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Don't slouch, young lady

I've had a slump for most of my life. What can posture teach us about ourselves -- and our society?


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Peggy Shinner
April 13, 2014 4:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted and adapted from "You Feel So Mortal/Essays on the Body"

I was a Dr. Spock baby.  My mother kept “The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care” in the end table next to the couch in the living room, where I found it once when I was looking through drawers for evidence of family secrets, a favorite childhood pastime, and where it remained until two years after her death, when my father finally decided to sell the house and move to an apartment. Periodically I would take out the book and idly flip through the pages. What did it tell me about my mother, or my mother about her children? My mother, a binge eater, insecure cook, sharp dresser and the family ledger-keeper and handyperson, who often seemed daunted by the rigors of raising children. She died in her mid-50s, a woman about whom you might have predicted an early death, perhaps because she seemed afraid of life and gave off a persistent whiff of unhappiness. “Use the Index at the back when you are troubled,” Dr. Spock suggested, and I imagine her folded in the corner of the couch, legs under her housecoat, a Marlboro in the ashtray on the end table. It was late at night. My father was snoring ballistically from the bedroom. The house seemed to be ticking with worry.

My mother turned to the calm, soothing Spock for advice. Here, between Port-wine stains and Potato, gagging on, was the problem: Posture. “[B]ad posture is made up of a number of factors,” Spock wrote in the Pocket Book edition first published in 1946 and in its 20th printing by 1951, the year I was born. These factors included: genetics (“individuals who [are] round-shouldered… like their fathers before them,” a trait, it turns out, that historically has been used to characterize large swaths of people, in particular the Jews, and has even made it into the stockpile of contemporary Jewish humor, as evidenced by this joke about Zen Judaism: Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as the wooded glen. And sit up straight. You'll never meet the Buddha with such rounded shoulders), disease, obesity, psychology (“Many children slouch because of lack of self-confidence”), “unusual tallness.” Whatever the cause, nagging your child to “Stand up straight!” didn’t work. Instead, Spock recommended a more reasoned approach: “posture work at school, in a… clinic, or… a doctor’s office.”  The parents’ job was to “help the child’s spirit by… making him feel adequate and self-respecting.”

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Excellent (A). Good (B). Poor (C). Bad (D). These were the broad posture categorizations first established in 1926 by the Children’s Bureau, a federal agency, and still referred to by body mechanics specialists more than 25 years later, during my childhood. I had bad posture. My parents’ concern was corroborated by an unwaveringly upright, 6-foot-tall fourth grade teacher who wore straight skirts that accentuated her bearing and who told me to pull my shoulders back. The Children’s Bureau illustrated the four categories with silhouettes of naked children in increasingly slumping postures and defined Bad (D) by these characteristics: head markedly forward; chest depressed (sunken); abdomen completely relaxed and protuberant; back curves extremely exaggerated.

And what was the corrective? The twentieth century saw the rise of an organized posture movement in the United States, led by the American Posture League and taken up by both medical and educational professionals throughout the country. Bad posture, according to these experts, contributed to vomiting, colitis, constipation, menstrual irregularity, heart disease, tuberculosis, organ displacement, hernia and mental impairment, and was a symbol of moral weakness, in both individuals and the culture at large.

Children were exhorted by means of slogans, plays, poems and songs to stand up straight, and many received posture training in school or were referred to posture clinics (as Dr. Spock advocated) for treatment. In the 1950s, Posture Paul, the streetcar that knows good posture, offered himself up as an example. In a record meant to inspire Los Angeles public school children, but whose message was apt for slumping children everywhere, Posture Paul, singing to the tune of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna,” kept his “feet straight on the track,” “push(ed his) cushion back,” “tucked [his] tummy in,” “held his chest high and shoulders soft,” and then, in a final verse punctuated by the streetcar’s clanging, promised

If this advice you take from me

And always wear a smile

You will grow to be a healthy child

And live a long long while.

