Baring it all used to be a routine part of orientation.
Between the 1880s and the 1940s, the University required new students to pose nude for “posture pictures” as part of the regular heath exam. Of the approximately 3,500 subjects who stripped down for the camera, those deemed to have poor posture were required to take a corrective health class, the New York Times Magazine reported in 1995.
W.H. Sheldon, a Columbia University physique scholar, had sold the idea of “posture pictures” to all the Ivy League colleges. Sheldon believed that physical characteristics could reveal facts about a person’s intelligence, temperament, integrity, and future achievement. Some Harvard posture pictures ended up in Sheldon’s book on body types, “Atlas of Men.” Now written off as a pseudoscience, Sheldon’s views used to be endorsed by many university officials, who offered up the literal student body for examination.
Radcliffe, too, took these risque photos from 1931 until 1961, when the Harvard and Radcliffe health services merged. The Seven Sister colleges picked up the practice after Wellesley College started it in the late 1920s, and sent training materials about posture to other women’s colleges. Luckily for Radcliffe women, their pictures were strictly health-related and Sheldon could not get a hold of their photos for his never completed “Atlas of Women.”
After Sheldon fell into disgrace, colleges phased out the practice in the 1960s and ’70s. Most photos have since been destroyed for privacy reasons, much to the relief of alumni including FDR, Meryl Streep, and Hilary Rodham Clinton. Now, the remaining posture pictures reside in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Playboy apparently wasn’t interested.