David Armstrong described in his brilliant book A New History of Identity how exercise and specifically posture had been utilised as tools of social engineering in the late 19th century (Armstrong 2002).
When we think of a person’s attitude today, we often think of it as being about their response to authority, but it was originally a term used to describe a child’s standing posture.
Towards the end of the 1800s governments throughout Europe and North America grew increasingly concerned about the fitness and strength of its citizens and began to think about ways to discipline children before they became slovenly. Military-style drilling and massed social calisthenics were encouraged, and instructors looked to see that children’s bodies were developing correctly (see, for instance Beth Linker’s work on scoliosis from 2012). ‘Attitude’ originally defined a child’s upright posture, but was later taken up by psychologists to refer to people’s psychological response to authority. A slouched posture meant a poorly disciplined mind, whereas being ‘upright’ meant having the correct moral, spiritual and cultural attitude.
The ‘art’ of physiognomy – the now debunked skill of characterising a people’s personalities on the basis of their facial features – is the subject of a recent book by Peter Sahlins titled 1668: The year of the animal in France. In the book, Sahlins draws out the ways that animalistic characteristics were used by early health professionals to interpret people’s inner personalities. It’s a fascinating book that reminds us that trying to understand the inner workings of people has been a interest throughout human history.
‘Reading’ inner emotional states and attitudes from outer physical appearance is a long-held, but little discussed practice in physiotherapy. Physiotherapists have long claimed to be able to glean a lot from palpable local or regional tensions and observed postural responses to load. But perhaps lacking an acceptable vocabulary to explain what they feel and hear, have limited the amount to which these things are explored.
It’s possible to see a person’s trepidation and sense their anxiety the first time they walk after major injury, for example, just as it’s possible to sense the fear of movement in people with chronic persistent pain. It’s entirely possible to feel a body relax under careful touch, just as you can see determination and resilience in the way people tackle a challenging exercise.
Recent work on embodiment is reviving interest in the interpretive dimensions of physiotherapy that are hard to quantify but, perhaps, constitute an important point of difference for us as practitioners. It will be interesting to see in the coming years how far this new work on embodiment pushes us to acknowledge the importance of reading personality into people’s movements, and how much this gathers momentum in a profession looking for ways to differentiate itself from its competitors.
Armstrong, D. (2002). A new history of identity. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Linker, B. (2012). A dangerous curve: The role of history in america’s scoliosis screening programs. American Journal of Public Health, 102(4), 606-616.