Who really cares that Melania Trump posed nude? That the New York Post published the photos last month briefly distracted from her husband’s feud with the family of a dead Muslim veteran, but otherwise mostly served to ignite another scandal: What’s the deal with Melania’s early immigration status? We all moved on from the nudes per se so quickly that we all forgot to remember that thanks to a bizarre (and mercifully discontinued) practice at Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools, there is some chance—slim though it may be—that there exists, somewhere on this globe, a nude or two of Hillary Clinton and of Donald Trump.
Recall that in 1995, Ron Rosenbaum wrote a long story for the New York Times Magazine on “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal.” Apparently, for about 20 years, from the 1940s through the 1960s, nearly every student at most of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools—including Wellesley, where Hillary Clinton went, and, for a time, the University of Pennsylvania, Trump’s alma mater—was photographed naked as part of some kind of eugenics-adjacent physical exam that involved attaching metal pins to the backs of the students being photographed. Rosenbaum himself was subjected to this strange ritual (emphasis ours):
It didn’t occur to me to object: I’d been told that this “posture photo” was a routine feature of freshman orientation week. Those whose pins described a too violent or erratic postural curve were required to attend remedial posture classes.
The procedure did seem strange. But I soon learned that it was a long-established custom at most Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools. George Bush, George Pataki, Brandon Tartikoff and Bob Woodward were required to do it at Yale. At Vassar, Meryl Streep; at Mount Holyoke, Wendy Wasserstein; at Wellesley, Hillary Rodham and Diane Sawyer. All of them — whole generations of the cultural elite — were asked to pose. But however much the colleges tried to make this bizarre procedure seem routine, its undeniable strangeness engendered a scurrilous strain of folklore.
The photos, according to Rosenbaum, were the product of the American aristocracy’s interest in eugenics and social Darwinism. The presidents of Harvard and Yale, E. A. Hooton and W.H. Sheldon, began the practice in the years after World War II, George Hersey, a professor of art History at Yale, claimed, in a 1992 letter to the Times that served as the inspiration for Rosenbaum’s later story. Hooton and Sheldon believed “that a person’s body, measured and analyzed, could tell much about intelligence, temperament, moral worth and probable future achievement.”
You know who else believed that? Adolf Hitler! The Nazis compiled archives of photographs, analyzing them “for racial as well as characterological content (as did Hooton). Thus, from nose shape, forehead height and distance between lower lip and chin, a subject might be identified as 30 percent Alpine, 30 percent Mediterranean and 40 percent Danubian,” Hersey wrote. “The Nazis often used American high-school yearbook photographs for this purpose.”
According to Rosenbaum, by the time Hillary Rodham was at Wellesley, the practice had been modified to allow women to take their pictures only partly nude, if they so chose. By the late ‘70s, students and faculty had revolted against the appalling practice, seizing archives of photographs and negatives and burning them on the quads.
In 1987, the National Anthropological Archives, a branch of the Smithsonian Institute, acquired W.H. Sheldon’s archives, which included posture photographs he’d taken at schools around the country. In 1995, the Smithsonian sealed the collection—which, the Associated Press pointed out at the time, may have included photographs of President George H.W. Bush in addition to photographs of Hillary Rodham. Also, Sheldon’s archives reportedly contain photos from the University of Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump went to school, although he transferred after spending his freshman year at Fordham. (We also know that Trump goes to great lengths not to be seen in the nude.)
Since Bill Clinton went to Georgetown, this is the first mess he seems ever to have avoided.