Why Ivy League Schools Used To Require Nude Photos Of Students

Freshman orientation always includes a few boring events. Meetings about all the dormitory rules you're going to break, overviews of the university code of conduct, advising sessions... yadda, yadda, yadda. Can we start the party yet? But students these days can be glad that there's one orientation week event that used to be common practice at Ivy League schools that fortunately fell out of fashion decades ago. According to The New York Times, universities like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Vassar, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and other elite institutions used to require freshmen to take nude photos as part of a study on "posture." While Harvard took such photos from the 1880s all the way to the middle of the 20th century, most of the universities involved snapped their troves of pervy pics from the 1940s to the 1960s. The subjects of the photos had metal pins placed down their spines to study their postures, or at least to make it appear as though that was the reason they'd been forced to strip down in front of creepy, lab-coated strangers.

These schools prepare many of the country's political and cultural elite, and several famous and influential people had their photos, including former President George Bush Sr., former New York Governor George Pataki, Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, journalist Diane Sawyer, actress Meryl Streep, and former presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. But as weird as a mandatory "posture photo" study sounds, the true reasons behind the project are actually much creepier.

The Ivy League 'posture photos' program was eerily similar to Nazi eugenics studies

Yale art history professor George Hersey said that the photos were actually part of an anthropological study that "had nothing to do with posture ... that is only what we were told." The — for lack of a better word — "brains" behind the operation was a man named W. H. Sheldon, a psychologist from Columbia University who was trying to find correlations between people's body types and their personalities and temperaments. Sheldon developed the theory of "somatotypes," different body types that could explain a person's mannerisms, behaviors, habits, and other pop-psych mumbo jumbo. The words he created to explain these types — ectomorphic, mesomorphic, and endomorphic — are still used to this day, but only to describe general body shapes. His theories linking these physical types to psychological ones have been largely debunked.

While it may be tempting and facile to believe that certain people behave certain ways, Yale graduate Ron Rosenbaum related what Sheldon was doing to the Nazis, who "compiled similar archives analyzing the photos for racial as well as characterological content." The photos apparently had no pornographic value and were used strictly for a "resolutely scientific nature," which in a way is actually creepier, if you ask us. The project ended up sounding too much like that other now-disproved pseudoscience eugenics, and by the end of his life, Sheldon's theories and studies were no longer accepted by the upper echelons of U.S. academia that had previously espoused them.

Most of the Ivy League nude photos were burned

In 1950, Sheldon took his operation to the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he wanted to shoot a bunch of photos of nude female freshmen to form the basis of his "Atlas of Women," a companion project to his "Atlas of Men." But a scandal ensued when one of the photographed students told her parents. Lawyers got involved and the pictures were burned. Then Harvard, Yale, Vassar, and others followed suit, burning thousands of the purported "posture photos" in the 1960s and '70s. However, thousands were not burned, and one of Sheldon's disciples tried to get them back into a top-tier university for them to be studied, but was shown the door every place he went.

They finally ended up in the National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C. They were accompanied by documents revealing that they had been used to relate smoking to masculinity, and other documents revealed that while not exactly on the level of Nazis, Sheldon sure was racist. A 1924 study of his claimed that African American and Mexican children stopped acquiring intelligence at 10 and 12 years old, respectively. A week after publishing the findings of those photos and documents, The New York Times reported that the Smithsonian had sealed the stash of nudes for good. A historian who had his photo taken at Yale in the '60s said he could neither "understand, nor ... accept that [the museum] would retain naked photographs of living people."