Publication Date

May 9, 2024

Perspectives Section



  • United States


Medicine, Science, & Technology

Look down. Are you hunched over? Are your shoulders up near your ears? Are you sitting or standing up straight? Can’t you just hear your mother or maybe grandmother admonishing you to “stop slouching!”? (I myself am writing this hunched over my laptop, sitting on the couch with my legs crossed under me—what a kindergarten teacher might call “crisscross applesauce.”)

Four children standing in a slouched position

After a posture class held at Red Cross Child Health Station, these children demonstrate their “improved standing position.” American Red Cross photograph collection/Library of Congress. Images cropped.

In today’s wellness-obsessed world, “good” posture is just one of the many signs that you are looking out for your health and in touch with your body. But concerns about posture in the United States are by no means a new phenomenon. In Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America (Princeton Univ. Press, 2024), historian Beth Linker investigates how we came to believe that bad posture is bad for your health.Now department chair and professor of the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, Linker began her professional life as a physical therapist in the 1990s. As she told Perspectives, “Both my clinical and historical training complement each other when it comes to questioning the validity of certain health claims that are taken for granted.” From her clinical practice, she learned that “we all have our own posture stories, whether it be scoliosis exams, parental chiding, or feelings of falling short of socially mandated body expectations. With Slouch, I wanted to give a voice and a history to these highly personal, yet often taken for granted, experiences.”As a historian of disability, medicine, gender, and war studies, Linker came to this research how many of us find the next project: stumbling upon something unexpected in the archives. While researching her first book on the rehabilitation of World War I’s wounded soldiers at the National Archives in College Park, Linker found a box filled with hundreds of sheets of tracing paper showing the outlines of feet. She would come to learn that these foot tracings were a way that the US military gauged flat feet in this era. “Flat feet” was used alongside other tests to evaluate posture, which was believed to indicate strength and future health. Growing up in the post–Vietnam War era and hearing adults reference draft dodgers who used flat feet as an excuse, Linker was curious. Why would flat feet preclude military service? Though she published a journal article in 2007 using the flat feet tracings, she knew there was more work to do on posture and disability.

Why would flat feet preclude military service?

What Linker eventually found was a campaign across the 20th century that pushed to normalize American posture. In our interview, she described this movement as “motivated by the desire to eradicate anatomical ‘defects’ and guided by what I call scientific ableism.” Developing in the same era as eugenics, the antislouching campaign, she argues, was part of race betterment projects. These were not limited to or only promoted by an educated white elite establishment; Linker also found that middle-class nonwhite communities engaged in these campaigns. She explained, “Black and Jewish professionals wished to literally uplift lower-class peoples of their respective race and ethnicity through posture enhancement.” Through these means, they could share a common goal of “separating themselves from the ultimate other: the disabled.”These campaigns contributed many facets of American life that readers may find surprisingly familiar. Did you spend time on the playground’s monkey bars as a child? These structures originated in the Progressive Era, when experts thought that imitating a gibbon would both strengthen children’s muscles and link them to an evolutionary past. Were you ever instructed to improve your posture by carrying a stack of books on your head? This was likely rooted in early 20th-century ideas that white Americans could train their bodies to have better posture by emulating “primitive” cultures where women carried baskets on their heads. Scientists in that era saw poor posture as a sign of “overcivilization,” Linker said, “by which they mean too much leisure and sedentariness.” Therefore they “looked to ‘precivilized’ or ‘primitive’ peoples (who are often nonwhite) for lessons on how to live ‘naturally,’” Linker continued, an impulse we might recognize from paleo diets and other wellness programs today. But it wouldn’t do to have white children carry water containers on their heads—books were more fitting for their “superior” place on the evolutionary scale.As posture moved from a niche concern within the scientific community to a more mainstream problem, an industry grew up around it. Across these various trends, Linker sees the antislouching campaign as having one goal: eradicating “defective” anatomy. Students’ posture was monitored by school nurses and physical education teachers, with scoliosis tests and fitness training aiming to ensure that children’s “deficiencies” could be nipped in the bud. During an era when beauty pageants were popular, posture pageants cropped up too, rewarding the Posture Queen (and sometimes Posture King) at the Seven Sisters colleges and many historically Black colleges and universities. And consumerism wasn’t far behind, with products marketed to Americans from orthopedic shoes to belts and girdles (for both sexes!). President John F. Kennedy treated his chronic back pain with postural muscle training and by wearing a back brace, a canvas corset that Linker wrote had the added benefit of making him appear taller. Some experts speculated that had he not been wearing this brace on the day of his assassination, he could have survived; after the first bullet hit, he would have slumped in a more natural way such that the second fatal shot would have missed. According to them, the brace made him an easier target.Throughout much of the 20th century, most posture science research took place at higher education institutions. As Linker writes, “a remarkable number” of US colleges and universities required students to undergo an annual physical exam that included a posture evaluation. During this exam, students were required to pose for nude or seminude photographs—a practice that continued into the 1970s. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the stewardship of those records eventually became a massive scandal. In 1995, a New York Times Magazine article by Ron Rosenbaum revealed that universities had nude photographs of American elites, from presidents and first ladies to famous actors and journalists. This exposé led alumni to make panicked calls to their alma maters, university administrators and lawyers to review their policies, and many university archives to destroy these photo collections within months of the article’s publication.“Privacy is often more of a privilege than a democratic right,” Linker writes. “Thousands of nude posture photos still exist. . . . [Those] incinerated in 1995 are only a fraction.” Those that remain came from places like the Oregon State Prison and the Elgin and New York State Hospitals. “In other words, photographs of historically more vulnerable populations remain in the archive, while the images of white elites have been actively erased.” As Linker argues, this scandal upended the usual concerns of archival silences and erasures. Usually, society’s most powerful, well-resourced individuals can be found more easily in the historical record, but “the elite also have the power to create archival silences of themselves when it suits them, while more vulnerable populations generally do not.”

