• Fascinating piece about a new book Slouch, about the curious preoccupation with posture, at least in America;
  • Short items about Trump’s dumb attorneys; Christian rallies against the LGBTQs; why Trump’s “Christian Visibility Day” illustrates Christians’ persecution complex; and that traffic to right-wing sites is collapsing.

Here’s the second item I’ve seen or heard in the past month about a new book called Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America, by Beth Linker, published by Princeton University Press just last Tuesday. (The first was an interview on KQED’s Form, Beth Linker’s Book ‘Slouch’ Recounts History of ‘Posture Panic’, which I heard as broadcast. You can listen to it, but there’s no transcript.)

The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead, 8 Apr 2024: The Truth Behind the Slouching Epidemic, subtitled “From the onset of the twentieth century, poor posture has been associated with poverty, bad health, and even civilizational decadence. But does the real problem lie elsewhere?”


Personal history: When I was in the 5th or 6th grade — this would be around 1965 or 1966, in the San Fernando Valley — my class held a “posture parade.” The 25 or 30 students in the class simply walked around the room, in a big circle, for 5 or 10 minutes, displaying our best posture. (No, we didn’t have to balance books on our heads.) And then the class voted which boy and which girl had the best posture. I won for the best boy’s posture, and the girl who won was, like me, one of the better, perhaps the best, in the class academically, and so it was obviously the ‘judging’ was not particularly objective.

But the incident illustrates the assumed importance of upright posture. It was partly about self-awareness, maintaining a presentable stance to world, and partly, as this article alludes, a way to subtly indicate some supposed moral superiority.

The irony was that, several years later — not that much later, in early 1969 — I had a ruptured appendix, and spent a couple weeks in the hospital having and recovering from an appendectomy. After which, try as I might, my posture was never so upright again. I’ve always exhibited a very slight slouch, unless being very conscious about standing upright in what then felt almost unnatural.

–end Aside.

The first lesson of the book, as explained in the article and interview, is that this concern about posture is not universal; it’s not a condition of some basic flaw in physical condition or mental attitude. It’s a perhaps passing moral fad.

As Beth Linker explains in her book “Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America” (Princeton), a long history of anxiety about the proximity between human and bestial nature has played out in this area of social science. Linker, a historian of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that at the onset of the twentieth century the United States became gripped by what she characterizes as a poor-posture epidemic: a widespread social contagion of slumping that could, it was feared, have deleterious effects not just upon individual health but also upon the body politic. Sitting up straight would help remedy all kinds of failings, physical and moral, and Linker traces the history of this concern: from the exchanges of nineteenth-century scientists, who first identified the possible ancestral causes of contemporary back pain, to the late-twentieth-century popularity of the Alexander Technique, Pilates, and hatha yoga. The epidemic’s expression may have evolved, but even today it has hardly abated: on Goop, the wellness emporium, you can buy a foam roller to combat sitting-induced constriction of the waist and a plastic dome on which to therapeutically rock your pelvis. Sultry TikTok-ers demonstrate how to strap oneself into a corset-like garment that pins back the shoulders, while buff YouTube influencers explain how to appear inches taller by unfurling a tech-bent spine.

(There is, of course, a long history of fads of medical quackery; a famous one in America is how the founder of Kellog’s cereals intended his products to combat, among other things, masturbation.)

The second startling lesson is that concerns about posture go back to… Darwin. And his identification of standing upright as the distinction between modern humans and our evolutionary predecessors (as opposed to increased cognition). Once Darwin suggested this, it suddenly became very important for people to emphasize that distinction.

The origins of posture science date to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when archeologists and natural scientists were starting to theorize the evolutionary relationship between Homo sapiens and other primates. There was debate as to which came first: upright walking or higher cognition, with the dominant view being that the evolution of the human brain preceded the development of bipedalism. This theory centered a relatively sophisticated mind as the defining attribute of our species, and thus was consistent with ancient hierarchical taxonomies that placed man, with his ability to reason, apart from and above the beasts. Some scientists wondered whether certain physical problems, like flat feet or scoliosis, were, in effect, the price of braininess. Linker cites the observation of a professor of anatomy at the Art Institute of Chicago: “Man’s original sin consisted in his getting on his hind legs.”

