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The Emperor’s New Corsets

The story behind a voyeuristic cult of prep-school self-improvement

Here’s a grimly edifying set-piece for twenty-first-century feminists to ponder: when my grandmother was a teenager at Greenwich Academy, a girls’ prep school in Connecticut, she and her fellow students were required to pose nude for photographs taken by the P.E. teacher. Once a year, in a mirrored studio on campus, they would shed their itchy, matronly uniforms—green tweed skirts and jackets, green neckties over tan button-down shirts, tan stockings held up with garter belts—and take turns presenting themselves before a big camera. First, they’d stand for full-frontal shots, then in profile, with sucked-in stomachs. In what amounted to report cards evaluating their figures, the silhouetted images were sent home to students’ parents, with comments from the teacher on areas that needed “work.”

“My mother hid the pictures in her underwear drawer,” my grandmother remembers, “to prevent my brothers from finding them.”

This creepy ritual, it turns out, was a regular rite of passage in the upper echelons of American education. From the 1920s to the early 1960s, starting in elementary school, all Greenwich Academy students—including now-famous alumnae Jane Fonda and Ethel Skakel Kennedy—preened in the altogether before the unforgiving school’s camera. Starting in the 1940s, so did thousands of undergraduates at most of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges, among other top-flight schools. Today, the nude college photos of a few generations’ cultural elite are tabloid lore: among endless lurid distractions from last year’s election cycle was a call to unearth naked snapshots ostensibly taken of a young Donald Trump at the University of Pennsylvania and of Hillary Rodham at Wellesley.

Fine Upstanding Citizens

The tradition was, in part, a bizarre, literal realization of the proxy mission to shape upright citizens: educators used nude photographs to assess students’ posture. Thanks to the medical consensus that slouching caused health problems, remedial spine-straightening courses were standard fare at all levels of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century upper-crust schooling. Nude photo sessions, indeed, were the final exams in such posture courses. Harvard founded its “posture photo” program in the 1880s, and other elite colleges eventually followed suit. The fervor spread further in 1914, when the American Posture League started evangelizing at exclusive east coast schools. The league’s agents disseminated a morality play that featured the “King and Queen of Perfect Posture” triumphing over the stooped-over, unsightly “Miss Swayback,” and urged children to chant slogans like “Slazy Slouch Soon Slays.” In 1930, Vassar began claiming the right to dismiss students with severe slumping habits and other physical “defects.”

The American aristocracy’s unquestioning embrace of “posture assessment” as a legitimate reason to photograph students nude—and the sinister mid-century eugenic experiment that this practice ultimately enabled—offers a bleak parable of the perils of scientific orthodoxy and the wavering arc of social progress in the twentieth century.

Apparently, in the first half of the twentieth century, nobody batted an eye at naked exercise classes.

Perhaps the most extreme and influential posture-training fitness program was the Mensendieck System for Functional Movements, which was taught in the United States at such white-glove institutions as Greenwich Academy, the Finch School for Girls in Manhattan, the Laurel School for Girls in Cleveland, the University of Chicago, and Yale University. The System emphasized moving gracefully during “everyday” tasks like ironing and vacuuming. American-born doctor Bess Mensendieck, who had developed the technique in Paris, insisted that practicing stark naked, between two mirrors—and tracking students’ progress with nude before-and-after pictures—was the best way to ensure results. For the bewildered adolescents subjected to her methods, the experience was far closer to an anxiety dream than a reliable gauge of their progress in physical education.

Girls went to class in their birthday suits. “If you had ‘the curse,’ or if you were Catholic, you could keep your panties on,” my grandmother, Joan Manning, told me. “Ms. Johannesen, of Sweden—a tall, bony woman with a dour expression—would stand in a tweed suit and tell us to suck in our stomachs, urge our adductor muscles to contract and relax.” As Joan recalls the scene today, details are murky—except, of course, for the all-too-vivid adolescent female rites of anxious comparison and self-inspection: “All I remember is the physiques of these other girls, who were very well developed—Jojo had large, pillowy breasts that made boys chant ‘Jo-JO! Jo-JO!’ in the parking lot; Molly had long, pendulous breasts that went down to her navel—and who sneered at me because I hadn’t developed and probably never would.”

