Rediscovering America’s War on Bad Posture

We talk with historians Beth Linker about the “posture panic” that led to a college photo scandal, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela about the evolution of fitness culture.

Listen 48:36
Poster displaying different forms of posture from excellent to bad

In this poster, issued in 1926 by the U.S. Department of Labor's Children's Bureau, posture standards for "stocky-type boys" are presented from "excellent" to "bad." For decades in the U.S., posture was a major focus of public health experts. (Courtesy of the National Archives, photo no. 44-PA-1532)

In January 1995, the New York Times Magazine published a bombshell story with the headline: “THE GREAT IVY LEAGUE NUDE POSTURE PHOTO SCANDAL.” The article revealed that, from the 1940s through the 1960s, elite colleges had taken naked photos of thousands of freshmen, including future luminaries like George Bush, Bob Woodward, Meryl Streep, and Hillary Rodham. For years, the schools had teemed with anxious, tawdry rumors about both the purpose and fate of the photos. Who had them? What were they really for? And where did they end up?

On this episode, we get the real story behind the photos from science historian Beth Linker, whose new book, “Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America,” dives deep into the era’s widespread obsession with standing up straight, and how researchers tried to connect posture to people’s health and character. We also hear from historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela about how America came to be both more obsessed with exercise than ever — and, yet, also unhealthier. Her book is “Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession.”

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