The Naked Truth: William Sheldon, Body Types and Photos at Yale

Working on a film idea (that I can’t explain here, but I’m excited about), I have been researching lately the idea of body types—or doshas—in Ayurvedic medicine. The three body types (and humans are a combination of all three)—vata, pitta and kapha—can be very roughly compared to, respectively, ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph. I, for the record, am vata dominant, with a lesser yet almost equal distribution of pitta and kapha (perhaps more pitta).

body types

These body types, or somatotype terms—ecto, meso and endomorph—were developed (or further developed) in the middle of the last century by the so-called constitutional psychologist William Sheldon. Sheldon did intensive research on body types which included further conclusions on what having dominance in a certain body type might mean to one’s nature.

From Wikipedia:

Constitutional psychology is a theory, developed in the 1940s by American psychologist William Herbert Sheldon, associating body types with human temperament types.

Sheldon proposed that the human physique be classed according to the relative contribution of three fundamental elements, somatotypes, named after the three germ layers of embryonic development: the endoderm, (develops into the digestive tract), the mesoderm, (becomes muscle, heart and blood vessels), and the ectoderm (forms the skin and nervous system).

Perhaps for a fear of its connection to eugenics, Sheldon’s work has been largely discredited or, at least, ignored. This was a time across the Western world of eugenics being very popular and accepted, although its intention was often purely racist, and the information was used at times for terrifying ends.

THE SHAPE OF MY PERSONALITY

Ironically, and of course not completely, but it seems to me that one’s body type can actually give a certain amount of useful and positive information about a person’s nature. Mine does. Why wouldn’t it, when it is such a profound part of one’s nature?

Again, how this is information is used is another matter.

Further, I also believe we are so much more than we can ever know.

POSTURING AS SCIENCE

But either way, what is also fascinating and creepy is how this information was gathered in prestigious American universities, including Yale, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Smith and Princeton. Talk about a sort of enforced and perverse hazing procedure for first year students, evidently from Nora Ephron to Meryl Streep to Bob Woodward, George Bush, Hillary Clinton and thousands of others who had nude photos of themselves taken when they arrived at their prestigious schools as first year students.

The procedure actually began before Sheldon’s study of body types, and was supposedly used to study the posture of students. I’m not kidding. Truly bizarre and historically revealing (no pun intended). Further, it’s weird and alarming, and dangerous and frightening, what people will do without question, when they are not in positions of power (and, of course, when they are).

We humans are profoundly vulnerable. Love more, I tell you!

Check out this fascinating 1995 article from the New York Times. What it reveals psychologically about institutions or science, I am not certain. It is written by one who himself was photographed, journalist Ron Rosenbaum, and entitled The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal. An excerpt:

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.

It didn’t occur to me to object: I’d been told that this “posture photo” was a routine feature of freshman orientation week. Those whose pins described a too violent or erratic postural curve were required to attend remedial posture classes.

The procedure did seem strange. But I soon learned that it was a long-established custom at most Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools. George Bush, George Pataki, Brandon Tartikoff and Bob Woodward were required to do it at Yale. At Vassar, Meryl Streep; at Mount Holyoke, Wendy Wasserstein; at Wellesley, Hillary Rodham and Diane Sawyer. All of them—whole generations of the cultural elite—were asked to pose. But however much the colleges tried to make this bizarre procedure seem routine, its undeniable strangeness engendered a scurrilous strain of folklore.

And people question Chomsky’s assumption that the intelligentsia—be it the media or scholars—can be manipulated by collective interests to unwittingly serve the interests of the powerful.

Rosenbaum writes, after finally being able to study the photographs (which have since been destroyed):

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.

And some of Sheldon’s work (which I barely know at all accept through Jeffrey Armstrong and wikipedia), at least his early work, did have profoundly racist overtones. Rosenbaum writes:

In Box 43 I came across a document never referred to in any of the literature on Sheldon I’d seen. It was a faded offprint of a 1924 Sheldon study, “The Intelligence of Mexican Children.” In it are damning assertions presented as scientific truisms that “Negro intelligence” comes to a “standstill at about the 10th year,” Mexican at about age 12. To the author of such sentiments, America’s elite institutions entrusted their student bodies.

