These college photos didn't get in yearbook Nude: Taking pictures of disrobed students used to be common for posture class. Some women are concerned they still exist.

August 05, 1997|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Before the flower children of the '60s shed their inhibitions, many of their mothers and grandmothers shed their clothes -- or most of them -- for physical education photos in college.

It was a rite of passage at Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Vassar -- and at such local schools as Goucher College, Towson State and the University of Maryland College Park, where freshmen from the 1930s to the 1960s disrobed for campus photographers.

Local universities, where only women were photographed, say the photos were destroyed years ago. But some of those women, now mostly in their 60s, 70s and 80s, have a nagging concern that the nude photos, or "silhouettes," taken for posture class may still exist.

"It's always been in the back of my mind," said Ginny Hanson, 61, of Glen Arm, who entered what was then Maryland State Teachers College at Towson in 1953. "There is a rumor they still exist."

Hanson -- who was too afraid to tell her parents about the photos at the time -- remembers taking off her gym uniform and underclothes and stepping onto a small platform in front of one of the college's female physical education teachers, who took side and front photos. "It was a humiliating experience," the retired teacher and grandmother said. "We were very innocent."

The issue of nude collegiate photographs arose nationally two years ago when thousands of such photos from Ivy League and other colleges were discovered in the Smithsonian Institution's archives.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Diane Sawyer and George Bush are among well-known Ivy Leaguers who joined the naked parade in college, at a time when students were photographed so their posture could be analyzed.

Most of the photos were made on sensitized bromide paper that produced a silhouette-like image. But local participants say their bodies still were identifiable.

"It looked like a bright negative," said Joyce Archer, 61, of Columbia, who attended Towson with Hanson. "I could recognize my body in my file."

A student would meet with an instructor who would critique the )) woman's posture in the photo and decide whether remedial classes were necessary.

"We were told you needed good posture to be a teacher," said Elizabeth Boden, 69, of Ellicott City, who went to the Towson college in 1946. "We don't really know what happened to those photos."

Towson officials say the photos were destroyed after each student graduated. But in the 1970s, Ruth Conard, a chairwoman of Towson's physical education department who retired in 1984, discovered a cache of posture photos and personally threw them in the university's incinerator.

"I couldn't let the handyman do it," said the Timonium resident.

She defends the practice of taking posture photos -- which started at the college around the 1930s and continued until the 1970s -- as a practical way for students to see their body alignment.

"It was considered avant-garde," Conard, 74, said. "There was nothing pornographic about these."

Ada Woods, a student at the University of Maryland in 1961, found the process beneficial.

"It was effective as a teaching tool," said Woods, now a reference librarian at Towson University. "I remember I was horrified at my posture. It was so terrible."

She was allowed to wear underwear for the photo shoot.

That wasn't permitted at Towson until the late 1950s, when a shocked group of Baltimore County doctors called the nude photos "medically valueless" and "beneath the Christian dignity of womanhood."

Dr. Charles O'Donnell, 80, was one of the concerned physicians. He said he became involved after a clergy member sought his help on behalf of several parishioners who had been photographed nude.

"The silhouettes were so good. [The college] had a pretty damn good camera," said O'Donnell, who still sees patients one day a week at his Towson office. "I had it stopped."

After that, students could wear underwear for the photo sessions.

But O'Donnell doesn't understand why the women are worried about whether the photos exist now. "After 35 or 40 years, those bodies are different," he said.

Chrystelle Bond, a professor of dance at Goucher, is exasperated that the issue keeps coming up. "It was an accepted philosophy. Any worthwhile college did this."

Posture photos still were being taken of Goucher women in underwear when Bond arrived in 1963, she said. The photos were destroyed at the end of each academic year. "They served their purpose. We didn't have storage space for those," she said.

Bond said the interest in posture grew out of a health movement in the early 20th century to encourage women to shed their corsets. "Women were educated to free their body and have a healthy body," she said.

Still, for many of the women who posed nude, the experience was not positive.

"You're shy and embarrassed," said Nancy Binder, 62, of Ellicott City, who has remained friends with Towson graduates Hanson and Archer after their years together in college. "You had to do it. You didn't question it."

On a recent visit to their alma mater, the women still laughed about going to posture class and walking around with books on their heads.

"Can you believe we had these pictures taken?" said Hanson, who still questions whether the photos might be hidden in some forgotten drawer at the university.

"We just have to take their word for it," Archer said.

Pub Date: 8/04/97

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