The research project had been going on since the 1940s. Entering freshmen at many Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools had to strip during freshman registration for “posture” photographs in the nude.
The man behind the posture project was Columbia University Professor W.H. Sheldon, who believed that body shape could predict intelligence and personality traits. He divided the human structure into three types: thin ectomorphs, muscular mesomorphs and overweight endomorphs.
Sheldon believed that the human body carried elements from each type. Using body measurements and ratios, Sheldon would assign individuals a three-digit number signifying the level of ecto-, meso- and endomorphism.
When Sheldon’s experiment came out West—to the University of Washington in September, 1950—it met a reaction different from the more complacent East Coast. Parents immediately objected, overloading President Raymond Allen’s office with phone calls and leaking the story to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“Nude Photos of U.W. Girls Stir Protests” screamed the page one headline on Sept. 13. “Full-length nude photographs were made of girls entering the University of Washington Monday and Tuesday,” the article stated. “Most of the girls were just recently graduated from high schools. The photos were made for a research laboratory at Columbia University medical school, but many of the young women were not told why they were being posed.”
The Columbia researchers were supposed to explain the research and let the women know their participation was strictly voluntary. Instead, they told the women to line up and let them assume it was mandatory.
“No one told me anything until I got into the room where they were taking the picture,” one unidentified woman told the P-I. “One woman took the picture and another told me to stand erect and put my arms at my sides. The only way I found out what it was all about was to ask questions of the woman photographer.”
Forty-five years later, Fof Haynes Meyers, ’54, one of the research subjects, dimly recalls the incident. “We thought this was part of the registration process. Nobody was crazy about it. But we all felt it was part of whatever we had to do,” she says.
“University officials permitted a number of entering students to be treated as if they were prisoners in a concentration camp instead of free-born American women,” the P-I thundered from its editorial page.
President Allen issued a statement blaming Sheldon’s minions for the mess-up. “We were assured that an adequate explanation would be made to the students,” he declared. “The project fell down in its execution. I consider this … to be no responsibility of the University.”
That Friday Allen, other UW officials and even some regents could be found at the UW’s heating plant, supervising the burning of the undeveloped negatives.
Meanwhile, the East Coast schools continued to cooperate with Sheldon’s research until the 1960s. A New York Times article earlier this year speculated that George Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Diane Sawyer, Bob Woodward and Meryl Streep all took part in the posture picture ritual. Writer/director Nora Ephron remembered the incident when she spoke to the Times reporter. Dismayed that no one questioned the practice, she added, “We were idiots! Idiots!”
Until contacted for this article, Meyers had no idea of the fate of the UW photographs. During the rest of her college days, she says, there was a rumor that some fraternity had the photos and was going to show them at a party. Today she looks back on the incident with a grin. “I long ago stopped thinking about it.”