Naked In The Ivy League

For decades, thousands of male and female students at some of America’s most prestigious institutions, in the Ivy League and among the Seven Sisters, were routinely required to strip down and have their nude photos taken.  Why?

Journalist Ron Rosenbaum tells the fascinating story in a long, but riveting, New York Times piece that is almost 20 years old, but new to me.  Rosenbaum himself was a student at Yale who had to undergo the bizarre ritual during the 1960s.  He appeared at a Yale gymnasium, was required to completely disrobe, had metal pins attached to his vertebrae with adhesive, and then was photographed.  Everybody had to have their “posture photos” taken, and students whose posture was deemed unacceptable had to take a remedial posture class where they presumably walked around rooms balancing books on their heads.  Similar photos were taken at schools like Vassar and Wellesley, and urban legends circulated among the Ivy Leaguers about purportedly stolen posture photo collections of young coeds being available on the black market.

But the real story runs deeper than posture and pranks and has a disturbing element.  In reality, the photographs were also part of an anthropological study undertaken to explore theories that contended that study of the human physique, through measurement and analysis of ratios, could reveal intelligence, moral worth, and other characteristics.  It was a branch of eugenics that apparently was scientifically accepted for a time, with its own scientific-sounding names for character components — “ectomorphs” for thin and nervous people, “endomorphs” for the tubby, and “mesomorphs” for the Charles Atlases among us.  Under the theory, each person purportedly had some mixture of the three components that was genetically determined and described by a three-digit code, and those components controlled your character.  The “science” was married to concepts of posture and propriety, accepted by many educational institutions as a progressive, scientific step forward, and the result was thousands of mystified, often humiliated students at elite schools being required to troop before cameras and have their nude photos taken, to be studied by practitioners of a pseudoscience.

The concept that your body shape determines the content of your character seems ludicrous now, as bizarre and unscientific as Nazi “master race” theories, phrenology, or medieval notions that good health required periodic bleedings.  The concept no doubt would have seemed ludicrous to many of the unfortunate students who were forced to shed their clothing — but of course they weren’t told.  They did it because the institution told them to do so and because everyone else did it.  No one questioned authority, and for decades no one at any of those lofty institutions asked whether there was any true scientific basis for the practice or raised any moral or ethical qualms about the “posture photos.”

The students weren’t the only ones exposed by the “posture photos” and their true back story; the schools and the scientific community were as well.  We should all think of “posture photos” the next time an institution tells us to shut up and follow along on a course that seems absurd, that the science is settled and can’t be questioned, and that because everyone else has done it we should, too.

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