The Naked and the Daft

Today, all of this would be gruesome scandal fodder. In the wake of Jerry Sandusky’s transgressions at Penn State, and a running tally of sexual abuse sagas involving high-school faculty, any educator caught photographing students naked in P.E. class will wind up in the tabloids, if not in jail. Even the scattered impressionistic recollections of my grandmother made me feel queasy, knowing that being a pubescent girl feels something like becoming a werewolf—you sprout patches of fur and sacs of fat—and hiding your mutating body feels essential to survival. P.E. class inspires dread, even if you get to wear sweatpants.

But apparently, in the first half of the twentieth century, nobody batted an eye at naked exercise classes. “I don’t think anyone complained,” said Joan, now eighty-three, a painter with one milky-blue blind eye and a silver bob. “We just accepted it,” said her friend Marie Beringer, who won a school posture prize. “I feel my body has aged very well because of it.” In a canned, question-dodging statement via email, Ethel Skakel Kennedy said that “next to ballet, Mensendieck classes teach more about how to carry yourself in the most graceful, healthy ways to improve posture.” Jane,[*] another Greenwich alumnus, insisted “there was nothing improper” about being trained and photographed au naturel by Ms. Johannesen: “The door was closed. It was private.”

Young Joan did find the classes “slightly dubious” the first year, then “insane” the second year, though she never said so. The neo-authoritarian culture of prep-school obedience kept her quiet. What’s more, she knew that any act of dissent would come with a hefty socioeconomic price. “My father was a Kentucky farm boy who didn’t make it through eighth grade,” she said. The Second World War drove the Greenwich School’s fees down, but even at $300 per year, her family barely made tuition. “Going to a fancy school in Greenwich was unheard of. Who was I to complain about exercising in the altogether? Maybe that’s just what rich kids did!”

For a while, it was. In addition to the academy, Hollywood fell for the fad: Devotees included silver-screen stars like Gloria Swanson, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Fredric March, and Gary Cooper. (Men performed the exercises in jockstraps.) Georgia O’Keeffe—perhaps searching for yonic painting inspiration—took lessons in New York. In 1936, architect Richard Neutra built a special “Mensendieck House” in Palm Springs, where socialite Grace Lewis Miller spread the nude posture gospel.

Europeans loved it as well: Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor, hired Mensendieck to improve the “potbellies” of his court’s ladies-in-waiting, whom he’d called “the most awkward women in the world.” By 1924, the Mensendieck cult had established devoted schools in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, France, and Czechoslovakia. A 1937 article in Time magazine, simply titled “Posture Lady,” declared that the “sturdy little blond U.S. aesthete [who] taught men and women to move gracefully” was the “best known physical culturist south of Sweden.” By that point, Posture Lady had “won over 200,000 disciples, two-thirds of them women,” worldwide.

Was the Mensendieck System ritual humiliation cleverly disguised as a classy European exercise fad? A pedagogical scam dressed up as “science?” Were the tweed-suited instructors, as Joan’s dyspeptic brother Rob recently speculated, “taking these photos out on the porn market and selling ’em, or what?”

Or, as Madame Mensendieck and her cultish followers contended, did the system help women gain self-knowledge and control over their bodies and, by extension, over their destinies? Were these exercises, as architect Hannes Meyer asserted in a 1926 essay, a modern force that helped shape “the new world”? Was the technique progressive, even feminist, as Mensendieck devotee and “Feminist Manifesto” author Mina Loy seemed to think?

“A Sculptor in Flesh”

As its roots clearly show, the posture craze was of a piece with the entire modernist project in the West: it offered a simple, direct way to reinvent the basic coordinates of human experience for a new age teeming with bold new philosophies of self-improvement. The fin-de-siècle social forces that shaped Mensendieck’s idiosyncratic outlook read like a roll call of all the key elements of physical self-culture at the dawn of the modern age: the exercises of American Delsartism, a theatrically-minded dance movement that imagined the body as a work of art and had a voguish appeal among well-born women; Germany’s nacktkultur (nudism) movement; Victorian dress reform; domestic science; and Nietzschean philosophy.

