"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Famous Nude Posture Pictures at Yale

Everyone in my class at Yale remembers – or better, cannot forget – the compulsory full Monte photographs we had taken upon entering Freshman Year.  We were told that they were to help assess our posture and to determine what remedial physical therapy was required.  The most common distortion was scoliosis or curvature of the spine.  It of course was highly likely for any incoming 18 year-old in good health and from the best families to have curvature of anything, let alone this congenital or idiopathic anomaly.  Most of us had some tilt or irregularity based on the photographs, and we had to make the long trip to the Payne Whitney three times a week or until we stood up straight.

“I’ve told you a hundred times that you don’t stand up straight”, said my mother when she heard the news, “and you don’t sit up straight either.  No wonder you have curvature of the spine, and if you didn’t hunch over your food and shovel it in, you wouldn’t always have a cricked neck and bad digestion”

The rumors were – subsequently confirmed – that the nude photographs were a cover-up for a cockamamie theory by William Herbert Sheldon, an American psychologist who said you could correlate body and personality types.  Mesomorphs were well-muscled, strong, and well-proportioned and who were outgoing, popular, and hardworking.  Ectomorphs were thin and withdrawn, intelligent and fearful.  Endomorphs were heavy, slow, sloppy, and lazy.  Sheldon collected the photos of thousands of male and female freshmen; and under the guise of posture remediation, and with the full complicity of the Ivy League, tracked our performance and measured it against his standards.  These standards were not new, but the pseudo-intellectual and pompous basis for his ideas, made them all the more irretrievably bad:

In general outline, [Sheldon’s theory] resembles ideas found in the tridosha system of Ayurveda; The Republic by Plato; and propounded in the twentieth century by George Gurdjieff. In addition, Friedrich Nietzsche writes that "nature ... distinguishes" three different physiological body types, which correspond to a Republic-esque hierarchy. Sheldon's ideas also owe something to Aristotle's conception of the soul. Roughly the three corresponding personality types proposed by Sheldon are somewhat akin to Jung's categorization of thinking, feeling and sensing types (Wikipedia).

We knew of the rumors, believed them, and therefore were pissed that we had to traipse through the snow the mile to the Payne Whitney gym and back for some professor’s wacko ideas.  I never followed up on the results nor tried to determine whether Yale ever destroyed the pictures.  I did hear recently from a Vassar alumna who bridled at the thought that some creep was ogling not only her particular private parts but the parts of thousands of well-to-do young things; but with all the really great porno out there now, fifty years later, I could not imagine anyone getting off on what amounted to body mug shots. 

The real story, however, concerns the game that I and my friends concocted.  We did our own body- and personality-typing, and kept a record of our impressions.   The mesomorphs were easy.  They were the privileged WASPs from the North Shore, Greenwich, or Grosse Pointe – tall, blond and blue-eyed, sculpted by summers swimming off Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard; crewing at Groton, or tennis at Piping Rock.  Mesomorphism ran in their families.   Father Robert helped Yale win the Henley Regatta in ‘28.  Grandfather Robert was the captain of Yale’s championship squash team in ‘94, and prior great and great-great grandfathers and beyond sat their chops on the Yale Fence for generations before that. 

The problem was that few of them were hardworking.  Yale in the early Sixties still gave out Gentlemen’s ‘C’s’ – i.e., “We know that you are intelligent and from a good family and would do well if you worked hard, but why should you work as hard as Jews?” – so while the Locust Valley produced young men that might have been intelligent, how did we know? Still they were outgoing and popular, two out of the three criteria, so we put them in the ‘M’ category. 

The harder part were the few jocks that Yale recruited.  Rico Carpatti was one of the few Italian-Americans at Yale, a local product from New Haven, and recruited as part of a deal that Yale made with the Aldermen of the city. 

“OK, maybe he’s not exactly your typical Yale Man”, said the aldermen, “but he can play football, and while we’re at it, we’re not so happy with the current state of Town-Gown relations with no New Haven graduates for five years.”

Yale let him in, established a “Pass this ape” policy, and watched as Rico ate up the Harvard and Princeton lines.