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Meet Adrelene. She’s my doppelgänger. She’s featured in a 1953 educational film, "Your Posture." The opening scene is a party. Girls and boys playing musical chairs. They’re 11 or 12 years old. The girls in shirtwaists and pageboys. The boys in jackets and ties, buzzed hair. Betty Brant’s at the piano, “the kind of girl who puts life into a party,” the voice-over says. And “Jimmy and Sue and Jean and the rest of the gang” are all having a wonderful time. All except Adrelene. Adrelene circles the chairs, head down, eyes darting. She looks nervous, mousy. First round, she gets eliminated. She slinks off by herself. “Adrelene,” the voice-over says, heavy with pity and regret. “Adrelene,” he repeats, so the oddness of her name and the direness of her situation sink in, “who usually sits slumped in her chair in the corner.” Outsider name, outsider status. The other kids laugh at her. “Your posture is your problem,” he continues. And then, half threat, half challenge, “What are you going to do about it?”

This was the 1950s, when the posture movement still held sway. Posture Queen contests were staged all over the country, young women in bathing suits and high heels posing next to life-size X-rays of their spines. One photo from 1957 shows Miss Michigan in a strapless bathing suit, legs demurely crossed, sitting on top of a light box with her illuminated spine and pelvis, holding a trophy and wearing a crown. Barnard College held a posture contest for freshmen every January, during which, according to Life magazine, “Circling contestants walk[ed]… rather like entrants in a live stock show.” The governors of Maryland, Minnesota, Arkansas, Kansas and Kentucky all signed proclamations for Posture Week.

And what about Adrelene? In the heyday of the posture movement, it was permissible, indeed laudable, to deride someone for her posture as a means of goading her to improve. Social ostracism and self-flagellation were part of the prevailing ethos. First the kids at the party send her heading to the corner; and then at home Adrelene’s mirror image turns against her and mocks the way she carries herself. “Do you want to see how you really look, Adrelene? This is it. Your head pokes forward, your shoulders slump, your stomach, well take a look.” At first Adrelene is stricken, but then she rallies. She’s gonna beat this rap. She shakes a finger at the mirror. “Atta girl Adrelene.”

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Also part of the prevailing ethos, as evidenced by the film, is that kids are in charge here. They are the enforcers. In the opening scene, there’s hardly an adult in sight, except the party chaperone hovering on the fringes, rounding up the kids for a game of musical chairs. And later, when Adrelene’s back at home and in front of her rogue mirror, her parents are oddly absent as well. Only later, after the kids have done their job, do the adults appear. Dr. Martin comes to Adrelene’s classroom to lecture on the fundamentals of good posture, and the film changes its focus from social ostracism to instruction.

Kids as enforcers: That was long one of the themes of the posture movement, and a teaching strategy advocated by educators such as Ivalclare Sprow Howland. At Battle Creek College, where Howland was an associate professor, “student coaches in Body Mechanics” wrote "The Slump Family." In this play, intended for use with grammar school-aged children, the Slump children come home from school and teach Mother Slump and Daddy Slump a new song, to the tune of “Frere Jacques”/“Brother John”:

Perfect Posture, perfect posture

Do not slump, do not slump;

You must grow up handsome,

You must grow up handsome,

Hide that hump, hide that hump

Stand “like the Indians do,” the children say, demonstrating proper alignment to their pepless mother and headachy father -- whose boss at the factory has threatened to fire him if he doesn’t shape up (fatigue and general ill-health being the result of poor posture) -- and then “‘we won’t be the Slump Family any more.’”

Howland also suggested that children be enlisted as “posture cops,” a peer-monitoring activity suitable for Good Body Mechanics and Posture Week. In this game, the kid cops tag classmates who exhibit good posture and finger ones who don’t. Jessie Bancroft, American Posture League founder, once noted, seemingly with approval, that “the boys in one class waylaid a classmate after school and pommeled him because his poor posture kept the class from one hundred per cent.”

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I was, as Dr. Spock suggested, unusually tall. In kindergarten I asked the teacher why I was so tall and my classmate, R., so short. There’s a picture of me from around that time, next to my brother in a baby buggy, in which I already look like a beleaguered housewife. My dress is rumpled, I’m snarling at my brother, and I'm slumping.