Born in 1866 in New York City, Elizabeth “Bess” Marguerite de Varel Mensendieck encountered these movements while traveling through the United States and Europe, accompanied by her domestic companion, Annemarie Meusser. She knitted them together in an archetypally optimistic American philosophy that marked the birth of modern exercise culture: the aspirational precepts of the American Dream applied to the human body. The notion that you could transform your physical self without external help from corsets and bustles—and that doing so would ensure your passage into upward mobility—was relatively new and, to elites and strivers alike, very seductive.

Mensendieck’s fitness obsession began via early experiments with Delsarte rhythmic gymnastics. Later, she trained as a sculptor in Paris. During life-drawing classes, she observed nude models’ poor posture and flabby muscles. This made her wonder: “If some models could have the beautiful lines of masterful Greek statues, why couldn’t others? To be sure, not everyone could be a Venus or an Adonis, but it seemed that many did not develop the full potentialities of their bodies.” Her initial study of anatomy left her with a rather literal Pygmalion complex, and she ditched clay to become what she’d call “a sculptor in flesh.”

After studying medicine at the University of Zurich—at the time, the only European school admitting female medical students—Mensendieck encountered the Victorian dress reform movement’s crusade against corsets. As one of Europe’s first female physicians, she agreed that tight-lacing women’s guts was unwise, and joined the anti-corset cause. She also identified new problems facing the untrussed woman: without external scaffolding, her back and stomach muscles were weak. Some blamed loose “liberty bodices,” but Mensendieck diagnosed a preexisting condition: Women needed strength and posture training.

Nature’s Corset

In one of several speculative evolutionary theories, she suggested that men’s superior physical strength had resulted from thousands of years of exercise, while women’s comparatively sedentary existence led to their weakening. Her proposed solution was “nature’s corset”: an iron set of abs and latissimus muscles, paired with a straight spine. Erect posture, she submitted, was the very crux of human civilization. Since upright spines set us apart from simian ancestry, we’d better stay vigilantly poised lest we devolve into crawling, four-legged beasts.

Mensendieck also flirted with Belle Époque Germany’s körperkultur (culture of the body) and nacktkultur (naturism) movements, which considered nude frolicking a liberation from societal constraints. A major sect of nacktkultur saw nudism as a feminist pursuit, arguing that it enhanced women’s body consciousness. Mensendieck adopted this view, as have a range of contemporary feminist-aligned subgroups, such as Femen, the eastern European topless protest movement and its various offshoots.

Nature’s Corset met Nacktkultur in the Mensendieck System of Functional Movements, developed over the course of eight months of experimentation with “conscious muscle control” at the Medical College of Paris in the late 1890s. The System consisted of a set of gentle exercises, each designed to strengthen a particular muscle, to be practiced unclothed. “We must not hesitate to exercise in the nude, for it is only by seeing in the mirror the actual interplay of the muscles of the back that we gain a clear idea of their influence upon the movement of the body as a whole,” Mensendieck wrote. Her many books—including Körperkultur des Weibes (Body Culture of Women, 1909); Funktionelles Frauenturnen (Functional Women’s Gymnastics, 1918); It’s Up to You (1931); and Look Better, Feel Better (1954)—featured photos of naked models, including herself, demonstrating various movements. (In the United States, where Comstockish prudery banned books featuring images of “unclothed bodies,” publishers had skimpy swimwear painted onto the models’ photos.)

Claiming her techniques required live instruction, Mensendieck opened certified schools in New York City and across Europe, where upper-class hausfraus traded in the bulky knickerbockers and sailor tops of turn-of-the-century athletic wear for nothing at all.

Grace through Science

As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English make abundantly clear in For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women, recent history is full of medical doctors cloaking their biases in the mantle of scientific authority as they dole out suspect counsel to women. From the retrograde practice of secluding women during menstruation to Victorian warnings that novel-reading caused “female depravity,” such advice overwhelmingly served to reinforce women’s domestic roles. Insofar as she invoked pseudoscientific theories that fueled the “feminine mystique,” Mensendieck was one such biased expert. Though embraced by feminists and the medical establishment alike, she was as susceptible as anyone to the prejudices of her time.