This is badly phrased. American elite institutions themselves (and countless others) had (and have) these same sentiments. Indeed, bipartisanship in politics has always been severe (even if the two parties are actually relatively close on the spectrum), but has any Democratic president taken quite the beating that President Obama has taken from the Right? Maybe, but it is extreme.

I AM WHAT I AM

But all racism aside (please!), the question remains: how much does our very complex body type actually express itself as our nature? I ask this with the belief that the mind/body complex is ultimately inseparable, and therefore—with perhaps the soul aside—if we could truly read our body type, in all its complexity, isn’t our body type, as humans, precisely who we are?

Ah, dangerous waters indeed, getting into evolutionary biology, religion, spirituality, psychology, advertising, health in general, and the never-ending nature/nurture conversation. But take a little Porsche sports car off-roading and see what happens to that Porsche—it is ruined. Is that statement an insult to the Porsche, or just a person aware of the strengths and weaknesses of said Porsche?

(I am using the Porsche here as a metaphor for body-type).

Put a man with a poet’s sensitive nature (whatever variations that body type may be) into the trenches of World War I, and ask, in general, if they last emotionally or physically, as long as, say, the pure mesomorph. I don’t know the answer, but I think not (I am referring here, specifically, to shell shock, the effects of which can be profoundly disturbing to witness). Similarly, put Gandhi, as great as he was, in the NHL playing left wing, and see how long his little body lasts. An insult to Gandhi, or Gandhi’s nature?

Indeed, I played serious hockey until I was eighteen. In the end, was I built to go farther in the sport, emotionally and physically? I would say no, and my injuries and spirit confirmed this. I am not insulted by this question, or the answer. Christ, I’m relieved. I’m a dreamer.

Oh to be human. What are we? Who are we? Here’s to love, and understanding ourselves in ways that enhance our journey, and our individual strengths and greatnesses.

Pete xox

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5 Responses to “The Naked Truth: William Sheldon, Body Types and Photos at Yale”

  1. So much to say about this, and all I can say is that sometimes metaphors go funny places, especially when they refer to Porsche sports cars going off-road.

    (The 959 is the most famous and successful example, but many 911s were seriously rallied from the 1960s onwards, and many other models have been rally-ized at least once, to say nothing of Porsche’s bizarre but profitable SUV, the Cayenne).

  2. You got me on the Porsche sports car metaphor. But may I also add, it was ‘rally-ized.’ In that sense, it’s not the same car. Similarly, what would happen if you dropped a violin, compared to dropping a violin in its case, are two different things. But does and MGB work? A mini? I guess you can’t even use a bike as an example. Maybe the traditional ten speed with the thin tires?

    Thanks for your gems, as always,

    Pete

  3. The Mini does not work: it was a famous and wildly successful rally car! Also, they just announced a Countryman variant of the new Mini that’s an AWD sorta-offroader.

    I can’t swear that MGBs have ever been rallied, but I suspect they are as bad off road as they are on road.

    I think you might be on solid ground if you picked a particular vehicle (as far as I know, nobody has been crazy enough to rally-prep a Ferrari F430.

    I take my road racing bike off-road occasionally, but you might be ok with saying “as clumsy as a track bike at a BMX park.”

  4. Ferrari it is! Damn, it should have been Ferrari all along. I think “clumsy as a track bike at a BMX park” might take too much thinking. Or, at least, I had to think about it. But maybe that’s my body type.

    Pete

  5. Kyle G SEMass says:

    Wow,
    Came across this looking for body fat percentage vs age…having pretty much been ecto (figure skater, high school hockey) then meso (boxer US Navy) and sliding slowly into endo (fat old computer geek) I can say that body type played a big role in who I was at different stages of my life. A good read and done tastefully and with respect.
    Kyle :)

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