believed that physicality was destiny. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that his inflexible philosophy opened the door to racist and sexist interpretations. For instance, he argued that those of European descent have more erect spines and straighter bones than people who are not white. He also believed women suffered from poorer posture.
Throughout the college posture programs, women’s bodies received disproportionate attention for physical education teachers. Posture campaigns, especially at women’s colleges, worked to straighten women’s bodies with a desire to improve their health and ability to navigate the world. Physical education teachers saw schools and colleges- beehives of intellectual ideas and conversations-as the perfect place “to develop, in line with Plato’s admonitions, an ideal straight and healthy body as a temple to the mind.” These ideas beg the question, at what point do eugenic views begin to cling to studies or programs of body typing? Where do the lines get blurred? Granted, most physical education teachers were not aware that their posture programs were feeding an experiment in eugenics. That said, records from the Barnard archives do reveal a tendency to make connections between posture and character; the idea that students’ bodies could predict their potential was well-articulated.
One aside: before I read this essay, I wanted to know where the posture movement came from. Vertinsky does a nice job outlining a few root causes. At the turn of the twentieth century, anxieties about health increased around the growing belief that straight limbs and a strong stature would prevent internal organs from becoming deformed. A general decline in good posture began to be associated with greater anxieties of character, eugenic practices, and the need for better bodies for improved breeding. The latter ideas played into heightened anxieties over the influx of immigration.