Even the wife of the President of the United States sometime had to stand naked

How America's best and brightest posed nude in the cause of pseudo-science. Here is the New York Times story that startled a nation.
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
One afternoon in the late Seventies, deep in the labyrinthine interior of a massive Gothic tower in New Haven, an unsuspecting employee of Yale University opened a long-locked room in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium and stumbled upon something shocking and disturbing.

Shocking, because what he found was an enormous cache of nude photographs, thousands and thousands of young men in front, side and rear poses. Disturbing, because on closer inspection the photos looked like the record of a bizarre body-piercing ritual: sticking out from the spine of each and every body was a row of sharp metal pins.

The employee who found them was mystified. The athletic director at the time, Frank Ryan, new to Yale, was mystified. But after making discreet inquiries, he found out what they were - and took swift action to burn them. He called in a professional, a document disposal expert. First, every single one of the many thousands of photographs was fed into a shredder, and then each of the shreds was fed to the flames, thereby ensuring that not a single intact or recognisable image of the nude Yale students - s ome of whom had gone on to assume positions of importance in government and society - would survive.

But in fact thousands upon thousands of photos from Yale and other elite schools survive to this day.

When I first embarked on my quest for the lost nude "posture photos", I could not decide whether to think of the phenomenon as a scandal or as an extreme example of academic folly. And now that I've found them, I'm still not sure whether outrage or laughter is the more appropriate reaction.

I personally have posed nude only twice in my life. The second time - for a John and Yoko film titled Up Your Legs Forever, which has been screened at the Whitney - I was one of many, it was Art, and let's leave it at that. But the first time was even more strange and bizarre because of its strait-laced Ivy setting, its pre-liberation context - and yes, because of the metal pins stuck on my body.

One fall afternoon in the mid-Sixties, shortly after I arrived as a freshman at Yale, I reported to a windowless room on an upper floor, where men dressed in crisp white garments instructed me to remove all of my clothes. Then - and this is the part I still have trouble believing - they attached metal pins to my spine. There was no actual piercing of skin, only of dignity, as four-inch metal pins were affixed with adhesive to my vertebrae at regular intervals from my neck down. I was positi oned againsta wall; a floodlight illuminated my pin-spiked profile and a camera captured it.

It didn't occur to me to object: I'd been told that this "posture photo" was a routine feature of freshman orientation week. Those whose pins described a too violent or erratic postural curve were required to attend remedial posture classes.

The procedure did seem strange. But I soon learnt that it was a long-established custom at most Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools. George Bush and Bob Woodward were required to do it at Yale. At Vassar, Meryl Streep; at Mount Holyoke, Wendy Wasserstein; at Wellesley, Hillary Rodham (who became Hillary Clinton). All of them - whole generations of the cultural elite - were asked to pose.

There were several salacious stories in circulation at Yale in the Sixties. Most common was the report that someone had broken into a photo lab in Poughkeepsie, NY, and stolen the negatives of Vassar posture nudes, which were supposedly for sale on the Ivy League black market. Little did I know how universal the myth was.

"Ah, yes, the famous rumoured stolen Vassar posture pictures," Nora Ephron (Wellesley '62) recalled when I spoke to her. "But don't forget the famous rumoured stolen Wellesley posture photos."

"Wellesley too?"

"Oh, yes," she said. "It's one of those urban legends."

Distinguishing between joke and reality is difficult in posture-photo lore. Consider the astonishing rumour Ephron clued me into, a story she assured me she'd heard from someone very close to the source: "There was a guy, an adjunct professor of sociology who was working on a grant for the tobacco industry. And what I heard when I was at Wellesley was that, using Harvard posture photos, he had proved conclusively that the more manly you are, the more you smoked. And I believe the criterion for manlinesswas the obvious one."

"The obvious one?"

"I assume - what else could it have been?"

