Sep 8, 2007

Pectoral Deterrent: Always in Motion, Always in Perfect Position

Of all the menacing gestures associated with the newly assertive Russia, from annexing the Arctic to restarting nuclear bomber runs, none seems to have discomfited the rest of the world quite as much as President Putin being photographed bare-chested last month, with his perfect pecs on proud display. (Not as perfect as M1's- of course)

It was quite the most audacious demonstration of political self-confidence from any Russian leader since the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Whatever else Vlad may have learnt in the KGB, he certainly absorbed everything one needs to know about psychological warfare. How many of the politicians charged with our safekeeping do you estimate would emerge enhanced if their torsos were laid out for all to see on a summer fishing trip? Did Gonzalez have the perfect six-pack? Would we all feel a little better about our place in the world if Dick Cheney’s treasure chest was on proud display?

What Vlad’s tactical strip has revealed, apart from the lifetime benefits of Spetsnaz training, is the continuing role that nudity plays in male power relations. We’re used to discussion of how little, or much, women should safely display in a variety of circumstances. Any number of fashion experts, for example, will advise that when tempted to dress revealingly it’s necessary to choose between showing off either legs or décolletage.

Attempting to do both at the same time is like smoking while eating foie gras – either might be thought sophisticated – do them together and you look like a Ukrainian actress holidaying for the first time in St-Tropez.

But while there are all sorts of rules, and seasonally updated tips, on how much women dare to bare, with the rival merits of halternecks and exposed midriffs regularly rehearsed, the question of how men should manage the exposure of their own flesh, and what can be read into these displays, is rarely given the close study it deserves.

As Putin’s careful release of the pictures of his own taut form demonstrate, the deployment of male nudity is, above all, a power play. On one level Vlad is showing us all that he’s a remarkably fit man for his age (54) and that, unlike in the decadent West, Russia’s leaders remain the physical embodiment of their nation’s vigor – classical champions in the manner of those Roman emperors who would renew their mandate to rule on the battlefield or even in the gladiatorial ring. His bare-chested peacockery is, in that respect, in line with the broader cult of Putin as his nation’s silverback – the leader of the band.

And while it’s becoming rarer, the assertion of prime physical vigor through summertime displays of shirtless masculinity has been a trick in several leaders’ repertoires. From Mussolini, to Jack and Bobby Kennedy, baring your torso for a publicity shot was just another way of demonstrating a break from the failed and flabby Old Gang and the arrival of New Hope.

But tactical exposure of holiday flesh is a way of asserting power which is certainly not restricted to the political sphere. For a particular class of man – think of pictures of Gianni Agnelli, say, or Aristotle Onassis, or even Michael Winner, letting it all hang out above deck has often been accompanied by the wearing of briefs so small that they look like sparrows that have crashed into the Matterhorn. These men present themselves to the world with an apparently unembarrassed delight in how much there is to see. And in so doing they appear to subvert one of the rules about what it is that the wealthy really cherish – discretion, privacy and protection.

What, of course, they are really doing is reminding the rest of us how little they need to care for our approval, how liberated they are from bourgeois notions of propriety, how unrelated to their physical appearance is their considerable power of attraction. For them, daring to bare so much is just another assertion of how much, in every sense, they’ve got. And the knowledge that male nudity is linked to power, the more you’ve got, the more you are liberated to show, is now, I think, inherent in how we conduct ourselves.

And it’s not just related to wealth. The insouciance of a particular type of millionaire has its analogue in the breezy, what’s-it-to-you, shirtlessness of any man who is, in effect, making a declaration of machismo when he should, ostensibly, be relaxing. Baring your torso on holiday, whether in Ayia Napa or on the deck of your yacht, means setting aside the expected norms of modesty and thus, in its way, involves you staking a claim to attention, and occupying more space than if you were clothed. It is an act of assertion, a waving of the coxcomb. And, whatever the socio-economic background of the bare-chested male, his shedding of a protective layer, whether it’s Sears or John Smedley, involves an implied challenge to other men – haven’t you got what I’ve got; what are you hiding behind?

Looking again at those chilling photos of Putin, his ice-cold eyes masked by shades but his torso on open display, I couldn’t help but feel my prejudices being reinforced. The region from a man’s waist to his neck should be like the nuclear deterrent – everyone knows it’s there, it’s often glimpsed slipping into the water, but its exact condition must always remain a mystery.

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