Now here’s a head-shaking story from the Chicago Sun-Times. A number of Chicago-area women report that, in a period from the 1940s until the 1960s while they were in public high schools, they were required to pose for photographs, completely undressed, as part of a study purportedly designed to analyze and correct posture. In some places college girls received the same treatment. Sun-Times journalist Mark Brown’s columns on the survey appeared in early December. What he unveiled was not one of the finer moments of our species:
Patricia Repass, now 80 and living in Skokie, says she and her family were residents of Wilmette when she attended New Trier from 1943 to 1947.
“Just which year I cannot say, but one gym period, we [the entire gym class] were ushered into a room and asked to undress,” Repass wrote. “All were naked but for a teacher armed with a jar of opaque cream. As we stood in line, she put a dab on each vertebra.”
“Then we stood in another line waiting to enter a camera booth one at a time,” she continued. “As you might suspect, there was a lot of staring, giggling, and blushing. Not the fondest of memories, but just another of ‘those things’ we live through.”
The standard explanation of this “survey” piles implausibility on laughable implausibility. Only high school and college females served the special requirements of the researchers. Right. The photos were supposedly used to make silhouettes called shadowgraphs “as a means of checking for posture abnormalities.” Right. Retaining leotards or underwear would have spoiled the silhouettes. Right. The pictures were developed in a special darkroom and the negatives were locked away to ensure privacy. Sure they were.
And of course all of us remember— after those 25 years of shadowgraph data were scientifically collected and scientifically collated and scientifically fed into that mighty Univac for scientific analysis—the life-changing breakthrough in Posture Amelioration Pedagogics that resulted: “Sit up straight.”
Made it all worthwhile.
The Failure To Protect
Unsurprisingly, no one seems able to remember who the sleazy genius was that pulled off such a stunt on such a scale; neither is anyone today eager to claim credit. A pity, for the story has interesting points of similarity with the clerical sex abuse scandal, and the perp—from whatever government lab or university he operated—belongs in the same category as those unsmiling monsignori who took it upon themselves to examine altar boys for hernia.
It’s remarkable how many people, at how many different levels of responsibility, played along in this imposture: the school administrators, the gym teachers who took the photos, the parents and older siblings of the girls, and finally the victims themselves. It’s remarkable too that everyone whom Brown interviewed felt to some degree that something was “off key” about the whole enterprise: they were uneasy about it. And yet they complied.
The episode is not without its comic— its ruefully comic—side. But it shows that the Catholic clerical sex abuse scandal, while uniquely appalling in the magnitude of its spiritual betrayal, was not unique in every respect. A large number of ordinarily upright people can be duped into cooperating in their own degradation and humiliation—against their inclination and better judgment—when their traducers wear the trappings of authority and when their protectors are morally passive. Where were the angry fathers with their baseball bats?
It’s also worth noticing that the organs of conspiracy often invoked to explain the Catholic Church’s tolerance of abuse were not in play in the Posture Photo Fraud. There wasn’t a culture of silence or a cult of omertÀ or a straitjacket of suffocating celibacy or a reputation of infallibility that empowered the slime-balls and muted their victims. The girls were too embarrassed to complain and those in a position to intervene were too embarrassed to do so. At a time when sexual scandals are rife, and many people are more eager to throw out the babies than the bathwater, the story deserves some reflection.
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