While ab-sculpting was a small step up from tight-lacing, this mode of women’s strength training fell conspicuously short of gender equity, or any real inroads toward greater social power for women confined within the separate sphere. Unlike men, Mensendieck argued, women didn’t need rigorous gymnastic preparation for the military or hard labor. Instead, they needed training to become beautiful childbearing machines. “There is, indeed, no reason why we should not recreate the Greek beauty of form,” she wrote, and then echoed nineteenth-century biologists’ bogus evolutionary theories about women’s “natural roles”: “Woman, whose body is the mold of the human race, has an even higher responsibility in this regard.”

Slumping and fat equaled sloth and stupidity: “What a poor type of psyche must permeate such flabby flesh as this!”

And so the Mensendieck System aimed to prepare women’s bodies for their preordained biological destinies of childbirth and motherhood. “Proper care of the breast muscles affects the conditions of the glands for breastfeeding,” went one claim. It stressed performing “everyday movements” with “grace and efficiency”: in It’s Up to You, an unclothed model demonstrates proper alignment while answering the phone, ironing, and lifting a baby. (This model doesn’t milk any cows or operate any drills; like many apostles of elite feminist reform in her age, Mensendieck ignored the “everyday movements” of working-class women.) In framing the body as a “machine” for performing streamlined housework, the book channeled the Taylorite revolution in workplace time-and-motion management, and seconded the work being done in the emergent field of domestic science, which aimed to systematize homemaking into its own area of professionalism.

For all her pretensions to up-to-the-minute scientific authority, Mensendieck, like her fellow posture campaigners, brought a distinctly missionary zeal to her cause. It’s Up to You was by far her most impassioned sermon. Calling for “a deep cultural urge toward perfection,” it smacked of the eugenic fervor of its time. (Though, as Robin Veder writes in The Visual in Sport, “While her work may have contributed to the philosophies of nationalist racialist hygiene, the promotion of a Nordic ideal is not explicitly present in Mensendieck’s texts.”) She uses her bully pulpit to declare “relentless warfare” against the “menacing disfigurement” of large abdomens and the “grotesque and dreaded appendage called a double chin.” (Decades later, when scalpels, too, became weapons against “disfigurement,” this warfare would become nearly literal.)

Slumping and fat equaled sloth and stupidity: “What a poor type of psyche must permeate such flabby flesh as this!” she pronounced in scorn. Deploying what remains the fitness industry’s favorite rhetorical strategy, Mensendieck viciously attacks physical flaws, then touts their bulletproof solution: science. While “the overwhelming majority of women are not graceful,” she promises that “grace could be acquired through Science.”

But since science and ideology were virtually interchangeable in Progressive-era America, Mensendieck also indulged in more speculative flights of cultural fancy. She quoted Nietzsche to her students: “Beauty is not a mere accident . . . the superior grace and beauty of a race . . . have been evolved, like genius.” With practice of her technique—preferably starting in childhood—Western culture could overcome its “medieval ignorance” of the human body. This “intellectualization of the flesh” would finally eradicate “weak ankles, flat feet, saber-shaped calves, knock-knees, bowlegs, loose hip joints, slouchy trunks—indeed, the whole lamentable, gangling aspect of present-day youth.”

Such highfalutin appeals to science and philosophy exerted a great appeal among America’s rising professional class: elite educators, in particular, ate it up. Ruth West Campbell, Greenwich Academy’s impeccably erect Europhile headmistress, ensured that her students would not be medievally ignorant. They would, however, be terrorized by rumors that their nude photos had leaked to the neighboring Brunswick School for Boys. According to a classmate, after Ethel Skakel married Robert F. Kennedy, she nervously joked that her Mensendieck pictures would “turn up in a girlie magazine and become a political bombshell.”

Sex Sells

“Boys were fascinated, but if you mentioned [the classes] to the girls, they’d turn beet red and make a hasty retreat,” said Joan’s brother Rob, who attended a nearby public school. “I felt terribly sorry for them. That’s the age when you feel shyest about yourself, particularly when undraped. There was lots of innuendo: ‘Oh, I hear you had your Mensendieck pictures taken. Can I have three wallet-sized?’”

In theory, the Greenwich girls’ nudity was desexualized. The mirrored studio was a clinical setting. Nude photos were diagnostic tools, like X-rays. The closest Mensendieck came to explicitly mentioning sex was to stress the importance of a “taut groin.” (For all her rapturous talk of the body as a “wonderful instrument,” she didn’t care a whit for pleasure.) And in my research some seventy years later, I found no evidence of sexual criminality related to Mensendieck classes in girls’ schools.

But as photographer Chuck Close once put it, “Anyone who says making a nude isn’t about sex is lying. Everyone who does a nude is thinking about sex. There is flirtation, seduction, and winning of confidence.” And if there isn’t, then there’s probably coercion, however implicit or sterile it might seem to the captive corps of Mensendieck practitioners. Appeals to clinical objectivity didn’t fool architect Hannes Meyer: “Mensendieck’s functional gymnastics outstrip the aesthetic eroticism of painted nudes,” he wrote. Sex was the glaring subtext of this apparently sanitized fixation on naked beauty.

Mensendieck’s lofty theories were lost on young Joan. The message she took from her posture classes only reiterated the same injunctions blaring forth from the pages of women’s magazines: “You didn’t want to be fat, you wanted to have bosoms, you wanted to have a boyfriend.” She didn’t find anti-fat rhetoric offensive, but true and deserved, necessary motivation to set you on the straight and (very) narrow path to the ultimate goal: “You wanted to go to college, then get married right away.” To achieve that, it helped to look good, both naked and while vacuuming.

Long before plastic surgery went mainstream, Joan took the opportunity to become a “sculptor in flesh” to painful extremes. She remembers slamming her teenaged hips against the wall of her bedroom, over and over until they bruised, hoping this would shrink them back to their narrow prepubescent shape. “My hips were bone,” she admits now. “There wasn’t any meat on them.” While bored in class, she’d sit with her forefinger discreetly pushing up the end of her nose, like a pig’s, hoping this would transform her Roman profile into something closer to the then-fashionable Shirley Temple ski jump. Since she was being scrutinized not just by the Brunswick boys, but also by her schoolteachers, this behavior maybe isn’t so shocking. On a 1946 photograph of Greenwich Academy student Sue Thompson’s adolescent silhouette, Ms. Johannesen wrote: “The general alignment is quite good, but lower abdomen and shoulders are still regions to be worked at.” Toward perfection, indeed.

Alger for the Spine

Young Joan never could quite suss out why Ms. Johannesen and her ilk drank the posture Kool-Aid. But the System’s success stemmed from the same basic formula that, in 2014, earned the fitness industry $24.2 billion and the beauty industry $56.2 billion: the fraught promise that physical transformation equals personal and social transformation. The self-help maxims “Look Better, Feel Better” and “It’s Up to You” summed up, at the dawn of the consumer-capitalist age, the fundamental premises upon which these industries thrive. In tandem with the advertising industry simultaneous-coming-of-cultural age, the Mensendieck method offered the illusion of “empowerment” via individualistic self-improvement while promoting a blame-the-victim mentality. If a woman wasn’t thin or beautiful enough to secure financial stability by finding a sufficiently generous husband or an employer, well, then it was her own fault she didn’t work harder at sculpting her flesh.

The ancient myth of physical beauty as key to upward mobility becomes a modern fairy tale, as Mensendieck herself relates in Look Better, Feel Better. “She was attractive—that is, until you looked at her thighs,” Mensendieck wrote of a twenty-nine-year-old dancer. “These were her undoing.” After the dancer’s “heavy thighs” caused such “serious depression” that she quit teaching ballroom classes and became a hermit, “she felt ‘fate’ had been unfair.” But thanks to Madame Mensendieck, the dancer slimmed down, returned to work, and “realized that responsibility rested with herself and not ‘fate.’”

