“S tand up straight.” I am 13 years old, patiently waiting for the organ to launch into “O Thou the Central Orb,” when I hear these words and feel two hands yanking back my cassocked shoulders. Towering over my peers in the choir stalls at the front of Holy Trinity Church Northwood, just outside London, my face flushes. I am tall for my age, the second tallest in my class, and already developing an apologetic stoop as a result. This makes me fair game for behavior correction from concerned parties—my grandmother, random adolescent boys, septuagenarian choristers. I think murderous thoughts. Then, I pray for poise.
As a five-foot-eleven teenager, my poor posture was my shame. I shot up like a houseplant when I was nine years old, growing five inches in less than a year. Subsequently, no one would dance with me at the prom, and I couldn’t find any trousers that fit. Being asked to wind the classroom clock when the hour changed didn’t do wonders for my confidence, either. “Sometimes it does feel like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders,” jokes Jane McFarland, a six-foot-tall fashion editor friend who only reached her full height potential when she arrived at university, emboldened in part by a six-foot-tall roommate. The camaraderie of other tall women also changed things for Paris-based model Didi Stone Olomidé. “I hated myself, I hated my body,” the five-foot-ten Stone Olomidé says of her formative years, spent in a slump. But that changed when she was scouted on the Métro at the age of 15. “For the first time, I was told that it was precious to be tall, that I could do a lot of things with my height.”
Why are we so obsessed with “good” posture? Why do we still have the mistaken belief that ramrod straight backs—which originated, by the way, in military drill formation circa the late 16th century—are synonymous with good deportment, and even moral uprightness? “We are the way we stand, ideally,” according to Sander Gilman, whose 2014 book, Illness and Image: Case Studies in the Medical Humanities, explores why posture is evoked again and again to represent the ideal, the beautiful, the perfect body. Gilman, the director of the program in psychoanalysis and the health sciences humanities initiative at Emory University in Atlanta, points toward further evidence of this phenomenon: In the 1950s, Miss Correct Posture competitions proliferated in the U.S., sponsored, somewhat inevitably, by chiropractors. Eighteen-year-old Lois Conway won the crown in 1956, posing alongside an X-ray of her superlative spinal structure, along with the two runners-up. I hunch just thinking about it, as do millions of my peers around the world, apparently.
“Right now we’re having a huge problem, specifically with kids and millennials who are starting to develop kyphosis, or curvature of the thoracic spine,” says Amir Mahajer, D.O., a dual-certified physiatrist and the head of interventional spine care at Mount Sinai West’s new Spine Center in New York. Sitting for prolonged periods of time in a “shrimp position” while stooped over cell phones and computers puts undue pressure on the spine and can lead to disc herniation and early onset osteoarthritis, Mahajer continues, explaining the impact of “nerd neck,” the latest attempt by the medical establishment to epithetize this very modern-day affliction. Typically, Mahajer prescribes physician-guided exercise programs for his patients designed to find what he calls “the primary source of instability,” often recommending core-strengthening workouts such as yoga and Pilates as well.
But that instability might not be purely physical. “There is good, level-A scientific evidence that if you’re present and mindful, you can improve your pain, and you can improve your function,” says Mahajer, explaining that even cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could potentially help correct posture issues. Transitioning mentally, he notes, is often the first step in any physical transformation. This resonates. I never really longed to be shorter. But I have always wanted some indication of how to hold myself—how to stand tall—in a way that didn’t betray my low self-esteem.
“The way you carry yourself is really a manifestation of how you deal with things mentally,” confirms Claire de Obaldia, a Paris-based therapist, who has agreed to meet with me. In her 50s and bookish, de Obaldia earned a master’s and doctorate in comparative literature from Oxford before training in the Alexander Technique, a self-interrogation practice that focuses on undoing bad body habits via a series of breathing, balance, and mindfulness exercises. The method, which was invented by the actor Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s in an attempt to control his breathing onstage, has enjoyed a resurgence as a solution for nerd neck, as well as issues that specifically plague the long of limb.