Since the miracle invention of a vaccination for Covid-19, a second discovery has been made: male politicians absolutely love taking their shirts off for a photo opportunity. In the UK, you are more likely to find a Conservative MP bare-chested than a Labour one – Brendan Clarke-Smith and Johnny Mercer are the poster boys of the movement, resplendent in chest hair as they pose for the cameras.
Internationally, there are subtle variations: French ministers like to drape or hold their spare sleeve over their exposed nipple, while proudly exposing tremendous biceps and noble shoulders. Their finance minister, Olivier Véran, in particular, looks as if he’s been caught unawares straight from the shower by a hot delivery driver at the start of an 80s porn film.
In Greece and Ukraine, the directive came from the very top: the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, were extremely quick to disrobe, the former stripping as early as January, the latter fully topless as he braved the needle.
It is of course possible that none of these men knew how to dress for the occasion. One vaccination volunteer in Oval, one of the centres near parliament, said: “You need to get right in the middle of the deltoid muscle, which is two fingers underneath the shoulder bone.” If you need that bone for reference, few men would be able to get their shirt so high, whatever shape their arms were in.
Nonetheless, the volunteer, who does not wish to be named, has little patience for the man who arrives in a tight white shirt on his way to work. “It’s not just that you’re going to have to take it off. Also, you might bleed. You idiot.”
Surely, this far into the vaccination programme, and social media being what it is, all politicians know what the jab will involve.
The bare-chested photo op in Westminster can be traced back as far as 2012, when Dan Poulter, a health minister, received a flu jab with two clearly defined, naked pecs and a look of unspeakable, almost endearing self-satisfaction. If the expression on his face isn’t evidence enough that he stripped off intentionally, bear in mind that he’s a doctor. There is very little chance he didn’t know how injections were done.
Is there any deeper political symbolism involved? Vladimir Putin famously loved to show his bare chest, atop a horse, next to a tiger rug, whenever the mood took him. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Eurosceptic hardliner, posed semi-naked in bed, defying what appears to be the form by looking extremely un-buff and proud of it.
Dr Luke Cooper, author of a book about the European rightwing, Authoritarian Contagion, says: “The question is, why is it that these leaders find often very masculine sexualised representation useful politically? The best answer I’ve heard is that masculinity is not just about power over women, it’s also about conveying your power over other men.”
What’s interesting is that these habitual naturists, and the hard-right in general, suddenly became very modest when it came to their Covid jab. Putin got vaccinated without photographers present; Hungary’s Viktor Orbán was dressed in a forgiving white T-shirt, modestly rolled up to reveal no more than a tiny bit of shoulder; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, of course, has more important things to worry about, such as whether the vaccination could turn people into crocodiles.
Chest-as-masculine-signifier only works for the real man when it’s either completely gratuitous (the Putin) or utterly frivolous (Boris Johnson, heading into the sea wearing only his trunks, before a G7 meeting. “That was similar to Salvini,” Cooper notes, “a very privileged image indicating that he doesn’t have to fulfil particular registers of masculinity to still be seen as a top boy.” If you’re wondering whether that’s an academic way of calling him tubby, then yes, so am I).
Taking one’s shirt off for a very sound reason, therefore, with your biceps flexed and seated at your best angle – this is more of a centrist gesture: nobody’s attempting toxic domination rooted in raw physicality. It’s more like a forward-facing, arresting image for the purposes of public health role modelling.
You don’t see many women doing it, however.