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Measuring Up



From 1932 until 1944, researchers from Long Island’s Eugenics Record Office conducted detailed annual measurements of the bodies of students at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. The measurements utilized the tools of anthropometry, and the students participated as both research subjects, as well as social scientists in their own right. Black bodies became subjects and objects of eugenic investigations attempting to link physical appearance and transmittable character traits — including pathologies (crime, immorality, disease, and feeblemindedness) to race.

Such study aligned proponents of eugenics — a science designed to breed out the weak among a population — with Black leaders interested in platforms of racial uplift. Charles Davenport, one of the most prominent leaders of the American eugenics movement, for instance, partnered with Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute president Robert Moton to promote various tenets of eugenics as useful to the growing Black intelligentsia.

And while Davenport saw eugenic measurements as necessary in identifying and breeding out “human degeneracy,” African American leaders largely viewed studies involving the measurement of Black bodies as a means of destroying race myths about inborn inferiority. Morris Steggerda, an Illinois-trained physical anthropologist led the Tuskegee anthropometric studies alongside campus administrators Cleve Abbott, the football coach, and Christine Evans Petty, the track and field coach.

Such long-term experimental programs in comparative racial research grew out of similar centuries-old sciences including craniology, (the study of skull size among various races to determine superiority and inferiority), phrenology (the study of the shape and size of the cranium as an indication of character and mental abilities), and Bertillon identification (measurements made of criminal and defective classes to identify and segregate them).

According to historian Beulah Bell, collection and interpretation of raw “race data” informed U.S. policies in arenas as divergent as housing, education, manufacturing, and law enforcement.

“Loose data has no power beyond its interpretation and use— some harmful and in other instances, seemingly innocent,” Bell told Acumen. “For instance, there is some evidence that suggests measurements taken of Tuskegee students helped clothing manufacturers determine how to size clothing meant to fit Black bodies. There may have been clear differences in the inseams, bustlines, or hip measurements of white and Black consumers so the data is racial, but not necessarily racist.”

Bell said the raw data showed racist intent only if manufacturers produced inferior clothing tailored and sized to Black consumers, not because of the measurements, but because they denoted the classification of the consumer as degenerate or outside of the norm. Bell said that even with early Bertillon files, when Black and White body measurements overlapped, Whites were unceremoniously identified as non-white, dysgenic (unfit), or defective.

“There was this fear in America of the slow death of whiteness instigated in great part by Madison Grant’s The Passing of a Great Race and eugenic studies of socially-defective Whites like the Jukes (Richard Dugdale) and Kallikaks (Henry Goddard). Eugenicists believed that a race could degenerate, lose vitality (the ability to reproduce itself), and be absorbed by ‘lesser’ races,” Bell said. “Measurements legitimized these fears and produced legal mandates to sterilize Whites who did not perform whiteness effectively. These were racial hygiene laws instituted for the racial betterment of the nation.”

Some laws, including the Racial Integrity Act, closed ranks on racial classification by giving the option of only two categories: White or Non-White on official documents. Other laws like Buck v. Bell (1927) went to the highest court in the land before scoring a victory for eugenicists who gained permission to sterilize any person the state deemed socially unfit. The litmus tests for determining fitness rested almost solely on body measurements.

“A person’s livelihood — if and where they could attend school, work, live, and with whom they could marry and have children depended on measurements, analysis, and crude classifications that labeled millions of White Americans human waste. For the large numbers of mixed-race Americans, White immigrants, and Whites, whose test scores or measurements diminished their skin currency, no social or legal recourse existed.”

The ERO staged eugenic tents at state fairs and expositions each year, promoting contests for Fitter Families and Better Babies. These contests used eugenic rubrics of superior, normal, and abnormal to evaluate fitness in centimeters and inches — and rewarded winners with money, gifts, and trophies. Similarly, Ivy League colleges and universities instituted measuring rituals for incoming freshmen, including the now-infamous Nude Posture photos, where student bodies were charted in the buff. Designed to assess both the intellectual capacity and social value of each student, the evaluations’ eugenic underpinning was to establish pools of fitness from which America’s most capable could replicate itself.

George Hersey was reported as saying in a 1995 New York Times Magazine article by Ron Rosenbaum on the photos, “The reigning school of the time, presided over by E. A. Hooton of Harvard and W. H. Sheldon held that a person’s body, measured and analyzed, could tell much about intelligence, temperament, moral worth and probable future achievement. The inspiration came from the founder of social Darwinism, Francis Galton, who proposed such a photo archive for the British population.” Hersey went on to say that Hooton’s intent was strictly eugenic in nature.

“From the outset, the purpose of these ‘posture photographs’ was eugenic. The data accumulated, says Hooton, will eventually lead on to proposals to ‘control and limit the production of inferior and useless organisms.’ Some of the latter would be penalized for reproducing . . . or would be sterilized. But the real solution is to be enforced better breeding -- getting those Exeter and Harvard men together with their corresponding Wellesley, Vassar, and Radcliffe girls.”

