Sander Gilman can still hear his father’s voice. “Stand up straight!,” he’d say. “Don’t slouch! Be a man!”
We’ve all heard some version of this admonition — so often, perhaps, that we don’t realize how strange it is: Hold your body in a certain way, and you’re granted access to manhood, or humanity, or some other sacred circle. Hold it in another way, and you’re cast off.
It’s but one sign of the curious power of posture. From ancient Greece, to Nazi Germany, to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, physical bearing has played a surprisingly consequential role.
Gilman, a cultural and medical historian, explores it all in his book “Stand Up Straight!: A History of Posture.” It’s the latest in his thick body of work on how we stereotype — how we imagine and categorize the world around us.
Gilman has written about the history of anti-Semitism. He’s pondered popular conceptions of insanity, obesity, and cosmetic surgery, among other things. Ideas reached him in British Columbia, where he was lecturing on posture.
The interview is lightly edited for clarity.
Why are we told to “stand up straight?”
The admonition to “stand up straight,” certainly in the West, is a moral claim, in the case of men: “Be a man! Stand up straight!” And that notion is incredibly important, because it equates the way we stand and move in the world with who we are as human beings.
Is that bunk, or is there something to it?
This is one of those questions that I’m always asked about stereotyping: Are stereotypes simply falsities? And the answer is — not if we internalize them. Is it the case that if you stand up straight you’ll be a better human being? Of course not, anymore than if you can dance, or if you can march in time in the army.
But if we believe it does, if we live in a society in which those claims are central, it really does make a difference, which is why people who have various types of postural disability are seen as somehow inferior human beings. The problem with stereotypes is not that we stereotype the world, it’s that we begin to believe the stereotypes and act on them, and then they’re real.
Has uprightness always been seen as uniquely human?
Certainly the Greeks start with the idea that what makes human beings human is the notion that we stand on two feet — and we stand on two feet because we are always seeking after the divine. We stand on our two feet, the Greeks say, because we can then use our hands, because we then have a face that is facing the gods.
This is part of a global fantasy of how we define the human. You know, when I was at university, we had a whole range of ways of defining the human. Humans had opposable thumbs, they used tools, they had language. All of those things have now been extended into other animals in our range — whales have music and crows use tools. The only thing that’s left for human beings is the notion that we are bipedal, that we stand on two feet.
How has this quest for a stiff back been abused?
From the late-19th century to the mid-20th century, that notion of a kind of regimented posture — which is associated, in complicated ways, with 19th century military posture — becomes part of an ideology of the far right.
Both Italian fascism and the German equivalent, under the Nazis, use that notion of a healthy, upright body as defining a kind of Roman/Aryan ideal. And it becomes problematic because it excludes people — and by the way, not just Jews, which is the irony in Nazi Germany, it excludes both Hitler and Himmler, which is the great joke.
Hitler, in the first World War, was notorious because he slouched. Himmler had terrible, terrible, terrible posture — and all of his contemporaries commented on it. When people looked at Hitler, when people looked at Himmler, they saw ideal bodies which weren’t there.
Why was bad posture ascribed to the Jews?
Jews from the 18th century on were seen as having notoriously bad posture. They slouched, they shuffled, they were visible because of the way they moved through the world, just as they had big ears and big noses.
That stereotyping came about when the required badges and clothing and ghettoization of the Jews ended. That is, as long as the Jews were somewhere identifiable, some way identifiable, you didn’t have to talk about their bodies because you knew who they were. Once they dressed like you, once they moved into your neighborhood, you had to be able to see them as different.
Jews in the 19th century internalized this, and they created gymnastics societies, and sports societies that were out to reform the Jewish body and make them modern, and make them European, and then make them Zionist. And that idea of the “sabra” that we have in Israel today — of the tall, straight body of the indigenous Israeli comes exactly from that fantasy: Paul Newman in exodus, the tall, blond, blue-eyed Jew.
How has the disfigured body been stereotyped in Western culture?
If we think about the Bible — meaning the Old Testament — as a core part of the Western tradition, people with hunchbacks were forbidden from serving in the temple.
That is part and parcel of [an ancient stereotype]: the Greeks have it, the Jews have it, the Romans have it.
It means that you are identifiably different because of your posture, and that reflects on your character. It isn’t just that your body is different, but your character is different. It is tricky. It is unpleasant. It is aggressive. And that becomes a sort of root stereotype.
Fast forward to Harry Potter, whose Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is divided into a series of houses including the House of Slytherin, which attracts the most slithery, villainous students. Do you think that’s a conscious allusion?
I’m a big J.K. Rowling fan. She understands how to use stereotypes and she understands, very well, the kind of language that carries them.
Let me go back to the Old Testament. Remember that, at least according to legend, after seducing Eve into eating the apple, the snake loses its legs and is forced to slither on his belly. In other words, it loses its postural integrity. And so Slytherin is just perfect for the villains at Hogwarts.David Scharfenberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe