"Stand up straight": notes toward a history of posture

J Med Humanit. 2014 Mar;35(1):57-83. doi: 10.1007/s10912-013-9266-0.


The essay presents a set of interlinked claims about posture in modern culture. Over the past two centuries it has come to define a wide range of assumptions in the West from what makes human beings human (from Lamarck to Darwin and beyond) to the efficacy of the body in warfare (from Dutch drill manuals in the 17th century to German military medical studies of soldiers in the 19th century). Dance and sport both are forms of posture training in terms of their own claims. Posture separates 'primitive' from 'advanced' peoples and the 'ill' from the 'healthy.' Indeed an entire medical sub-specialty developed in which gymnastics defined and recuperated the body. But all of these claims were also part of a Western attempt to use posture (and the means of altering it) as the litmus test for the healthy modern body of the perfect citizen. Focusing on the centrality of posture in two oddly linked moments of modern thought--modern Zionist thought and Nationalism in early 20th century China--in terms of bodily reform, we show how "posture" brings all of the earlier debates together to reform the body.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Body Image*
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Politics*
  • Posture*
  • Social Values / history*
  • Sports / history*
  • Warfare*