It was Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, who opened the Pandora's box of posture-photo controversy. In that book and in a 1992 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Wolf (Yale '84) bitterly attacked Dick Cavett (Yale '55) for a joke he had made at Wolf's graduation ceremonies. According to Wolf, who had never had a posture photo taken (the practice was discontinued at Yale in 1968), Cavett took the microphone and told the following anecdote: "When I was an undergraduate ... there were no women [at

Yale]. The women went to Vassar. At Vassar they had nude photographs taken of women in gym class to check their posture. One year the photos were stolen and turned up for sale in New Haven's red ligh t district." His punchline: "The photos found no buyers."

Wolf was horrified. Cavett, she wrote in her book, "transposed us for a moment out of the gentle quadrangle where we had been led to believe we were cherished, and into the tawdry district four blocks away, where stolen photographs of our naked bodies would find no buyers."

Cavett responded, in a letter to the Times, by dismissing the joke as an innocuous example of "how my Yale years showed up in my long-forgotten night-club act."

Wolf's horrified account attests to the totemic power of the posture-photo legend. But little did she know, little did Cavett know, how potentially sinister the entire phenomenon really was.

Shortly after Cavett's reply, George Hersey, a respected art history professor at Yale, wrote a letter to the Times that ran under the headline "A Secret Lies Hidden in Vassar and Yale Nude `Posture Photos' " Sounding an ominous note, Hersey declared that the photos "had nothing to do with posture ... that is only what we were told."

Hersey went on to say that the pictures were actually made for anthropological research: "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 analysed, 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."

And then Hersey evoked the spectre of the Third Reich: "The Nazis compiled similar archives analysing the photos for racial as well as characterological content (as did Hooton). ... The Nazis often used American high school yearbook photographs for this purpose. ...The American investigators planned an archive that could correlate each freshman's bodily configuration (`somatotype') and physiognomy with later life history. That the photos had no value as pornography is a tribute to their resolutely scientific nature."

My first stop in what would turn out to be a prolonged and eventful quest for the truth about the posture photos was Professor Hersey's office in New Haven. A thoughtful, civilised scholar, Hersey did not seem prone to sensationalism. But he showed me a draft chapter from his forthcoming book on the aesthetics of racism that went even further than the allegations in his letter to the Times. I was struck by one passage in particular: "From the outset, the purpose of these `posture photographs' was eugenic. The data accumulated, says Hooton, will eventually lead on to proposals to `control and limit the production of inferior and useless organisms'. Some of the latter would be penalised for reproducing ... or would be sterilised. But the real solution is enforced better breeding - getting those Exeter and Harvard men together with their corresponding Wellesley, Vassar and Radcliffe girls."

In other words, a kind of eugenic dating service, "Studs" for the cultural elite. But my talk with Hersey left key questions unanswered, including: what became of the photographs?

Hersey thought there would be no trouble locating the photographs. He assumed that "they can probably be found with Sheldon's research papers" in one of the several academic institutions with which he had been associated. But most of those institutions

said that they had burned whatever photos they had had. Harley P Holden, curator of Harvard's archives, said that from the 1880s to the 1940s the university had its own posture-photo programme in which some 3,500 pictures of its students were taken. Mostwere destroyed 15 or 20 years ago "for privacy scruples", Holden said. None the less, quite a few Harvard nudes can be found illustrating Sheldon's book on body types, the Atlas of Men.

While the popular conception of Sheldonism has it that he divided human beings into three types - skinny, nervous "ectomorphs"; fat and jolly "endomorphs"; confident, buffed "mesomorphs" - what he actually did was somewhat more complex. He believed that every individual harboured within him different degrees of each of the three character components. By using body measurements and ratios derived from nude photographs, Sheldon believed he could assign every individual a three-digit number representing the three components, components that Sheldon believed were inborn - genetic - and remained unwavering determinants of character regardless of transitory weight-change. In other words, physique equals destiny.

It was the pop-psych flavour of the month for a while; Cosmopolitan magazine published quizzes about how to understand your husband on the basis of somatotype. Ecto-, meso- and endomorphic have entered the language, although few scientists these days give credence to Sheldon's claims. None the less, in the late Forties and early Fifties, Sheldonism seemed mainstream, and Sheldon took advantage of that to approach Ivy League schools.

