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BOOK REVIEW: Stand Up Straight! A History of Posture by Sander L. Gilman

| 5 October 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Stand Up Straight! A History of Posture by Sander L. Gilman
Reaktion Books
April 2018
Hardcover, $49.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / History


Sander L. Gilman has become an authority on the human body. The professor has written and edited over 90 books, including ones that examined our attitudes towards obesity and cosmetic surgery. Stand Up Straight! A History of Posture does what it says on the tin and covers elements of anthropology, medicine, theology and culture. It is also the first detailed history of the body in movement and at rest.

Stand Up Straight! is the first attempt to provide a sketch (and it is no more than that of what I hope will be an engaging way of seeing cultural history as a formative aspect across multiple disciplines). These are all disciplines created to explain aspects of human nature using posture as a litmus test. They thus receive their substance from a world view that emphasizes specialist knowledge but which simultaneously reflects cultural presuppositions. Cutting across disciplines in the way I have in this volume may highlight some connections otherwise not seen and provide links between the various levels of the meaning of posture.

Gilman uses a lot of references in this title and it is clear that this book has been meticulously researched. As an academic, his prose is quite formal and complex, which is often unnecessary. While the book is for readers from the scientific establishment as well as the layperson, some of the writing is quite inaccessible. Those lacking a basic understanding of human anatomy will find it challenging at times.

Hippocratic texts first describe the ‘posture syndromes’ in the treatise On Joints, in which diseases of the spine are classified into visible subcategories of impairment whether caused by infectious processes (such as tuberculosis, traumatic injury or physical anomalies present at birth). The division of malformations of the spine into pathological postures such as the kyphotic (exaggeration of the thoracic curve) and lordotic (exaggeration of the lumbar curve), the flat back and swayback posture, as well as scoliosis (today defined as lateral shift and rotation of the spinal vertebrae with pathological curvatures of the spine), have their roots in ancient medicine.

Like his other works, Gilman’s aim here is to examine society’s perceptions. In covering the history of posture he is showing our shifts in attitudes and beliefs over time. Consider the Victorian era where poor posture was considered a sign of deteriorating mental health. In other points in history it was assumed that various ailments were due to poor posture which began in childhood and could be remedied through training.

The text here does get rather repetitive at times. But one of the most interesting chapters is the one where Gilman exposes our postural prejudices. He shows how individuals judge others and make assumptions about a person’s personality based on their carriage. This is often illustrated in art and literature where two men may have a similar stance but couldn’t differ more from a moral perspective:

Victorian literature saw the soldier’s body even when it was dressed as a civilian’s. Emily Brontë has Nelly Dean recognize the adult Heathcliff, who may well have also fought in the American Revolution, as ‘his upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army’. Sherlock Holmes could immediately recognize Watson as a former officer who had served in Afghanistan by his posture in Study in Scarlet (1887)…but Watson’s limp and Heathcliff’s rigidity reveal little of their real character. The postural body can mask true character, for the expert whose eye can see the military body even in civilian dress cannot extrapolate the former soldier’s character from his stance. Heathcliff is thus truly on a different moral plane from Watson in spite of their carriage.

This book comes with 121 illustrations and images. These help expand on the points made by the author and are useful at filling in the gaps left by his prose. This is often the case when his choice of phrasing is too dry or when things are pitched so high it goes over the reader’s head.

Even the best scholars have had difficulty dealing with the complexity of defining posture. The classical scholar Matthew B. Roller of Johns Hopkins University, in an extraordinary study of posture in the dining practices of the classical world, defines posture as ‘maintaining the body as a whole in a relatively motionless, stable state for an indefinite period’, and contrasts it with gesture ‘as nonverbal communicative techniques’…

Rather, posture is a fluid concept that moves regularly between ‘statics’ (the position of the body at rest), ‘mechanics’ (how the body moves) and ‘gait’ (how the body moves in space and time).

One of the big takeaways from this book is that bodies do change. Posture is a fluid construct and we can straighten to attention or slouch and recline while watching Netflix. Posture can be quite a broad topic because it covers how we carry ourselves as well as our stance and gait. The ideas and studies described here illustrate how things have changed over time. The military solider has evolved and changed their posture to reflect the differences in artillery. Gilman quotes one author who describes a slave’s poor posture as reflecting subservience and their poor place in society.

Stand Up Straight! contains some intriguing ideas but there are moments where this topic is too tedious to warrant an entire book. Gilman’s writing exacerbates this because it is quite formal and antiquated. Stand Up Straight! is a detailed look at this human construct and one that will educate those who are curious about this topic. For everyone else, it’s important to realise that while this text aspires towards a grand stature, it doesn’t always reach these high points.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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