Beth Linker is revolutionizing good posture

For decades, the idea of ​​standing upright has carried with it considerable political and social baggage. Sagging was considered a sign of decay.

In the early 20th century, posture exams became essential in the military, workplace, and schools, thanks in part to the American Posture League, a group of physicians, educators, and health officials formed in 1914. In 1917, one study found that approximately 80% of Harvard freshmen had poor posture. Industrialists have continued to accumulate posture-improving chairs, products and gadgets.

But current science doesn't support conventional wisdom about correct posture, argues Beth Linker in her new book, “Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America.” Dr. Linker, a historian and sociologist of science at the University of Pennsylvania, recently gave an interview to the New York Times; the conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Pleased to meet you.

Your posture seems pretty good. And it doesn't matter: that's the whole point of my book. It's fake news.

Is our obsession with great posture fake news? I'm off the hook!

Concern about posture, as a matter of etiquette, has been around since the Enlightenment, if not before, but poor posture did not become a scientific and medical obsession until after the publication of Darwin's “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. that humans evolved through natural selection and that the first thing to develop was bipedalism; in other words, the upright position preceded the development of the brain.

This idea was controversial because convention taught that superior intellect distinguished humans from nonhuman animals, and it now seemed that only a mere physical difference, located in the spine and feet, separated mankind from apes.

In other words, the bad posture was primitive.

In fact, quite the opposite. Poor posture was assumed to primarily affect “civilized” individuals – people who no longer engaged in physical labor but instead enjoyed the fruits of mechanized transportation, industrialization, and leisure.

With the advent of eugenics in the early 20th century, some scientists began to fear that inflection among “civilized” peoples could lead to degeneration, a backward slide in human progress. Posture correction became part of “race improvement” projects, especially for white Anglo-Saxon men but also for middle-class women and blacks seeking political rights and equity. Poor posture has been stigmatized and defined as a disability. As I show in my book, people with postural “defects” were routinely discriminated against in the workplace, educational settings, and American immigration offices. At the time, people with disabilities had no legal protection.

Additionally, this was an era when doctors and public health officials began to focus more on disease prevention to control the spread of infectious contagions such as tuberculosis. Good posture was believed to be an effective way to ward off deadly diseases, leading to campaigns teaching Americans how to stand up straight.

When tuberculosis rates declined in the 1940s – partly following the discovery of antibiotics – scientists and doctors began to draw a causal link between poor posture and back pain. President John F. Kennedy, who suffered from chronic back pain and was a posture guru, reinvigorated the Presidential Council on Physical Fitness in order to promote righteousness and strength among the nation's citizens.

For much of the 20th century, posture awareness campaigns were seen as a cost-effective way to improve national health, especially compared to more expensive health investments such as improvements in housing, infrastructure, and nationalized health insurance coverage. Posture crusaders also tended to hold individuals responsible for their own poor health, rather than looking at structural problems. For example, they would blame someone who suffers from back pain for causing the problem, for not being able to sit and stand properly, for being hunched over.

And you claim it was unfair.

There was really no evidence of causality, then or now.

But this belief has gained ground because it has legitimized ancient assumptions about the importance of upright posture for human capabilities. Posture assessments have become a quick and effective way to evaluate another person's character, intelligence, and health, all in one fairly simple exam.

I'm not a posture denier. I think postural therapy can be a powerful tool when used to relieve existing back pain. I myself see a physical therapist for my back pain and use standing desks, ergonomic chairs and yoga to contribute to my sense of well-being. But these devices and remedies offer much more than a fixed notion of good posture.

What I wonder is how much posture correction can do for a healthy, pain-free person in terms of preventing future disease and the inevitability of aging. The postural panic created over 100 years ago, and the simplistic message behind it, was good for self-discipline and business. In a way, manufacturers of ergonomic chairs, back braces, bras and shoes, even today, want to keep the panic alive.

Do we have a good definition of what good or bad posture is? We do not. No one can agree on what the standards are. Furthermore, the human body is incredibly dynamic and each of our anatomies is, to some extent, distinct. Saying that there is some sort of static norm is not in line with reality.

Doesn't that just mean standing as upright as possible with your chin tilted back?

The verticality of the plumb line is what it is called; this is one way to evaluate posture. You have some anatomical markers in line with each other. But we are never static. How long can you really maintain “good” posture?

Until we finish this Zoom call and I can relax.

The scientific study on the effectiveness of posture correction was hampered by a scandal that the New York Times Magazine covered in the 1990s. The article reported that for several decades, up until the 1970s, Ivy League schools took photos of naked college students to check their posture, and that these images still existed in the Smithsonian archives. My research has shown that posture photography is being done not only at elite universities, but also in colleges, hospitals, and prisons across the country. The practice of taking photos of nude poses largely stopped in the early 1970s due to concerns about propriety and personal privacy.

After the Times exposé, entire archives containing a century of scientific data on posture were burned or destroyed.

The scandal did not call into question the supposed benefits of posture correction; rather, he challenged conventions on posture measurement. So the health belief that posture is an indicator of future health – that it can be a predictor of back pain and neck pain – has remained in place. Only recently have some studies shown that it is possible to adopt all types of posture, even the occasional hunched one, and feel good.

In summary, you argue that there is no connection between a person's posture and morality, and that there may be no connection to long-term health.

In a sense it is 20th century phrenology. We use posture to judge character, intelligence and physical ability. For example, if you are a slob, it also means that you are somewhat lazy.

It is superficial and skillful to estimate what another person can or cannot do based on their posture. In terms of long-term health, I think the judgment is still out.

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