Many, like Harvard, already had a posture-photo tradition. But it was at Wellesley College in the late Twenties that concern about postural correctness metamorphosed into a cottage industry with pretensions to science. The department of hygiene circulated training films about posture measurement to other women's colleges, which took up the practice, as did some "progressive" high schools and elementary schools. (By the time Hillary Rodham arrived on the Wellesley campus, women were allowed to have theirpictures taken only partly nude.)

What Sheldon did was appropriate the ritual of the Ivy League "posture photos" as part of a facade for what he was really doing. His downfall was his never completed, partly burned Atlas of Women. In attempting to compile what would have been a companionvolume to Atlas of Men, he made the strategic mistake of taking his photo show on the road.

In September 1950, he and his team descended on Seattle, where the University of Washington had agreed to play host to his project. He had begun taking nude pictures of female freshmen, but something went wrong. One of them told her parents about the practice. The next morning, a battalion of lawyers and university officials stormed Sheldon's lab, seized every photo of a nude woman, convicted the images of shamefulness and sentenced them to burning. The angry crew then shovelled the incendiary film intoan incinerator.

A short-lived controversy broke out: Was this a book-burning? A witch hunt? Was Professor Sheldon's nude photography a legitimate scientific investigation or just raw material pornography masquerading as science?

They burned a few thousand photos in Seattle. Thousands more were burned at Harvard, Vassar and Yale in the Sixties and Seventies, when the colleges phased out the posture-photo practice. But thousands more escaped the flames: tens of thousands that Sheldon took at Harvard, Vassar, Yale and elsewhere but sequestered in his own archives. And what became of the archives?

Down a dimly lit back corridor of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, far from the dinosaur displays, is a branch of the Smithsonian not well known to the public: the National Anthropological Archives. Although it contains a rich and strange assortment of archival treasures, it is particularly notable for the number of Native Americans who travel here to investigate centuries-old anthropological records. In 1987, the curators of the National Anthropological Archives acquired the remains of Sheldon's life work, which were gathering dust in a warehouse in Boston.

While there were solid archival reasons for making the acquisition, the curators are clearly aware that they harboured some potentially explosive material in their storage rooms. And they did not make it easy for me to gain access.

On my first visit, I was informed by a good-natured but wary supervisor that the restrictive grant of Sheldon's materials by his estate would permit me to review only the written materials. To see the photographs, I would have to petition the chief of archivists.

Determined to pursue the matter to the bitter end, I began the process of applying for permission. Meanwhile, I plunged into the written material, hoping to find answers to several mysteries.

Although I did not find substantiation in those files for Hersey's belief that Sheldon was engaged in a master-race eugenic project, I did find stunning confirmation of Hersey's charge that Sheldon held racist views. In Box 43 I came across a document never referred to in any of the literature on Sheldon I'd seen. It was a faded offprint of a 1924 Sheldon study, "The Intelligence of Mexican Children." In it are damning assertions, presented as scientific truisms, that "Negro intelligence" c omes to a "standstill at about the 10th year", Mexican at about age 12. To the author of such sentiments, America's elite institutions entrusted their student bodies.

Another box held clues to the truth behind Nora Ephron's tale about smoking and organ size. It turned out to be true that a research arm of the tobacco industry had sponsored studies on the relationship between masculinity and smoking, and that the studies had involved Sheldonian posture photos of Harvard men, although there is no evidence that the criterion of masculinity was the "obvious one" referred to by Ephron. I located a fascinating report on this research in a December 1959 issue of the respected journal Science, titled "Masculinity and Smoking". According to the article, and contrary to the rumour, it is "not strength but weakness of the masculine component" that is "more frequent in the heavier smokers". Here, perhaps, is the most profound cultural legacy of the Sheldonian posture-photo phenomenon: the blueprint for the sexual iconography of tobacco advertising. If, in fact, heavy smokers looked more like Harvard nerds than Marlboro men, why not use advertising imagery t o make Harvard nerds feel like virile cowboys when they smoked?