In another happily-ever-after, beauty-as-meritocracy fable, a Mensendieck client feared that her “scrawny neckline would make her appear too old for a job she was applying for”—until she performed the magical exercises and landed the gig. Being born “disfigured” no longer spelled instant socioeconomic doom; beauty was a currency you could earn—so long as you could pay the right fitness teachers.

From our quasi-enlightened twenty-first-century vantage, it’s easy to look back in shock at the Mensendieck System’s willful violation of the integrity of schoolgirls’ bodies. At its core, this reaction is self-congratulatory: we would never. But it’s also self-deluding. Sure, the movement toward body acceptance has made strides, but “nature’s corset”—the tacit expectation that women maintain tiny waistlines via “natural” means—remains as tightly constrictive as any whalebone corset. “Warfare” against “menacing disfigurements” is as relentless as ever. The cultural impulses that landed my teenaged grandma naked in the camera’s eye haven’t diminished in any way; they’ve just altered their delivery systems. Freedom is relative, especially for the marginalized, and what’s considered progress, in retrospect, often just plays into the zero-sum game of old strictures making way for new ones.

In this sense, our shock over nude posture classes doesn’t reflect any sort of departure from beauty culture, but an underlying shift in understandings of consent and bodily autonomy—paired with heightened suspicions of sexual misconduct in the ranks of professional officialdom. Today, getting teenagers naked in front of teachers and cameras when they’d prefer not to is a flagrant violation of consent. It’s abuse. (“We didn’t have any choice in the matter,” said alumna Jane. “I don’t think anyone would’ve chosen to take the classes, unless they could’ve worn clothes.”) But to some early twentieth-century women, this practice looked like liberation from a repressive era of corsets and Comstockery. Consent was not yet the byword of the day. Whether Joan and friends wanted to exercise naked was as irrelevant as whether they wanted to take algebra. In both cases, they were assured that it was for their own good.

And whereas twenty-first-century feminists might condemn Mensendieck’s predilection for what’s now called “body-shaming,” her acolytes championed refreshingly frank anatomy talk after an age of alienation from their “unmentionables.” “Women seem to operate under the illusion that knowing how their body works and having muscles just isn’t feminine,” Mensendieck told the L.A. Times in 1950. She sought to change that: Decades before Our Bodies, Ourselves made the then-radical recommendation that women examine their vulvas in hand mirrors, Posture Lady nudged women toward studying their stripped-down anatomies. Unfortunately, she omitted the crucial reassurance that, whatever you encounter in the course of such study—as Our Bodies, Ourselves put it—“you are not obscene.”

Bonfire of the Blue-Bloods

As Ron Rosenbaum revealed in “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal,” a 1995 exposé for the New York Times Magazine, this body-perfecting mania laid the groundwork for a pseudoscientific scheme far more sinister than Mensendieck’s. In investigating the story behind his own nude-posing trials as a Yale freshman in the mid-1960s—by which point Mensendieck System classes had been phased out, though posture photos remained part of physical exams—Rosenbaum unmasked a vast, twisted experiment run by since-discredited anthropologists and eugenicists E. A. Hooton and W. H. Sheldon.

The American aristocracy’s unquestioning embrace of “posture assessment” as a legitimate reason to photograph students nude offers a bleak parable of the perils of scientific orthodoxy.

Based at Harvard and Columbia, respectively, Hooton and Sheldon believed that the measurements of a person’s face and body indicated their intelligence, character, moral worth, and potential for future successes. In other words, they were racists masquerading as scientists: in one repugnant 1924 paper, Sheldon asserted that African Americans stopped developing intellectually at the age of ten.

In the 1940s, Sheldon managed to convince America’s finest institutions of higher learning to supply him with thousands of students’ nude photographs to study. These photos, Sheldon claimed, provided crucial data for the development of his “Atlas of Men” and “Atlas of Women,” which would illustrate his theories about various “somatotypes.” The ultimate purpose of this research, according to Rosenbaum, was eugenic: in Hooton’s words, it aimed to “control and limit the production of inferior and useless organisms”—by hooking up prime Harvard and Yale specimens with their Radcliffe and Vassar counterparts and, perhaps, sterilizing the rest. If this sounds eerily familiar, recall that the Nazis compiled similar archives of nude photos to analyze for racial and characterological content.

