Breaking the mould: Posture Bias

Being a Pilates teacher comes with a few requirements. I think very importantly one thing you must be is interested in how we (human beings) move. For me, this means you should be doing quite a lot of reading and lots and lots of research – getting your nerd on!

One thing that has been tickling the science nodules of my brain for a year or so now is posture and how the spine moves and works. As I was searching for articles for reading on the subject I came across an interesting one, which talks about a ‘lost’ posture of more traditional, tribal people. In it, the author proposes that this posture type helps prevent back injuries and pain, and suggests certain exercises and movements can help. In fact, it helped her overcome years of pain. Now, even though some of her conclusions I find lack thorough testing, her thoughts on posture and shape of the spine piqued my interest and raised further questions.

Where does this idea of ‘good’ posture vs ‘bad’ posture come from? Is there an ideal shape of the spine? How does it actually affect us and what role does the Pilates Method play in going forward?

The modern plumb line idea of posture originates from the middle of 19th century and relates to the idea that the military ideal is the perfect, preferred posture for men. Despite dubious science and flawed study, this idea of a perfect ideal posture was promoted and encouraged to the point it entered the zeitgeist – to have ‘bad’ posture meant that one was a bad person with low morals; people with ‘good’ posture were good people.

Where was the evidence it actually helped people move better, lead more fulfilling lives? There was actually none. No evidence. In fact, some of the pseudo-science that sprouted up around the turn of the 20th century around posture and eugenics was truly ignorant, misogynistic and racist.

So where does the Pilates Method fit in?

A quote from Joseph Pilates I’ve used previously shows a little about what he thought:

Contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind and elevates the spirit.”

It shows where he came from and what was going on in society at the time – the idea that wrong postures needed to be corrected. But what constitutes a wrong posture? Is Joseph Pilates’ posture the perfect one? Is the one from the 1930s and 1940s? Back then the Johnny Weismeuller’s ‘Tarzan’ posture was the bee’s knees for men — the epitome of perfect physique and posture.

These days a man with that barrel-chested posture type would be ‘corrected’ for fear that their lower back would be too tight. It seems what is ‘correct’ posture has more to do with the aesthetics at the time rather than what is actually useful for the human body. There is an unconscious posture bias that runs throughout all levels of modern society. One thing that has struck me about reading all these posture articles is that there is a layer of assumption overriding everything – everyone needs to fit into a pre-determined idea of good posture (the idea of which has changed many times over the years) and that if you don’t fit this mould then you have bad posture and therefore you must be in pain, or at the very least be a lazy person.

Posture bias

Here’s a crazy idea, what if most people have their own posture because it’s their own body and that’s ok?

Does the posture of a 5 ft woman need to be the same as a 6 ½ ft man to be right? What about the reverse – does a 5ft man need to have the same posture as a 6 1/2ft woman? Does a truck driver need to have the posture of a dancer (and which dancer did you just picture then – a prima ballerina or a break dancer? See, even you may have posture-bias!)

Does a 12-year-old need the same posture as an adult? Is there a ‘right’ posture?

Posture is changeable.

It needs to be. Our bodies are supposed to move! Posture changes because we are not static creatures.

Trying to change someone’s ‘bad’ posture in an effort to achieve some ideal posture is nonsensical. That ideal is a social construct and it has very little to do with actual healthy function. The chase for the ‘ideal’ posture hasn’t, and still doesn’t, actually work – there are more people in pain, not less.

It’s about moving

It makes me wonder – isn’t the right posture for you dependant on many factors? Like what you do with your body and how it feels, not just how it looks?

To me, ‘correct’ posture (or the way I like to think of it now is just posture) involves being pain-free and moving my body in any way I want it to move. Do I have perfect plumb line posture? I actually wouldn’t know, but guess what? Who cares?

Instead of encouraging Pilates students to achieve a supposed postural ideal of holding their body in a certain way (which comes with its own movement bias), shouldn’t Pilates teachers be encouraging their students to move free of pain, free of fear of their own bodies?

Change is happening

Thankfully, leaders of this thought process are helping to push contemporary modern Pilates in this new direction, and there is science (read here, and here, and here and here and here – well, you get the point) backing them up. This direction moves us away from some fictional, non-scientific ideals that quite frankly are lacking to something that is inclusive, functional, encourages movement and focuses on achieving an individual’s control of their own bodies. That is empowering!

It’s about changing the old outdated thoughts about posture, movement and pain. It’s about breaking the mould and removing biases.

It’s about moving.

It’s an exciting time to be a Pilates nerd.

6 thoughts on “Breaking the mould: Posture Bias

  1. Interesting thoughts which I would like to comment on. I think that perhaps posture is not the “correct” word to use here. I prefer Alignment! This changes everything in the sense that good alignment is that in which the “moving parts” are correctly aligned or aligned as best they can be in the bodymind we are working with. Any construction engineer would agree I am sure that moving parts not aligned correctly will malfunction and be subject the wear and tear. So it is I believe with the human body. There are many things which cause alignment not to be true and those would be for a different discusion. For now as a Pilates instructor and bodyworker I am concerned with alignment and trying to achieve the best alignment possible for myself and my clients.
    I have it first hand the joint damage that can be caused by poor alignment.
    I do agree that one size does not fit all. One “correct” alignment may not fit all and is certainly not possible for all but to aim to improve alignment of joints where possible is of benefit I think. If I can help clients to become aware of their bodymind and work in the best way possible for them then I am happy and they are usually in less pain and less fear of their bodies.
    Thanks for reading
    Lin Grahame

  2. Hi Dan,
    Thank you for writing this blog!

    I ❤️❤️❤️ the idea of moving away from physical biases, which has been a primary focus of my (lifelong) career as a mover and a thinker.
    Current research has yet to find a strong correlation between posture and pain. But, that doesn’t mean that precision in movement practice isn’t important. To me, understanding the role of science is really important, and even more important is how we apply scientific conclusions to our practices.

    My orientation is that evidence-based science is generally behind the phenomenological curve.
    That said, I still study to keep up with current research. Wanna know why?
    The reality is that, as a pilates teacher, I don’t need to discuss anything about current pain science with my clients…however, I also have a responsibility NOT say or think stupid stuff that isn’t true.

    Cheers to you, Dan!

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