This would be just one among many over-simplifications of evolutionary theory that led to various damaging consequences. The article touches on a few about posture:

In America at the turn of the twentieth century, anxieties about posture inevitably collided with anxieties not just about class but also about race. Stooping was associated with poverty and with manual, industrialized labor—the conditions of working-class immigrants from European countries who, in their physical debasement, were positioned well below the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment.

Many more examples, including remedial shoes and jackets, girdles and corsets, and “bracers” for men. And — I recall the radio interview discussed this —

It was in this era that what eventually proved to be the most contentious form of posture policing reached its height, when students entering college were required to submit to mandatory posture examinations, including the taking of nude or semi-nude photographs. For decades, incoming students had been evaluated for conditions such as scoliosis by means of a medical exam, which came to incorporate photography to create a visual record. Linker writes that for many male students, particularly those who had military training, undressing for the camera was no biggie. For female students, it was often a more disquieting undertaking. Sylvia Plath, who endured it in 1950, drew upon the experience in “The Bell Jar,” whose protagonist, Esther Greenwood, discovers that undressing for her boyfriend is as uncomfortably exposing as “knowing . . . that a picture of you stark naked, both full view and side view, is going into the college gym files.” The practice of taking posture photographs was gradually abandoned by colleges, thanks in part to the rise of the women’s movement, which gave coeds a new language with which to express their discomfort. It might have been largely forgotten were it not for a 1995 article in the Times Magazine, which raised the alarming possibility that there still existed stashes of nude photographs of famous former students of the Ivy League and the Seven Sisters, such as George H. W. Bush, Bob Woodward, Meryl Streep, and Hillary Clinton. Many of the photographs in question were taken and held not by the institutions themselves but by the mid-century psychologist William Herbert Sheldon. Sheldon was best known for his later discredited theories of somatotypes, whereby he attributed personality characteristics to individuals based on whether their build was ectomorphic, endomorphic, or mesomorphic.

By the time the Times article was published, Sheldon was dead, and his theories, which were found to have been shot through with racial stereotyping, were buried.

It would be nice to think that as medicine, and science, advances, wrong-headed ideas like these will have faded from the scene. And I think — among the medical establishment — they largely have. That doesn’t mean there aren’t grifters out there, appealing to those skeptical of the medical establishment (for inevitably irrational reasons), who make money selling products to the gullible. From goop on the left to any number on the right.


Quick links.

Boing Boing, 14 Apr 2024: Trump’s attorney seems no smarter than Trump

The ones who are actually smarter keep quitting. Does his base not notice?


Joe.My.God, 14 Apr 2024: Christians Hold Anti-LGBTQ Rallies At State Capitols

Base tribal morality, concerned about grandchildren.


Apparently Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is the site’s resident editorialist.

LGBTQNation, Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, 13 Apr 2024: Newsflash Donald Trump: Every day in America is Christian Visibility Day, subtitled “The separation of church and state has always been a lie, yet Christians still claim they are the persecuted ones.”

Despite the long history, in America, of Christians being the most dominant religious group, having churches around every corner, having their holidays represented nationally — they feel persecute.


The Atlantic, Paul Farhi, 13 Apr 2024: Right-Wing Media Are in Trouble, subtitled “The flow of traffic to Donald Trump’s most loyal digital-media boosters isn’t just slowing; it’s utterly collapsing.”

I noted a piece like this once before, and am not aware of any easy explanation. Except that perhaps support for all media, except social media, is collapsing.

Every day I reread and copy-edit my post from the evening before. If this comment is still here, I have not yet done so for this post.

This entry was posted in Culture, Personal history. Bookmark the permalink.