Rico was not just a mesomorph, he was the mesomorph.  In fact he was a proto-mesomorph because of his underslung jaw, heavy brow, and thick, thatched hair all over his body, massive shoulders, thin waist, bulging thighs, and cannonball biceps.  Rico, however, was stupid; and far from being outgoing and popular, he was reclusive and weird.  Maybe it was because he was so different-looking from the Oyster Bay rowers or from even the most obsessive ectomorphs he felt that the only comfortable space other than the football field was his room; and he made no attempt to make friends.  He wasn’t even invited to join DKE, the jock fraternity.  The crowd there didn’t want their girlfriends to see this bandy-legged throwback who stabbed at his meat like pinning some live thing with a pitchfork.  He went back to his Wooster Square family walk- up for meals, dated some mustachioed, wiry-haired girl from New Haven High, and spent as little time as possible on campus. 

We had to put him in the ‘M’ category as well, but realized what strange bedfellows these body types were making.

The endomorphs were the easiest and the most fun.  ‘What exactly is fat?’, we asked before starting the game, and decided on ‘You’ll know it when you see it’.  We picked the grossest examples – the real fatties with quivering stomachs, fat-assed big-time booties, doughy chins, and ham-hock legs.  We preferred the ones who were so fat that their thighs chafed.  Given Yale’s selection process at the time, ages before self-esteem and Political Correctness were ever heard of, the university stuck pretty close to the norm – the WASP norm or, better, the Goldilocks norm…Not too skinny, not too fat, just right. But a few exceptions did sneak in.  Maybe they wore corsets to the interview or were particularly brilliant at something, or had a fat legacy in the family tree; but they were there.

Sheldon’s theory was really fucked up.  Most of these guys didn’t even come close to his criteria.  Take Drew Potter, one of the fattest guys on campus and who must have been a homo.  How he got in, I’ll never know.  He minced, he was meticulous in his dress, exaggerated in his speech and gestures, and prim and proper to a ‘T’.  He was the very stereotype of the gay guy of today.  There was nothing sloppy about him.  He ate European style, never picking up his chicken bones like the rest of us, sucking the skin and fat bits, but cutting the meat off into delicate little pieces.  He went to the barber (many of those to choose from in goomba New Haven) every ten days to get a razor trim.  He wasn’t lazy by any means.  He had the lead roles in both Spring and Fall musicals at the Yale Repertory Theatre. 

The rest of the fatties were true to form – ambling, unhurried, disheveled and – what became a stereotypical characteristic of fat people after Sheldon – laughing and happy.  This, we concluded, was the best part of the Professor’s work – obvious to any but the most squirrel-focused grind.

Which leads me to the ectomorphs.  They, too, were easy to spot.  No shadings, dissections of type, debatable categorizations as there were with the mesomorphs.  We went to the libraries to find them.  Skinny, acned, bespectacled dorks; sallow-complexioned because of limited exposure to sunlight; and yes, intelligent….or perhaps hardworking, although this assumption would confuse the mesomorph conclusion….but in any case a quick check of the public records showed honors, high achievement, and academic recognition. 

Not all ectomorphs were this way, since Sheldon’s ideas were so idiotic.  Darryl Holmes was a Bursary Boy who waited tables at Trumbull College to pay the university back in kind for his scholarship.  He had gotten into Yale because his father had been mangled in a horrific accident on a farm in Eastern Tennessee owned by the Gore family; and the Senator got him in (Harvard, his own alma mater wouldn’t take him).  Darryl gave the lie to Sheldon’s theories like no other.  He was an endomorph not because of genetic disposition but because of a steady Southern diet of fatback, ribs, and cornmeal.  He lost the pounds quickly, never gained muscle tone like a mesomorph, but became more like a flabby and flaccid ectomorph.  He was as dumb as a stone but as gregarious as they come, a regular life of the party.  His classmates loved his stories about noodling, moonshine, Junior Johnson clones, and his sheep-buggering uncles.  Yalies, like the rest of America, loved to deal in stereotypes.

This whole episode would have never happened today.  Today we would have Googled Sheldon, read reviews of his work, checked and counter-checked the reliability of his theories, exposed the University with protests at the invasion of personal privacy.  We never would have even considered categorizing our classmates so harshly and insensitively; which is why it now all feels so…..good

The Vassar girl who worried about being devoilee if the nude pictures of her and her classmates were ever to come to light has long forgotten her concern.  I haven’t had the time or interest to go digging to find out what happened to Sheldon and his theories, but there he will be on the Web if ever I feel like it.  For now, the episode will remain part of my undergraduate lore, sophomoric, puerile even, but fun.

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