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The naked truth about Yale’s posture program

My first weeks at Yale in 1953 were filled with all sorts of interviews and tests, written and physical. I got through the written ones with no problems. The physical ones were a different story. Our class had to report to the Payne Whitney Gym, that temple of male physicality, to be sure we were fit enough to be Yalies. We had to do sit ups, pull-ups, short runs. I got through those, barely.

Speaking of barely, there was one test waiting for us that I had not expected. We were going to have to pass through Yale’s famous, or infamous, “posture screening.”

After the “easy” physical stuff, we were sent back to the lockers, told to disrobe, and then led naked to a nondescript door. As we waited in line, we were approached by either bursary boys or graduate students, whose job it was to tape thin black metal rods along our backs and chests as well as strategic points on our hips. Once “hooked up,” we moved one by one into a darkened, windowless room. When I entered the room, looking like a porcupine, I noticed a raised platform with full-length mirrors on three sides, much like the mirrors you see in clothing stores. I was told to step up on the platform, hold still. Suddenly, a burst of blinding lights flashed for a few seconds and a camera captured me in the round in all my nakedness!

“Next!” I moved off the platform. I asked one of the attendants what this was for, and he told me this was part of Yale’s posture program. “If you don’t pass, you’ll be enrolled in our posture improvement class.” Upon further questioning, I learned that the three-sided view these photographs provided revealed “posture defects” wherever the rods crossed, pinpointing areas needing “remediation.”

It was a humiliating experience, yet neither I nor any of my classmates questioned it. Just like the “poor little lambs,” we went along with it. Our fear of challenging Yale’s authority so early in our career trumped our feelings of embarrassment and the blatant invasion of our privacy.

Over the next few days, the naked pictures were the talk of the Old Campus. We tried to soften our embarrassment with humor. Everyone seemed to have a quip: “Do they come in wallet size? Mine wouldn’t fit in a wallet!” “Can I get it framed?” In time, the incident faded as the pressures of daily classes, quizzes, and term papers increased. It would make a good party story years later. Dick Cavett ’58 even made it part of his early stand-up act.  

It was not until a New York Times Magazine article (“The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal”), by Yale graduate Ron Rosenbaum ’68, appeared in 1995 that I learned that the photos of Yale’s prominent graduates and future celebrities, professionals, business leaders and politicians—and me—were hidden away in files to be “studied” for things other than posture defects.

Yale and the Ivy League were not alone in these intrusions into privacy, Rosenbaum reported. The “Seven Sisters” schools took their share of student nude photos, including those of future politicians, writers, and celebrities.

The program had been in existence since the ’40s. There was widespread speculation that the photos were part of a study to map the morphological characteristics of a super race—shades of the Nazis. Rosenbaum quotes from a letter to the Times by Yale art history professor George Hersey ’54MFA, ’64PhD, suggesting this theory: “The reigning school of the time, presided over by E. A. Hooton of Harvard and W. H. Sheldon”—who directed an institute for physique studies at Columbia University—“held that a person’s body, measured and analyzed, could tell much about intelligence, temperament, moral worth and probable future achievement. The inspiration came from the founder of social Darwinism, Francis Galton, who proposed such a photo archive for the British population.” Rosenbaum went on to speculate: “The Nazis compiled similar archives analyzing the photos for racial as well as characterological content (as did Hooton).”

Others, including the tobacco industry, believed that these photos might be used to identify body types of men more likely to smoke cigarettes.

The photography was discontinued in the late ’60s after word got out that pictures of naked Vassar women had been stolen and were circulating outside the academic world. More sensitive and responsible administrators ended the program and attempted to destroy the stores of naked student photos. But not all photos were destroyed. Some, including those from numerous Yale classes, wound up in some dark corner of the Smithsonian Institute, where they remained until after Rosenbaum’s revelations.

Unfortunately, I failed the photo shoot and was assigned to the remedial posture program headed by Delaney Kiphuth ’41, son of Bob Kiphuth, Yale’s renowned swim coach. As hard as he tried to straighten our backs, most of us clung to the casual Yale slouch. _____________________________________________

The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under posture photos, Ron Rosenbaum, Dick Cavett
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