Professor William Sheldon was a man of his time, by which I of course mean he was a sexist racist who did considerable study in the field of eugenics. Starting in the 1930’s, Sheldon developed a strange theory, called somatotyping, that physical measurements could be used to determine an individual’s character. He divided human beings into three extremes; skinny and nervous ectomorphs, fat and jolly endomorphs, and confident and buffed mesomorphs; and hypothesized that not only did all people express these extremes to one degree or another, but that these ratios could be measured using a three digit number which would reveal someone’s personality. If this all sounds like a bunch of garbage to you, then good, because it is. However, at the time, such theories, rigorously pursued by flawed uses of the scientific method, were given a large amount of credence.
In order to prove his theory, Sheldon of course needed to examine and measure a large number of naked people. Luckily for him, he was not the only scientist interested in measuring naked bodies. Since as early as the 1880’s, Harvard University, then a men’s only institution, had been doing posture studies on its students, by which I mean they were coercing many of them to have naked photographs taken for various somatological studies. Sheldon used these photographs, along with measurements taken at nearby outpatient clinics, to create two major studies linking physique and temperament which were released in the early 1940’s. The studies were met with a great amount of interest, because at the time anything declaring ways you could scientifically prove you were better than other people was of interest. However, further research was curtailed by a little thing called World War II, during which Sheldon worked in the medical corp.
By the end of the war, people were a little less enthused with the idea of eugenics, for reasons. However, Sheldon’s work was seen as being different since it wasn’t based on nationality. After getting himself setup at a sweet ass lab at Columbia University, he began collecting measurements from people visiting nearby clinics, juvenile delinquents, and mental patients. The resulting studies, while debated amongst the scientific community, received a lot of press in magazines and newspapers, exploding Sheldon and his theories onto the national stage almost overnight. Suddenly everyone was talking about what types of bodies they had. Sheldon leveraged his new found popularity and acclaim to further his research, by which I mean he convinced dozens of universities to start taking nude photos of their students.
In the mid-twentieth century, most universities believed it was their duty to help students excel not just mentally, but also physically. As part of this, most freshman students underwent posture exams, where doctors would look at them naked and then decide whether or not they needed to be enrolled in posture correcting programs. Taking advantage of these existing programs, Sheldon went to the men’s only Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, etc.) and convinced them to start taking naked photos from the front, side, and rear for his studies. The universities readily agreed. Sheldon’s hope was to use the photographs and measurements to create what he called an Atlas of Men. Of course if he was going to have an Atlas of Men, he needed an Atlas of Women as well, so soon after he also convinced the women’s only Seven Sisters (Vassar, Smith, etc.) to start taking naked posture photographs as well. Again, the university leaders were totally okay with all of this. From there he convinced half a dozen Midwestern universities to join the fun.
The strange thing about all of this was how quickly it became normalized. Aside from threats of a lawsuit in Seattle when Sheldon tried to spread the practice to the West Coast, everyone just kind of went along with the idea that it was perfectly normal for prestigious schools to take nude photographs of incoming freshman. The practice continued throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, with some of those photographed later becoming famous business people, politicians, actors, and other such folk of note. It wasn’t until rumors began to spread that some of the photographs, mostly women, were ending up in the hands of the non-scientific types that protests began, leading to the practice being ended completely by the early 1970’s. It probably didn’t hurt that by then Sheldon’s theories had largely been debunked.
Under public pressure from those whose photographs were taken, many who had become powerful people, most of the posture photographs were burned to make sure they never got out to the public. However, even into the 1990’s, caches of the pictures were still being discovered in random drawers and boxes. A significant collection even found its way to the Smithsonian, though much of that collection was believed to have been burned by 2005. Though Sheldon’s broader theories have largely been debunked, the methods he created for measuring body shape remain widely used in science to this day.