8 Jun 2024

Prof Beth Linker: In defence of slouching

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 8 June 2024
A man in a blue sweatshirt slouching on a chair

Photo: cottonbro studio

A straight spine is so prized in our culture that megastar Taylor Swift is currently performing in a NZ$300 posture-supporting bra.

Yet the idea there is a "universal good posture" that will protect us from back pain is not supported by science, says  Beth Linker, the author of Slouch: Posture Panic in Modern America.

"It's an imaginary hope that we will somehow be able to, a) have perfectly controlled posture, and b) that it somehow leads to or prevents back pain or ill health in a meaningful way," she tells Susie Ferguson.

Prof Beth Linker

Prof Beth Linker Photo: supplied

The idea of a "poor posture epidemic" kicked off in the early 20th century, Linker says, building on Charles Darwin's theory that standing up straight is what sets humans apart from animals.

Scientists and physicians grew concerned that the trappings of civilisation - motorised travel, children sitting at school desks and the demise of manual labour - were leading our species towards de-evolution and poor health.

Based on the idea that people with a more upright posture have better breathing and digestion, the American Posture League was established in 1914.

The moral judgement of slouchers - as opposed to an "an upright citizen is somebody who is disciplined, who follows orders and who maintains their own strength" - began to creep in at this time, too.

Fast-forward to 2024 and we still see a lot of stigma and moral judgement placed on people who don't have what's considered good posture, Linker says - even women who, through no fault of their own, have a stoop due to osteoporosis.

"We see a person who slouches and then we assume all of these other things about not only health but their ability to think, their ability to do good work - all of that stigma is attached to [posture] in a really biased way."

The fear of slouching itself has racist and classist origins, she says.

Historically, it's usually been educated white people who've spent a lot of time worrying about poor posture as a negative byproduct of so-called civilisation.

Their study of indigenous people - who supposedly have perfect posture and no back pain - to find ways of bettering non-indigenous bodies is highly problematic, Linker says. 

"There's been a long history of underestimating pain in non-white people, so to insist on this 'paleo posture' or return to nature and to the way our spines were originally meant to be used can do a kind of violence. It strips indigenous people of their own claim to bodily pain and it idealises and romanticises their way of life."

When it comes to developing back pain, a person's housing, education, diet and health insurance is a better predictor than if they slouch, she says.

Even if maintaining a ramrod-straight spine for all of our waking hours was a physical possibility, this wouldn't act as protection.

"There isn't really solid scientific evidence to show that if you are otherwise pain-free and you have a tendency to slouch you're going to have more of a chance of back pain than the person who has supposedly better posture."