Bodies of Evidence

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Odds are you’ve most likely never heard of William Herbert Sheldon. No, not the guy from the Big Band Theory, or whatever it’s called.

Chances also are you haven’t heard of his somatotype psychology theory either, however you may have come across one of Sheldon’s terms from his somatotype theory:  Mesomorph, ectomorph and endomorph. These were three broad classifications of body type Sheldon devised. In fact, they are still used in GCSE level physical education and sports science.

You’d of thought someone in this line of work would be a biologist, or an anatomist. But he actually was a psychologist. So how did he come up with these classes of body type? Some highly scientific methodology? Broadly speaking, he conducted his work by looking at pictures of American students attending Ivy League universities like Harvard and Yale, and rating them according to his somatotype scale. Naked pictures. Yes, you read that correctly.

Nude photos of incoming undergrads, taken apparently without explicit consent, which he then pored through scoring the bodies according to his theory. Whilst this is worrying, and adds weight to the case for modern day privacy and ethics legislation, it’s also concerning from the point of view of scientific rigour.

Sheldon’s three body-type classifications run something like this:

  • Ectomorph: tall, thin, slightly fragile, lightly muscled.
  • Mesomorph: triangular in body shape, muscular, rugged, athletic.
  • Endomorphic: round, often short, not very muscular, overweight.

Sheldon scored bodies based on a rating of 1-7 according to how they fit these types. His work was extremely subjective, seemingly using no real scientific understanding based in biology, which was no more empirically legitimate than an odd night back in 2004 when I thought I’d solved the meaning of life. I got annoyed the next morning when a science student questioned my night’s epiphany by inconveniently pointing out it wasn’t really based on anything. Still, you live and learn.

But the most worrying aspect of Sheldon’s somatotypes was his attempt to utilise them in his psychology work to describe temperament and behaviour. He described the personalities of the 3 types thusly:

  • Ectomorph: anxious, loners, introverted, tense and hesitant.
  • Mesomorph: courageous, born leaders, risk takers, bold and dominating.
  • Endomorphic: loving food and affection, slow reactions, lazy and complacent.

You can probably already see clear cognitive bias as some of these characteristics are stereotypes in our culture. Maybe you can conjure up an image of some of these ‘types’ in your head. The thin anxious loner. The warm-hearted, overweight lazy person. The muscular, athletic outgoing popular leader. Or perhaps I should say, übermensch.

For these ideas are founded in eugenics, and of even more concern as this was the 1940s when Sheldon was coming up with his nonsense, given the overtones and worrying similarity to phrenology and the other pseudo-science of the Third Reich.

Sheldon’s ‘Constitutional Psychology’ is now widely rejected as nothing better than charlatanism, but his broad classification of body types is still used in sports science theory. Barbara Heath worked with Sheldon with his 1954 book Atlas of Men; she disavowed his work claiming he falsified his data, but she later went on to help develop the Heath-Carter formula, which numerically calculates which of the somatotypes a body belongs to in a rather more formalised method. In theory, this acts as a rough guide to which sport a person is suited to and general body type.

Whilst arguably some good came out of this rather worrying period of history, when there were a lot of bad ideas floating around in general, it’s worth bearing in mind Sheldon’s story. The fact his somatotypes are still with us is something I am not sure how to take. Originally based in nothing more than dubious quackery, yet still surviving in academia and even being taught at GCSE in the UK, they still have a use. To me though, they are nothing more than generalisations and will always remind me of the danger of bad science, and how it can lead us by the nose of our own prejudices.


Leo Kindred

Science Editor