October 23, 2023
SHM, 333 Cedar Street
Historical Medical Library
Beth Linker, Department Chair and the Samuel H. Preston Endowed Term Associate Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, will present the annual John P. McGovern Lecture in the History of Science and Medicine.
The talk focuses on the consequential but overlooked health episode in U.S. history, namely the poor posture epidemic. Beginning with the eugenics movement, and fueled by fears of disability, slouching took on a new scientific relevance in the early twentieth century, becoming an individual health threat, an affront to conventional race hierarchies, and a sign of American decline. What followed were massive efforts to measure, track, and prevent slouching and, later, back pain—campaigns that reached schools, workplaces, and beyond, from the creation of the American Posture League to posture pageants. The popularity of posture-enhancing products, such as girdles and lumbar supports, exploded, as did new fitness programs focused on postural muscles, such as Pilates and modern yoga. By 1970, student protests largely brought an end to school posture exams and photos, but many efforts to fight bad posture continued, despite a lack of scientific evidence.