Sheldon’s research conveniently piggybacked on schools’ existing nude posture-monitoring programs, which derived from Mensendieck’s methods. “Posture assessment” was a built-in excuse to step in and start using naked college kids as unwitting guinea pigs. I found no evidence that suggested Mensendieck and Sheldon ever collaborated, or even crossed paths, but it’s likely they were at least peripherally aware of each other’s work.

When he first learned of Mensendieck’s methods, some twenty years after his investigation, Rosenbaum told me he “couldn’t believe there was no scandal involved—that [Mensendieck] wasn’t tarred and feathered and run out of town by a pitchfork-wielding mob.” But Sheldon nearly avoided scandal himself. He got away with years of complaint-free nude-collecting, amassing enough pictures to complete his “Atlas of Men”—until, in 1950, a University of Washington freshman told her parents about the creepy man photographing kids at school. “The next morning, a battalion of lawyers and university officials stormed Sheldon’s lab, seized every photo of a nude woman, convicted the images of shamefulness and sentenced them to burning,” Rosenbaum wrote. The “Atlas of Women” was never completed.

Even after this short-lived controversy in Seattle, the posture photo ritual persisted. It wasn’t until the late sixties and seventies that shamefaced administrators at Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools discontinued the practice and torched their collections of nude student portraits. Plenty survive, though: in 1987, the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institute acquired Sheldon’s archives, which included thousands of posture photos he took himself. They remain in a Smithsonian vault, restricted from researchers, Trump-nude-seekers, and other prying eyes.

Look Better, Feel Worse

Greenwich Academy, which phased out the Mensendieck System in the 1960s, offered minimal comment on its history with the technique. In an anodyne statement via email, a communications officer said that “many of our senior alumnae, who are in their seventies and older, credit Mensendieck with their excellent posture today,” and claimed the school’s current archives contain no posture photos, because “any photos that may have been taken have long since been destroyed.” She offered no details about said destruction. Like Rosenbaum and the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, she had no reason to believe that Greenwich Academy had ever collaborated with Sheldon.

Save a few revivalists in San Francisco, the System is now all but obsolete in the United States. But a derivative of the practice is taught by physiotherapists in Norway and the Netherlands, and about eighty Mensendieck purists teach in Denmark. “It’s the only country that practices the way Bess Mensendieck would’ve wanted,” Jette Grant, a seventy-three-year-old Danish Mensendieck instructor, told me. The original practice is dying out, partly because “people are shyer about nudity now.” Older students strip happily, but “young ones wear their lace. . . . It’s a catastrophe.”

When I met Jette, she offered an unprompted analysis of “all the mistakes” I was making while sitting on a coffee shop stool. “You’re sitting only on your left bum; your left shoulder is higher than your right. You’re going like this,” she said, and listed to the side like a collapsing marionette.

Effectively chastened, I later tried out the Functional Movements that the master herself prescribed in Look Better, Feel Better. In my locked bedroom, I disrobed before a full-length mirror, studied my “lamentable, gangling aspect,” and prepared to “Reduce the Buttock Area.” “Nothing renders the appearance as a whole so unbeautiful as flabby, shapeless buttock muscles!” the posture tyrant yelled in my head. The book’s instructions, summarized: Stand and gently cup your butt cheeks with both hands. Slowly clench and unclench. Repeat three times. Rest. I did this, grateful there was no Swedish lady in a tweed suit watching. To “Strengthen the Feet,” I took small hops back and forth, arms soldier-like at my sides. “This is a strenuous Movement Scheme and should be done cautiously,” the book advised. So I stopped.

The exercises were no more strenuous than those you might encounter in a chair yoga session. Performing them felt more like casting spells than working out. They didn’t make me look better or feel better. Granted, I quit after ten minutes, surely not long enough to make a fair judgment. But on balance, I’ll take Joan’s word for it: “Mensendieck certainly didn’t do me any good.”


[*] At my grandmother’s request, several of the girls of Greenwich Academy have been called by pseudonyms in this essay.