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Shocking, because what he found was an enormous cache of nude photographs, thousands and thousands of photographs 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, a former Cleveland Browns quarterback new to Yale, was mystified. But after making some discreet inquiries, he found out what they were -- and took swift action to burn them.
He called in a professional, a document-disposal expert, who initiated a two-step torching procedure. 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 insuring that not a single intact or recognizable image of the nude Yale students -- some of whom had gone on to assume positions of importance in government and society -- would survive. It was the Bonfire of the Best and the Brightest, and the assumption was that the last embarrassing reminders of a peculiar practice, which masqueraded as science and now looked like a kind of kinky voodoo ritual, had gone up in smoke.
The assumption was wrong. 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 -- of what happens when well-intentioned institutions allow their reverence for the reigning conjectures of scientific orthodoxy to persuade them to do things that seem silly or scandalous in retrospect.
And now that I've found them, I'm still not sure whether outrage or laughter is the more appropriate reaction. Your response, dear reader, may depend on whether your nude photograph is among them. And if you attended Yale, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Smith or Princeton -- to name a few of the schools involved -- from the 's through the 's, there's a chance that yours may be. Your response may also depend on how you feel about the fact that some of these schools made nude or seminude photographs of you available to the disciples of what many now regard as a pseudo-science without asking permission.
And on how you feel about an obscure archive in Washington making them available for researchers to study. While investigating the strange odyssey of the missing nude "posture photos," I found that the issue is, in every respect, a very touchy matter -- indeed, a kind of touchstone for registering the uneven evolution of attitudes toward body, race and gender in the past half-century. 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 preliberation context -- and yes, because of the metal pins stuck on my body. One fall afternoon in the mid's, shortly after I arrived in New Haven to begin my freshman year at Yale, I was summoned to that sooty Gothic shrine to muscular virtue known as Payne Whitney Gym. 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. And 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 positioned against a 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 learned that it was a long-established custom at most Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools. All of them -- whole generations of the cultural elite -- were asked to pose. But however much the colleges tried to make this bizarre procedure seem routine, its undeniable strangeness engendered a scurrilous strain of folklore. There were several salacious stories circulating at Yale back in the 60's. Most common was the report that someone had broken into a photo lab in Poughkeepsie, N.
Little did I know how universal this myth was. She can laugh about it now, she said, but in retrospect the whole idea that she and all her smart classmates went along with being photographed in this way dismays her. Sally Quinn Smith '63the Washington writer, expressed alarm when I first reached her.
You always thought when you did it that one day they'd come back to haunt you. That 25 years later, when your husband was running for President, they'd show up in Penthouse. Another Wellesley alumna, Judith Martin, author of the Miss Manners column, told me she's "appalled in retrospect" that the college forced this practice on their freshmen. Nonetheless, she confessed to making a kind of good-natured extortionate use of the posture-photo specter herself.
And there were a lot of people who turned pale before they realized it was a joke. Distinguishing between joke and reality is often difficult in posture-photo lore. Consider the astonishing rumor Ephron clued me in to, a story she assured me she'd heard from someone very close to the source:.
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 manliness was the obvious one. In fact, the study was real. I was able to track it down, although the conclusion it reached about Harvard men was somewhat different from what Ephron recalled. But, clearly, the nude-posture-photo practice engendered heated fantasies in both sexes.
Perhaps in the otherwise circumspect Ivy League-Seven Sisters world, nude posture photos were the d exception to propriety that spawned licentious fantasies. Fantasies that were to lie unremembered, or at least unpublicized until. According to Wolf, who'd never had a posture photo taken the practice was discontinued at Yale inCavett took the microphone and told the following anecdote:.
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-light district. 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 nightclub act.
Wolf's horrified 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. No one knew until. This is where things get really strange. Hersey went on to say that the pictures were actually made for anthropological research: "The reigning school of the time, presided over by E. Hooton of Harvard and W. 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. 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. A truly breathtaking missive.
What Hersey seemed to be saying was that entire generations of America's ruling class had been unwitting guinea pigs in a vast eugenic experiment run by scientists with a master-race hidden agenda. My classmate Steve Weisman, the Times editor who first called my attention to the letter, pointed out a fascinating corollary: The letter managed in a stroke to confer on some of the most overprivileged people in the world the one status distinction it seemed they'd forever be denied -- victim.
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, civilized scholar, Hersey did not seem prone to sensationalism. But he showed me a draft chapter from his forthcoming book on the esthetics of racism that went even further than the allegations in his letter to The Times.
I was struck by one passage in particular:. The data accumulated, says Hooton, will eventually lead on to proposals to 'control and limit the production of inferior and useless organisms. But the real solution is to be 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. What was the precise relationship between theorists like Hooton and Sheldon the man who actually took tens of thousands of those nude posture photos and the Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools whose student bodies were photographed? Were the schools complicit or were they simply dupes? And finally: What became of the photographs? As for the last question, Hersey thought there'd 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'd had. Harley P. Holden, curator of Harvard's archives, said that from the 's to the 's the university had its own posture-photo program in which some 3, pictures of its students were taken.
Most were destroyed 15 or 20 years ago "for privacy scruples," Holden said. Nonetheless, quite a few Harvard nudes can be found illustrating Sheldon's book on body types, the "Atlas of Men. Hersey insisted that there was a treasure trove of Sheldon photographs out there to be found.
He gave me the phone of a man in New Mexico named Ellery Lanier, a friend of Sheldon, the posture-photo mastermind. Going from Hersey to Lanier meant stepping over the threshold from contemporary academic orthodoxy into the more exotic precincts of Sheldon subculture, a loose-knit network of his surviving disciples. A of them keep the Sheldon legacy alive, hoping for a revival. Lanier, an articulate, seventyish doctoral student at New Mexico State, told me he'd gotten to know Sheldon at Columbia in the late 's, when the two of them were hanging out with Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and their crew.
Sheldon had a prophetic mystical side, which revealed itself in Huxleian philosophic treatises on the "Promethean will. Life magazine ran a cover story in on Sheldon's theory of somatotypes. 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 harbored 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 as every individual a three-digit 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 flavor 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.
Others, like Hans Eysenck, the British psychologist, have suggested that Sheldon wasn't really doing science at all, that he was just winging it, that there was "little theoretical foundation for the observed findings. Nonetheless, in the late 40's and early 50's, 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 's 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 their pictures taken only partly nude. Although Lanier assumes that Sheldon took the Rodham photo, Wellesley archivists believe that Sheldon didn't take posture photos at their school.
What Sheldon did was appropriate the ritual. Lanier confirmed that the Ivy League "posture photos" Sheldon used were "part of a facade or cover-up for what we were really doing" -- which would make the schools less complicit. But Lanier stoutly defended "what we were really doing" as valid science. As part of his Ph. He puts on a big show of being ectomorphic, but this is all a cover-up because he's quite mesomorphic. Lanier also filled me in on the cause of Sheldon's downfall: his never completed, partly burned "Atlas of Women. What happened was this: In SeptemberSheldon and his team descended on Seattle, where the University of Washington had agreed to play host to his project.
He'd 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 shoveled the incendiary film into an 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 into the relationship between physique and temperament, the raw material of serious scholarship? 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 60's and 70's, when the colleges phased out the posture-photo practice.Nude wives in Columbia
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