History of Science & Knowledge

Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America

The strange and surprising history of the so-called epidemic of bad posture in modern America—from eugenics and posture pageants to today’s promoters of “paleo posture”

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Published:
Apr 9, 2024
2024
Illus:
39 b/w illus.
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In 1995, a scandal erupted when the New York Times revealed that the Smithsonian possessed a century’s worth of nude “posture” photos of college students. In this riveting history, Beth Linker tells why these photos were only a small part of the incredible story of twentieth-century America’s largely forgotten posture panic—a decades-long episode in which it was widely accepted as scientific fact that Americans were suffering from an epidemic of bad posture, with potentially catastrophic health consequences. Tracing the rise and fall of this socially manufactured epidemic, Slouch also tells how this period continues to feed today’s widespread anxieties about posture.

In the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement and fears of disability gave slouching a new scientific relevance. Bad posture came to be seen as an individual health threat, an affront to conventional race hierarchies, and a sign of American decline. What followed were massive efforts to measure, track, and prevent slouching and, later, back pain—campaigns that reached schools, workplaces, and beyond, from the creation of the American Posture League to posture pageants. The popularity of posture-enhancing products, such as girdles and lumbar supports, exploded, as did new fitness programs focused on postural muscles, such as Pilates and modern yoga. By 1970, student protests largely brought an end to school posture exams and photos, but many efforts to fight bad posture continued, despite a lack of scientific evidence.

A compelling history that mixes seriousness and humor, Slouch is a unique and provocative account of the unexpected origins of our largely unquestioned ideas about bad posture.