When the elitist schools photographed all freshmen students nude

It was only this past March that news of Trump’s wife having posed nude for a magazine photoshoot was front and center news but in 1995, Ron Rosenbaum writing for the New York Times wrote of the photoshoots of the Bush family and the Clintons. Those photoshoots arent of the sexy type that comes to mind when one hears “nude photoshoot.”

For decades, it was common practice for the elite universities of America to photograph all incoming freshman nude, as part of something called “a posture photo,” something that was part of a health exam. Having been part of this, the author of the New York Times piece describes what it is like to go through this.

The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal

One fall afternoon in the mid-60’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.  

What schools had been part of this? Harvard had begun a program as early as the 1880s. Vasser, Yale and Washington University all had a posture photo program. Wellesley College’s posture photo program distributed documentaries on proper “posture hygiene” to “progressive” high schools and elementary schools.

When Rosenbaum comes across a letter in the New York Times from a Yale professor, George Hersey, entitled “A Secret Lies Hidden in Vassar and Yale Nude ‘Posture Photos.” Hersey claims photoshoots were used for eugenic studies.

Hersey went on to say that the pictures were actually made for anthropological research: “The reigning school of the time, presided over by E. A. Hooton of Harvard and W. H. 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.”

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.

Rosenbaum was led on to an adventure to seek out what happened to these stockpiles of photographs. George Hersey pointed him in the direction of a former associate of W. H. Sheldon, Ellery Lanier.

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 number 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 1940’s, when the two of them were hanging out with Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and their crew…At that time, Sheldon was at the apex of his now-forgotten renown. Life magazine ran a cover story in 1951 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 assign every individual a three-digit number 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.

Lanier could not lead Rosenbaum to any stockpiles of these photos. Boxes of these pictures were seized by authorities off University of Washington’s campus in the ’50s and burned. Likewise, the same happened among Yale and Harvard in the 60s and 70s. Lanier did lead Rosenbaum to another person whom had known Sheldon. That person led to another, and eventually to Roland D Elderkin, whom said of Sheldon “there was nobody closer…I was his soulmate.” It was Elderkin that pointed Rosenbaum to where some of the surviving posture photos could still be found.

BEFORE WE PROCEED TO the location of the treasure itself, it might be wise to pause and ponder the wisdom of opening such a Pandora’s box. With scholars like Hersey alleging eugenic motives behind Sheldon’s project, with the self-images of so many of the cultural elite at stake, would exposure of the hidden hoard be defensible? Is there anyone, aside from lifelong Sheldon disciples, who will step forward to defend Sheldon’s posture photos?

Of course there is: Camille Paglia.

“I’m very interested in somatotypes,” she said. “I constantly use the term in my work. The word ‘ectomorph’ is used repeatedly in ‘Sexual Personae’ about Spenser’s Apollonian angels. That’s one of the things I’m trying to do: to reconsider these classification schemes, to rescue them from their tainting by Nazi ideology. It’s always been a part of classicism. It’s sort of like we’ve lost the old curiosity about physical characteristics, physical differences. And I maintain it’s bourgeois prudery.”

These photos were stored in the National Anthropology Archives section of the Smothsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. This is a branch of the museum not opened to the public, typically used for members of Native American tribes to examine old anthropological records.

The Smithsonian did not grant Rosenbaum access easily. After three months, he was finally able to examine the photographs.

As I thumbed rapidly through box after box to confirm that the entries described in the Finder’s Aid were actually there, I tried to glance at only the faces. It was a decision that paid off, because it was in them that a crucial difference between the men and the women revealed itself. For the most part, the men looked diffident, oblivious. That’s not surprising considering that men of that era were accustomed to undressing for draft physicals and athletic-squad weigh-ins.

But the faces of the women were another story. I was surprised at how many looked deeply unhappy, as if pained at being subjected to this procedure. On the faces of quite a few I saw what looked like grimaces, reflecting pronounced discomfort, perhaps even anger.

After Rosenbaum’s story was published, Yale University immediately requested the Smithsonian to destroyed.

The Smithsonian complied and offered to do the same for any of the other universities that requested it. The clandestine museum branch is not open to the public, only to researchers, and to this date, it has not been revealed how many, or if any photographs still remain in existence.


Returning back to my opening sentence in this article: Hillary Clinton has posed nude like Trump’s wife. Whereas Melania Trump did as part of a glam lifestyle, Hillary did it as part of a pseudo-scientific unethical eugenic project. And when you get down to it, that really is what Trump vs Clinton is: glam vs unethical.