Intelligence tests paired with anthropometric, nude posture, and phrenology measurements helped create a national normative still celebrated today through popular culture, including its most endearing pageant: Miss America. But there was more to the measurements than simply sharpening the dating pool for better mate selection. Scoring on anthropometric and IQ tests relegated Americans into tightly fitted brackets of social and economic mobility.

In 1905, the French psychologist Alfred Binet developed a measure of “mental age” to classify American children’s capacity to learn and determine the usefulness of public education for deficient stock. Under this system, a child of average intelligence had a mental age equal to his chronological age. By 1910, Binet's mental age was used to generate an intelligence quotient or IQ (mental age/chronological age x 100).

IQ scores range from 0 to 200, with an average IQ of 100. Normal intelligence ranged from 86 to 115. Scores above 115 denoted genius. Those below 86 were assessed as eugenically unfit, and classified as: Idiots (having the mental age 0-3years old and capable of self-preservation), Low-Grade Imbeciles (having the mental age 4-5 years old and capable of simple menial work) Medium Grade Imbeciles (having the mental age 6-8 years old and capable of simple manual work), High-Grade Imbeciles (having the mental age 8- 10 years old and capable of complex manual work), and Morons (having the mental age 10-12 years old and capable of doing work requiring reason and judgment).

All of which opens the discourse on earlier measurement platforms, including Bertillon’s criminal identifiers to inquiry if they similarly became tools of eugenic mapping and segregation.


The fingerprint of today finds its origins in the Bertillonage of the early 1900s. Alphonse Bertillon, focused on the measurement and recording of body parts as a means of identifying the criminal. Bertillon designed an incremental physical description system comprised of four areas: anthropometry, a field using typological descriptions of the ear, nose, and iris; incremental, detailed physical description method, which he dubbed “portrait parlé” (spoken portrait) of the body and face; photographic description, which he continually enhanced by defining and refining a general protocol for face and profile views – in practice inventing the mug shot; and an inventory and precise mapping of all specific marks to be found on the body – scars, tattoos, moles and the like.

Coupled with the works of Croatian physician Fran Gundrum and Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, eugenic patterns of analysis emerged and quickly assimilated into concepts of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ and with each, found focus among criminal women. For instance, Gundrum wrote that rather than prostitution being a means of support or entered into through environment, it often came as a consequence of inheritance. To gauge the difference between an “upstanding” woman and a prostitute, Gundrum used visual markers he believed represented dysgenic womanhood.

He asserted: “There was a group of prostitutes in whom the cause was hereditary in nature; it did not mean predetermination, but it did imply a certain inclination...Their nature is riddled with a certain inconstancy; moral, social, and other notions have no foothold there. Degeneracy is sometimes manifested in immediate diseases, such as severe hysteria or feeblemindedness. Cramps, headache, alcoholism, proneness to fancies, daydreaming, and other purposeless practices. Sometimes, the signs of degeneracy are visible in the body, e.g., in the shape of the head; in the unusualness, crookedness of the lips; crookedness of the earlobes, arms, or legs; or poor development of the entire body.”

Gundrum makes the measure of these women’s features tale-tell signs of their defective womanhood, but only in relation to “normal” women. By so doing, he makes it possible to arrest an innocent woman and then use her body as evidence against imagined crimes. Similarly, Lombroso believed in the theory of the born criminal, and concluded that women were far more vicious and cunning than men as offenders. His studies on Italian prostitutes offered their physical appearances as proof of their degeneracy and made suspicious all women who did not fit a particularly narrow white, European phenotype. In his description of the immoral, Lombroso noted their “enormous jaws, high cheekbones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake...”

By using eugenic terminology that alleged kinship between primitive or subhuman races with apes and savages, Lombroso cast Italian prostitutes as Non-Whites, subhuman, and national outsiders. Lombroso’s assessments were widely and wildly accepted in the U.S. where he further noted Black women and Native American women were manly looking, which contributed to their criminality. In fact, much of his writing, including the celebrated work, Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman, set white, aquiline features and measurements as his “Normal,” and specifically counts the criminal and prostitute classes not by their actions, but their measurements.

“Bertillon did not have, in my opinion, the eugenic use of his measurements in mind when creating the identification system. He was thinking of first-time versus repeat offenders. We see though, how easy it became to use these measurements to hyper-surveil groups and individuals under the construct that they ‘fit the description’ of born criminals,” Bell said. But in addition to these measured bodies being made criminal, they simultaneously became inappropriate, unprofessional, un-American, and unruly. Today’s bias and racism cannot be separated from the systems of measurement that historically informed them.”

Bell said that with the resurgence of eugenic theories, so too comes the value of measurements and raw data to medical, legal, and education communities.

Beware and be aware.


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