When I was 10, my parents took me to an orthopedist. I dressed up for the appointment in a shirtwaist. After the examination and the X-rays, the evidence of my errant spine slapped up on a screen, he recommended a brace. In a rare act of defiance, I refused. A brace would make me a freak. Instead, we were sent home with a set of exercises and the grim sense that I had better do them.

I did do them. For one of the exercises, I lay on the floor in my parents’ bedroom, while my mother held down my ankles. Her weight bore into me as I arched my back and lifted my upper body. This was supposed to strengthen my back muscles. But to be down on the carpeting with her, an intimacy I found mortifying, to be cajoled and restrained, hands clamped around my ankles, to be laughed at when I accidentally let out some gas, was humiliating. Maybe, in the end, she hated it too.

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Call someone a slouch, and the word, according to the "Oxford English Dictionary," conjures “an awkward… or ungainly [person]; a lubber, lout, clown; also, a lazy, idle fellow.”  Francis Grose’s 1785 "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" characterized a slouch as “negligent” and “slovenly.” In a letter to Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “I recognise myself, compared with you, to be a lout and slouch of the first water.” German statesman Walter Rathenau warned his fellow Jews “not to make yourselves a laughing stock by a slouching and indolent way of walking….” A slouch has always had a bad rep.

Enter the debutante slouch, circa 1913. (The phrase is listed in the Library of Congress’s 1913 "Catalogue of Copyright Entries.") This is a slouch of a different order. It has pedigree. A high-society knock-off reputedly named after the walk of upper-class women, the debutante slouch made its way across a rapidly changing American landscape. In a spirit of freedom and rebellion, women of all classes took it on: “shoulders sloping, chest dropped, hips slung forward and the knees… slightly bent.” As etiquette manuals had long noted, the way you walked said something about you. It was an index of "[your] character… culture… frame of mind…. There is the thoughtful walk and the thoughtless walk, the responsible walk and the careless walk, the worker’s walk and the idler’s walk, the ingenuous walk and the insidious walk…."

With their sinuous posture, these women emphasized the relaxation of various strictures. They were no longer bound by the old standards of modesty, deference and decorum. They abandoned their corsets; marched down Fifth Avenue demanding the right to vote; took over jobs as elevator operators, drawbridge attendants and train dispatchers during World War 1; drank Gibsons and had sex.

But the slouch had its detractors. Doctors cited organ prolapse, for which, as treatment, one prominent Houston surgeon went so far as to suggest “three months in bed with the foot of the bed elevated 18 inches… a well regulated fattening diet… daily massage and attention to the bowels followed by twelve months use of correctly fitting front lace corset… before [an] operation should be required.” For others an upright posture was a religious imperative. One rural New York commentator said God made man upright, unlike the four-legged creatures, and therefore he must bear himself like a king. Not to do so was to bring on “evil consequences.”

Some critics, in terms crude and offensive, saw the slouch as a racial marker differentiating the white woman from the African American. On a visit to an all-girls’ high school in 1914, General George W. Wingate, co-founder of the National Rifle Association, castigated the students for adopting this new posture. “You girls walk a lot like slaves,” he said. “There is nothing of the queenly pose, the power, the upright carriage, which ought to mark freeborn women. When I see our young women walking on the street I am ashamed of our race.” Such blatant racism was echoed in the remarks of a fashion commentator who noted it was one thing when a 16-year-old with a girlish figure affected the debutante slouch but another when a 40-year-old tried it. No longer young and winsome, she risked looking like a “negro mammy with her bundle of washing.” Finally, and quite simply, one critic for the Pittsburgh Press said, “Slouching is so ugly!”

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Many years later, and still I slump; the girl has a slouch, the woman has a hump.

