Historical Posture Perspective

I was recently sent “The Rise and Fall of American Posture” which is a wonderful sociological account of how we in the United States came to highly value and (relatively) devalue the role of posture in health and everyday life. Posture has historically been a central theme in fitness, massage, rehabilitation, and other movement disciplines, (but not everyone has the time or desire to read through nearly 40 pages about posture) so I’ve attempted to condense some of the more thought provoking and relevant points while adding some commentary of my own.

The Rise and Fall of American Posture

North American interests in holding the body stiff and upright largely began in the late 18th century. Just prior to this, it was the social convention for aristocracy to lounge and slouch. The move away from slouched and relaxed postures was largely used to separate the new middle class from old aristocracy while remaining distinct from the common workers. At the same time Europeans moved toward these more erect postures in tandem with formalized dances and changing military aesthetics.

Once formalized rules for posture became associated with both class and etiquette, following these rules became strongly linked to one’s financial status, physical wellness, and moral character. Straying from the required posture standards indicated a failure in all of these areas. The condemnation of morals, character, and beauty was especially present in women, who were judged to lack sexual restraint as well as social and aesthetic grace if they did not conform to posture standards.

Posture standards were also argued to separate humans from other animals or animal-like appearances, especially in children. This idea grew increasingly popular alongside the spread of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which was used by some to justify preexisting racist ideologies. Phrenologists and some doctors eagerly adopted this pseudo-scientific racism, using posture as a diagnostic criteria for illness and moral defects. To counteract this growing concern, doctors encouraged regular exercise and postural training (especially in children) while discouraging long periods of sitting and writing.

Postural concerns and advice grew throughout the late 18th century, but it was not until the early-middle 19th century that these ideas entered more greatly into the mainstream. Until this point, fashionable dress would conceal a great deal of the body or was otherwise so restrictive that it was not possible for one to slouch or relax the body. The gradual change from controlled aesthetics to comfort and ease was also seen in the furniture of sitting rooms. By the late 1800’s stiff-backed chairs and sofas gave way to plush seating and rocking chairs, which allowed far greater freedom in bodily positions.

The late 1800’s also marked a general shift in the culture of the middle class, in part because the middle class itself had expanded and included more people from more diverse backgrounds. These changes introduced more people to the idea of disposable income, which helped to usher in the beginning of wide-spread consumerism. The stiff postures styled after Victorian manners subsequently began to generally be associated with an inability to relax or enjoy one’s self as well as a resistance to modernity among the newer members of the middle class. Leisure activities including the popular dances of the time reflected these attitudes by emphasizing flexibility and ease of movement over careful rigid postures. 

Those with traditional values sought to counteract the growing trend toward relaxed postures in the late 1800’s, citing ramifications on health and morals as cause for concerns. Doctors and etiquette manuals blamed modern civilization, the need to sit in schools, and social habits for the decline of strict postural habits. Professionals gave detailed instructions for proper behavior in both sitting and standing. These guidelines were prominently featured in manuals for raising children, where exercise and postural education was heavily stressed.

Many in the medical establishment warned parents about the consequences of poor posture in children, incorrectly believing that relaxed posture would lead to spinal deformities and the organs to move or become compressed against each other thus impeding function. Many doctors also warned about the nebulous concept of the moral consequences posture would have on the body — an idea linked to the eugenics movement. 

Doctors throughout much of the 19th century were quick to blame the extended periods children spent seated in schools for perceived postural issues. This thinking prompted school physical education programs to develop around postural education and training around the same time. Physical education teachers developed a wide variety of tests and treatments for postural problems: enforcement of habits, exercises, and new furniture designs. These programs were chiefly focused on posture as a reflection of moral character, physical fitness, and even personality. Students would be graded according to these standards and would be shamed if they were found to fall outside the preconceived ideals.

While postural training programs were present in many school settings, they were the most rigorous in the Ivy League universities and similar schools that were generally regarded as the more elite and exclusive institutions. From the late 1800’s to as far as the 1960’s, a great deal of these schools took photographs of each student in varying states of undress upon their admission. Some of these schools would go as far as to reject students if they found their posture (or any other element of their physical condition) lacking. Training programs varied from specific exercises to more general fitness and awareness campaigns, which generally focused on women over men.

At the same time that postural training was taking hold in schools and universities, many prominent voices in parenting and childhood development also trumpeted the importance of postural training in the home. Many doctors in this period helped to perpetuate these concerns, however, at this time modern medical research was still quite young and much of medical practice was still based upon on fear and tradition rather than verifiable knowledge. Tradition in broader culture also became increasingly prominent with increases in immigration, racial diversity, and fears of consumerism. Social elites and those with stronger ties to the past maintained posture as a way to set themselves apart from the world that was changing around them.

Many continued to promote and practice idealized posture throughout the 20th century, but the broader cultural shift toward relaxation could not be stopped. Especially after WWII, the middle class grew rapidly and new communities were formed. Increasingly plush furniture, looser clothing, and family gatherings around the radio or TV almost demanded a sort of lounging. Similarly, the image of a lounging James Dean signified the rebellion of youth, which became emblematic of the massive baby boomer generation that followed.

Etiquette guides still emphasized the more rigid Victorian postures, but even the strictest authors agreed that posture was situational. Due to growing social trends away from the formalities of the past, stiffer postures were increasingly thought to be less welcoming and friendly, thus remaining rigid was discouraged in the increasingly casual business realm.

As medical knowledge grew, it also became widely recognized that most so called postural “defects” in children would vanish with age regardless of postural exercise, and often had no relation to posture at all. Doctors came to largely abandon postural evaluations or considerations in all except a select few conditions by the 1960’s. Because the heavy focus on postural training in children could not be medically justified, a great deal of parenting and physical education swiftly began to omit all but references to posture that focused more on appearances and moral character.

There is no singular explanation for why idealized posture rose to such great heights and fell so out of favor in all but a few areas of society. Ideas about class, race, gender, health, and aesthetics all fed into one another in both the rise and fall of American posture.

My Thoughts

The history of posture in America includes concerns about social class, long debunked pseudo-science, covert forms of racism and misogyny, and some very strange ideas about moral character. As a whole, a great deal of ideas about posture come from places we should seek to distance ourselves from. Looking at where ideas come from can help to add perspective when making decisions, but ultimately whether posture is important or not should be decided by the best available evidence rather than tradition.


The Rise and Fall of American Posture

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