Beth Linker’s new book explores the science of posture

The new book from the history and sociology of science professor investigates how and why a panic around posture emerged in America in the 20th century.

Penn historian Beth Linker’s new book, “Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America,” delves into the emergence of our nation’s preoccupation with posture. The book, already reviewed in The New Yorker and The Washington Post and highlighted in The New York Times, investigates the historical, cultural, and political implications of the 20th-century emergence of an obsession with standing up straight. At that time, “good” posture became a proxy for health—even used in the military to assess fitness to serve, as a wellness test for immigrants seeking entrance, and by many colleges and universities, which required students to take nude “posture” photos as part of physical exams before matriculating.

Beth Linker and the cover of her book, “Slouch.”
Beth Linker, Samuel H. Preston Endowed Term Professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. Images: Courtesy of Penn Arts & Sciences and OMNIA

This preoccupation with straight backs dates to Darwin, according to Linker, the Samuel H. Preston Endowed Term Professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. “Slouch” recounts this history beginning in the late 19th century, a time when posture became “scientized and medicalized” in the wake of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and scientific communities’ increasing acceptance of evolution.

It’s a historical moment essential to the foundation of modern posture panic, Linker says. “Darwin posited not only his theory of natural selection, but also that the original human descended from simians and what set off that chain of events was standing up straight. He posited that upright posture actually preceded intellect and language acquisition.”

As physicians and scientists accepted Darwin’s theory—that upright posture came before intelligence and language ability and was the first trait to separate humans from beasts—they started to see a disconnect in the society around them. “If upright posture is necessary to human superiority and the progression of civilization, yet a bunch of people are slumped over, then we have a problem. It creates this kind of fear that permeates throughout the century,” Linker says.

The book, she adds, is meant to “poke a hole” in that panic, in the idea that posture is important and that something specific constitutes “good” posture. It looks at the transition from posture as scientific concept to one of commercial opportunities that played out as the widespread marketing and sale of products like medical girdles, back braces, orthopedic shoes, and posture-focused fitness routines.

This story is by Katelyn Silva. Read more at OMNIA.