The Beauty Pageant That Required X-Rays

3d render medical illustration of the skeleton bone
“Momma says my back is as crooked as a question mark. These shoes are gonna make me as straight as an arrow. They’re my magic shoes.” —Young Forrest Gump, “Forrest Gump” (1994)

In A Nutshell

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, there was a series of popular beauty pageants that not only judged a woman’s outer appearance and personality but also her spine and posture. X-rays of the contestants’ bodies were judged along with their overall posture to determine who had the straightest and best spine. The pageants were the brainchild of the chiropractic industry, which was trying to improve its public image.

The Whole Bushel

Those who think beauty standards are impossibly high today should look back to the 1950s and ’60s when women had to prove they were stunning on both the outside and the inside—the literal insides of their bodies.

This all happened in a series of beauty pageants that are now mostly forgotten but were kind of a big deal from about 1956 to 1968. The Posture Queen contests, as they were known, judged women on their beauty, poise, personality, and their X-rays. The X-rays were used to pinpoint the contestant with the straightest, most structurally sound spine. Girls with scoliosis need not apply. In fact, this area of the contest was deemed so important that it accounted for 50 percent of a girl’s total score. In addition to the X-rays, the contestants also had to prove their posture was perfect by standing on two scales (one foot on each scale) and then balancing precisely half their weight on each scale.

Who decided that the erectness of one’s spine was important enough to be the basis of a pageant? Naturally, it was those who had the most to gain from women everywhere longing to have the most gorgeous vertebrae—chiropractors. Back then, there was no license process for chiropractors, and those in the field were struggling to get respect for their practice in a world where most medical doctors classified them as quacks. So the Chiropractic Association decided to start the pageants as a way to improve public relations and bring some attention to their industry. They spread the message that posture was the means to good health and chiropractors were the key to it all. Mattress companies, like Posture Queen Mattress, also got in on the action by sponsoring contestants, financially supporting the pageants, and touting their products as aids in “spinal hygiene.”

Interestingly, in those days, no one was concerned with subjecting women to repeated bouts of full-body radiation in the name of beauty. And we can only imagine the number of times the participants and hopeful contestants had unnecessary X-rays in preparation for the event. Submitting an 8 x 10 photo of their spine was, after all, a requirement for simply applying to the pageant.

Thankfully (if only for reducing exposure to radiation), the pageant began to fade away in the late 1960s. By that point, chiropractors had the licensures they wanted and their profession was becoming more mainstream. Still, the beauty ideals that those pageants popularized are still ingrained in many and might partially explain why our mothers and grandmothers are always telling us to stand up straight.

Show Me The Proof

NPR: You Think Beauty Is Skin Deep? You’re Not A Chiropractor
Journal of Chiropractic Humanities: Posture Queen Contests in Alabama