I see an older woman with a rounded back walking down the street, and I wonder if I’m looking at myself. The dowager with her dowager’s hump: the old lady’s version of bad posture. The dowager’s hump started making the news in the late 1920s. It was “unbeautiful,” unstylish (“A too fat back, a billowing dowager’s hump…. Nothing can destroy chic like structural defects.”), a sign of female dotage. Or, as a Boston Globe columnist wrote, “The dowager’s hump is a placard of slowed up brain action.”

My friend J. had a spinal fusion several years ago, and although she unequivocally considers the surgery a success because it alleviated her debilitating pain, I can’t cast aside my lingering skepticism, because it left her looking old and stooped. Is that the source of our fear and ridicule of the dowager?  That inch by inch she’s closer to the ground and closer to death? (In fact, a recent study by the UCLA School of Medicine cited hyperkyphosis, or dowager’s hump, as a risk factor for early death.) Or does my fear stem from concerns not quite so weighty? Is it simply based on good old-fashioned vanity? Recently I was talking to a woman nearing 80, and with no small hint of smugness we joked about the follies of youth. You look 20 yourself, she said, and in spite of my offhand dismissiveness and the utter improbability of her remark, I took a measure of pride and comfort in it. She must not have been looking at my dowager’s hump.

And who is this dowager? In common usage, she’s an elderly woman who hints at money and stodginess. Often she’s portrayed as a matron with an arch sense of dignity. By definition, she is someone whose luster is borrowed. She serves in her spouse’s stead though she may in fact have no real authority. (There are notable exceptions. Take the nineteenth-century Empress Dowager Cixi, for instance, who started out as a concubine and ended up ruling China for 47 years.) The dowager-queen, dowager-duchess, dowager-empress, dowager-lady. Would we ever have called Jackie Kennedy the dowager-first lady? The tradition doesn’t hold in this country, where our aristocracy is based on money and class rather than royalty; where we often use the word dowager as an insult for the female elderly. Kennedy was, however, a debutante of the first order, named debutante of the year for the 1947-1948 season. What’s more, she was a model of perfect posture. As first lady, she received letters from women all over the country remarking on her “regal bearing.” “You are a queen,” one wrote. For her part, Kennedy attributed her posture to years of equestrian training.

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Right now I am slouching. I’m sitting in my Aeron chair, which, expensive and ergonomically sound, is supposed to aid in good posture, but neither the chair nor its occupant is succeeding. I’ve succumbed to old habits. There is no posture cop to wag a finger at me. I am unobserved. Nor am I wearing the Sitting Pose Corrector and Reminder Alarm, a bird-shaped gadget with internal sensors that detect slumping posture and emit chirping sounds to wake the wearer and warn her of her transgression. Made in Japan and put out by DealExtreme, it goes for $8.43. Officially tagged with a diagnosis of osteoporosis almost ten years ago, I am, like my friend J., getting shorter. A new acquaintance recently distinguished me from my partner as “the little one.”

In the meantime, I turn back to another era, when posture queens across the country donned their crowns. They won scholarships, new mattresses, TV sets and trophies. Miss Perfect Spine, Miss Perfect Back, Miss Good Posture. “Cheesecake,” Time magazine said. “Michigan chiropractors dutifully pored over dozens of candidates’ X-rays to find the girl with the best intervertebral fibro-cartilages.” But along with prurience and prudery, there’s outright oddness, too. In one picture from the 1957 national contest, three contestants in evening gowns and earrings rest their elbows on light boxes with lit X-rays of their heads and torsos. From the chest up they are permed hairdos, penciled eyebrows, glossy smiles; below they are bony illuminations. Their vertebrae look like dice neatly stacked. Part kewpie, part skeleton, the women could be mistaken for subjects in a Cindy Sherman photograph. I probe the X-rays like the X-rays probe them. Rib cage, pelvis, femur. On one, empty white disks of earrings hang suspended from a skull; the jaw sits partially open. On another, shoulder sockets jut like machine parts. Whose dream is this? What do these X-rays reveal? What goes undetected? Who imagined we could really learn anything about these women from their ghostly portraits?


Peggy Shinner

Peggy Shinner is the author of “You Feel So Mortal/Essays on the Body” (University of Chicago). She lives in Chicago with her partner.

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