Lights, Camera...Inaction

Can a person’s destiny be predicted from their posture and body type?

One influential Ivy League college researcher certainly thought so.

From 1880 to 1940, as part of its registration process, Harvard’s male-only Physical Education Department took nude photographs of many new students. In all some 18,000 images of naked Harvard freshmen were captured during this period. Around 1940 Professor E.A. Hooton of Harvard’s Anthropology Department and William Herbert Sheldon, a Harvard researcher, inherited the camerawork. These two academics transformed the predominantly administrative project into a somatotype mapping study. Based on the images, students were ascribed one of three body types - skinny, nervous ‘ectomorphs; fat, jolly ‘endomorphs’ and confident, buffed ‘mesomorphs’. Sheldon, in particular, became a strong advocate for the argument that a person’s body type was the chief determinant of character and eventual levels of success.

Persuasive and seemingly credible, Sheldon convinced many of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters’ colleges in the years between 1940 and 1970 to join the trial. During this roughly 30 year period, all incoming students at Princeton, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe and the rest were photographed nude or semi-nude from the back, front and side during freshman orientation week. These academically elite young men and women acquiesced to having pins stuck on them while disrobed in order that their spinal curvatures could be highlighted in the resulting images. Those whose pins exhibited excessive curvature were encouraged to attend remedial postural classes.

The likes of George HW Bush at Yale, Meryl Streep at Vassar and Hillary Rodham Clinton at Wellesley as well as many thousands of others comprising the great and good of American society were photographed this way.

By the late 1960s Sheldon’s work had become highly controversial. Accusations were made that his research had its foundations in eugenics and, worse still, was motivated by Nazi sympathies. Under this level of heat, the erstwhile cooperative Ivy League colleges dropped Sheldon as quickly and as furtively as possible. The photographs were either burned (ironically) or gifted to the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives. Little was discussed about the subject until The New York Times published a piece in January 1995 by journalist Ron Rosenbaum, himself a subject of Sheldon’s lens while at Yale in the mid-60s.

With the luxury of hindsight both Sheldon’s methodology and the colleges’ unquestioning acceptance were misguided, to say the least. Nevertheless, the project raises some fascinating issues. For sure, there are hot-button questions concerning the boundaries of privacy, consent and information misuse. There are also important research implications.

A postural trial of the willing and informed is a laudable concept. This is all the more so when many members of the research group comprise the educational, medical and political leaders of tomorrow. Many of Sheldon’s original subjects could have been systematically re-photographed throughout their lives as part of a rigorously controlled tracking study. In order to achieve this, the gathering, storage and use of the images needed to be openly discussed, contractually agreed and rigorously regulated. Had this been done, the findings would have been quite simply invaluable. Instead, a combination of deception, mismanagement and fear resulted in the squandering of a unique opportunity. What was lost was highly valuable information about the relationship between habitual posture, health and performance among several generations of America’s future policy makers.

In our era of pervasive social media, developed political sensibilities and screen-slumped youth, the lessons of Sheldon and his nude Ivy League photos can not be overstated.