Finally and most telling, I found a letter nearly four decades old that did something nothing else in the files did. It gave a clue to the feelings of the subjects of Sheldon's research, particularly the women. I found the letter in a file of correspondence between Sheldon and various physical education directors at women's colleges who were providing Sheldon with bodies for the ill-fated Atlas of Women. In this letter, an official at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, was responding to Sheldon's request to rephotograph the female freshmen he had photographed the year before. Something had gone wrong with the technical side of the earlier shoot. But the official refused the request, declaring that "to require them to pose for another [nude posture photo] would create insurmountable psychological problems."

Insurmountable psychological problems. Suddenly the subjects of Sheldon's photography leapt into the foreground: the shy girl, the fat girl, the religiously conservative, the victim of "inappropriate parental attention".

Three months later, I finally succeeded in gaining permission to study the elusive posture photos. As I sat at my desk in the reading room, under a portrait of Chief Blue Eagle, the long-sought cache materialised. A curator trundled in a library cart from the storage facility. Teetering on top of the cart were stacks of big grey cardboard boxes. The curator handed me a pair of the white cotton gloves that researchers must use to handle archival material.

The contents of the boxes were described in the accompanying "Finder's Aid" in this fashion: "Box 90: Yale Unity Class of 1971.

"Negatives. Full length views of nude freshmen men, front, back and rear. Includes height, weight, previous or maximum weight, with age, name, or initials."

"Box 95 Mount Holyoke College photographs.

"Negatives. Made in 1950. Full length views of nude women, front back and rear. Includes height, weight, date and age. Includes some photographs marked S. P. C."

All told there were some 20,000 photographs of men - 9,000 from Yale - and 7,000 of women.

In flipping through those thousands of images (which were recently transferred to Smithsonian archives in Suitland, Maryland), I found surprising testimony to the "insurmountable psychological problems" that the Denison University official had referred to. It took a while for the "problems" to become apparent, because, as it turned out, I was not permitted to see positive photographs - only negatives (with no names attached).

A fascinating distinction was being exhibited here, a kind of light-polarity theory of prurience and privacy that absolves the negative image of the naked body of whatever transgressive power it might have in a positive print. There is an intuitive logicto the theory, although here the Sheldon posture-photo phenomenon exposes how fragile are the distinctions we make between the sanctioned and the forbidden images of the body.

As I thumbed rapidly through box after box to confirm that the entries described in the Finder's Aid were actually there, I tried to glance at only the faces. It was a decision that paid off, because it was in them that a crucial difference between the men and the women revealed itself. For the most part, the men looked diffident, oblivious. That's not surprising considering that men of that era were accustomed to undressing for draft physicals and athletic squad weigh-ins.

But the faces of the women were another story. I was surprised at how many looked deeply unhappy, as if pained at being subjected to this procedure. On the faces of quite a few I saw what looked like grimaces, reflecting pronounced discomfort, perhaps even anger.

I was not much more comfortable myself sitting there in the midst of stacks of boxes of such images. What could have possessed so many elite institutions of higher education to turn their student bodies over to the practitioners of what now seems so dubious a science project?

It is a question that baffles the current powers-that-be at Ivy League schools. The response of Gary Fryer, Yale's spokesman, is representative: "We searched but there's nobody around now who was involved with the decision." Even so, he assures me, nothing like it could happen again.

Though he is undoubtedly correct that nothing precisely like the posture-photo folly could happen again, it is hard to deny the possibility, the likelihood, that well-meaning people and institutions will get taken in - are being taken in - by those who peddle scientific conjecture as certainty. Sheldon's dream of reducing the complexity of human personality and the contingency of human fate to a single number is a recurrent one, as the continuing IQ controversy demonstrates. And a reminder that scepticism is still valuable in the face of scientific claims of certainty, particularly in the slippery realms of human behaviour.

The rise and fall of "sciences" such as Marxist history, Freudian psychology and Keynesian economics suggests that at least some of the beliefs and axioms treated as science today (Rorschach analysis, "rational choice" economics, perhaps) will turn out to have little more validity than nude stick-pin somatotyping.

In the Sheldon rituals, the student test subjects were naked - but it was the emperors of scientific certainty who had no clothes.