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The PA expert pushing back on 'posture panic'

Plus, can you write a hit song in a day?

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Tanisha Thomas

May 4, 2024
Inside this edition: Slouching book, song challenge, Swift connection, skate camp, last restaurant standing, and a rare groundhog sighting. 
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
Taylor Swift's great-great-grandfather has a school named after him in Philadelphia. True or false?
(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)
Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.
» One contest worth entering: Can you make a song in 24 hours? Philly's WXPN radio station will give you cash, studio time, and a spot in a local music festival if your attempt is a hit, Philly Voice reports. 
» One story worth sharing: A Philadelphia-based recovery group uses all things Taylor Swift as a unique approach to discussing addiction, recovery, and mental health, via The Inquirer (paywall).
» One place worth knowing: An action sports camp in a Centre County town of 80 people is drawing Olympians in training from as far away as Australia, per FOX43. Two were there preparing for Paris. 
» One pilgrimage worth making: And then there was one. People are driving hours from neighboring states to dine at the last remaining Ponderosa Steakhouse in Pennsylvania, TribLIVE reports.
» One animal worth seeing: Enjoy this footage of an albino groundhog ambling through a field in East York, via WGAL. Speaking of groundhogs ... It's time to pick names for Punxsutawney Phil's babies.
🗞️ KNOW YOUR NEWS? Prove it with this week's Great PA News Quiz: college protests, MLB ‘fiasco,’ and an Obama-era loophole lingers.
The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» Whistleblower law leaves employees exposed
» New scrutiny for a PA liver transplant program
» The thorny union of two PA municipalities
» A new election director braces for November
» What's behind the primary’s surprise wins?
» Where historic public defense funding is going
Illustrations of human skeletons and nervous systems on the wall of a doctor's office.
Good posture? Bad posture? Who's to say? (kaex0r / Flickr)

Most of us were taught it’s bad to slouch. But is it? 

Beth Linker, a historian of medicine and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has a new book — Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America —  that pushes back. 

Linker traces the roots of modern “slouching is bad” dogma to Darwin, technological anxieties, the free market, and more while arguing the worry it’s inspired across generations may have done more harm than good. 

Linker spoke with PA Local about the notion of “perfect posture,” why it’s about much more than sitting up straight, how fear affects form, and the Eras Tour bra on her wish list.

The conversation has been edited for clarity, length, and flow.

PA Local: Why is it OK to slouch and why have we been told all our lives that it isn’t?

Linker: My book isn't a prescription for how one should live. It’s more complicated.

We have such variable anatomies. We are in a moment in time where we celebrate diversity yet in this instance there seems to be this norm of great posture that we all walk around with in our heads, and I’m not sure that is really true. Good posture is going to look differently on different people with different anatomies. 

PA Local: What is meant by the phrase “posture panic”?

Linker: That bad posture is going to lead to bad things. In the early 20th century a lot of posture crusaders developed tools to measure it. They kept coming up with a statistic that said about 80% of Americans had bad posture. If the belief that bad posture leads to a future of ill health and pain — and at the same time racial decline or national decline, or a nation of citizens who are physically weak — that immediately creates fear. 

PA Local: How did this way of thinking catch on?

Linker: I trace it back to Darwin and his theory of evolution. And he, of course, said there is natural selection and humans evolved from simians. Prior to Darwin, most natural philosophers thought that what distinguished human beings was brain capacity and intelligence. But when Darwin came around, he said what is more important is upright posture and that [bipedalism] came before brain development and speech acquisition.

In the 20th century, physicians started to link diseases to bad posture. It was seen as preventative healthcare. Let's prevent other diseases from happening if we can teach people to stand upright and to learn how to control and be conscious. 

A lot of early posture crusaders were part of the soft eugenics movement. There were also Black middle-class posture crusaders who thought that posture work was their way toward racial uplift. Women who did not have the right to vote in the early 20th century thought that the posture crusade was their ticket to further political freedoms. 

PA Local: How has modern technology changed posture? 

Linker: I show in my book that once you get the statistic that 80% of Americans have poor posture, corporate America finds a way to make money from that. 

There's a lot of posture products that came onto the market between World War I and World War II. I show how corsets, which became girdles, were part of that market. Pilates became popular in that time period. Orthopedic shoes became popular. Chairs with lumbar support became popular. Posture King and Queen contests became popular. 

PA Local: Have you tried any posture products to see if they work?

Linker: Yeah. There’s also a bra that Taylor Swift apparently wore for her Eras Tour that is a posture-enhancing bra. I reached out to them but they haven’t gotten back to me. I wanted to try it out.

PA Local: You say posture improvement campaigns are rooted in sexism, ableism, and racism. Can you explain?

Linker: The posture norm that was set into motion as an ideal in the 20th century was a norm created mainly by an educated white middle-class and mostly men. 

The white educated elite were very worried about civilization and modernity. They were worried that living in a mechanized world where people started to travel by train and eventually automobile that it led to sedentariness and that the human body wasn't meant to live that kind of life. 

Then they go around looking for Indigenous and Native people and say "Look, those people don't have pain. They're living in a hunter-gatherer group. They are using their bodies the way their bodies were intended to be used.” There are a lot of problems with that. They assume that non-white people don't experience pain. Then it appropriates that lifestyle and brings it back to a bunch of middle-class and elite people to work into their exercise regimen. It becomes a commodity that can be sold to people who are supposedly the ones in pain because of their particular lifestyle. It completely ignores people who have different kinds of bodies and can't stand up straight or sit up straight. That is the way that it's ableist, assuming it is this norm. It is the opposite of diversity and biological variability.

PA Local: What would you say to a reader who is slouching while reading this?

Linker: [Laughs] I would say I don't stand in judgment. I don't sit in judgment of that.

Read an excerpt from Linker’s book, published by Time.

Tanisha Thomas, newsletter writer

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A quote from a Pennsylvanian that we found interesting this week.
"It's been hard work, I've had to defend a thesis. And I'm just so excited to be here today and to celebrate.”

RJ Krishnaswamy, a 17-year-old University of Pittsburgh graduate, on receiving his Master’s degree in Computer Science.
Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
A pileated woodpecker on Doug W.'s suet feeder. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
A woodpecker going to town on a hanging basket of suet.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The answer is "True."

C.C.A. Baldi Middle School was named after Taylor Swift’s great-great-grandfather, Italian immigrant Charles Carmine Antonio Baldi, in 1976, Metro Philadelphia reports. He was credited with helping to reduce literacy requirements for naturalization and later dubbed the King of Little Italy

Swift, who was born in Reading, can also reportedly trace her roots back to Elk County in north-central Pennsylvania.

Thanks for reading. We'll see you back here next week.

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