Cover of Slouch book

Courtesy Princeton University Press

Not all of Linker’s primary sources were fraught with such ethical concerns. Having been seen as such a widespread problem, midcentury ideas about posture appeared in a variety of popular sources too. One of Linker’s favorites was Judy Blume’s novel Deenie (1973). “I think that book captures the zeitgeist of what it was like to be a teen girl growing up in the 1970s and 1980s who had to face the humiliating school posture and scoliosis exams,” Linker said. “While these exams were not the same as the nude photos, they still required pubescent girls to lift up their shirts and bend forward in front of an examiner looking for curves, humps, and other ‘defects.’” The novel’s protagonist was diagnosed with scoliosis after such an exam, and as Linker described it, “Deenie is required—against her wishes—to wear a hip-to-neck Milwaukee brace 23 hours a day so as to prevent an imagined future of disability and pain.” This novel, read by countless girls across the United States, helped Linker “to appreciate the scope and depth of the manufactured health fears around poor posture.” She also found educational films both thought-provoking and entertaining during her research. Her favorite find was Health: Your Posture, produced in 1953, which featured a talking mirror that coached an outcast adolescent girl on how to become popular by practicing good posture.

The memory and legacies of the posture panic persist around us.

From draft exemptions for flat feet to the monkey bars on your local playground, the memory and legacies of the posture panic persist around us. Most recently, Linker followed the buzz around a $200 bra that Taylor Swift reportedly wore during her Eras Tour to correct her posture. “Some online chatter among fitness experts,” Linker told us, showed “concerns for Swift’s ‘dowager hump,’ invoking gender-infused slurs to suggest that she is aging before her time. So perhaps she wore the bra for aesthetic reasons.”There are legitimate reasons to pay attention to your posture. Linker herself has chronic back pain and so is conscious of her posture and how it affects her body. She told Perspectives, “I actually wish more of the public conversation and health care resources were geared toward chronic pain management rather than prevention. The focus on prevention saves health insurers money and moves the blame away from structural conditions that cause disabling pain to place it instead on the individual.” When there are social determinants at play like access to health care, food and clean water, and housing, those are often “far more important to future health than whether or not someone sits or stands straight.”

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Laura Ansley
Laura Ansley

American Historical Association