Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America

With an entertaining narrative focus on the individuals responsible for a decades-long "poor posture epidemic" that began in the early 20th century, Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America by Beth Linker revisits a largely forgotten period in U.S. history when the "social contagion" of poor posture was treated with the same seriousness as deadly communicable diseases.

A cultural historian as well as a historian of medicine and disability, Linker charts the complex arc of the epidemic, and how it attracted a wide array of professionals in medicine and education, and "health culturists" such as Joseph Pilates, who advised clients to improve their deportment by placing a book on their heads, and by sitting cross-legged like "those people of the East." The "Harvard slouch" report and studies by military and public health agencies showed that slouching was rampant in America, prompting panic that the country's future leaders would end up chronically ill or permanently disabled. Orthopedist Joel E. Goldthwait contended that slouching predisposed a person "to tuberculosis, nervous disease, acute mental disorder... and many intestinal disorders."

Scattered throughout Slouch are the fruits of Linker's deep archival research, including reproduced public health advertisements intimating that standing straight not only reduced the likelihood of disease, it also signified health, youthful vitality, upright character, and sexual chasteness. Looking ahead, Linker (War's Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America) connects the poor posture panic to present-day "noninfectious epidemics" such as the 21st-century preoccupation with obesity, ADHD, and diabetes.

Slouch is a skillfully researched, engrossing account of a socially engineered epidemic that captured the public imagination for the better part of a century. --Shahina Piyarali

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