The Body and Politics
The Power of Muscles

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis;
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis; | © dpa/Andy Rain

Politics follows the laws of power. And power is wielded by those who radiate power – ideally with a body that is fit, beautiful and vigorous.

He wears a leather jacket rather than a sports coat, his hand usually stuffed nonchalantly into his pocket. His shirt collar is generally open, his shirt tails hanging out of his trousers. He stows his files away in a rumpled rucksack instead of an elegant leather briefcase – and he rides a motorbike. Nothing, absolutely nothing about the manner of Yanis Varoufakis, who was sworn in as Greece’s new Finance Minister in January 2015, matches the typical image of uniformly besuited male politicians. And that’s precisely what this physical self-presentation is meant to convey: Yanis Varoufakis is seeking to signal a fresh start, his demonstrative unpretentiousness symbolising both Greece’s required budgetary austerity and the precarious reality of many Greeks – i.e. the electorate. “He’s making a political statement before he even opens his mouth,” opines York Kautt, sociologist at Justus Liebig University Giessen. Kautt conducts research on “image”, among other topics.

Message to voters

Cultivating a stylised image as a message to the electorate – it’s a familiar strategy previously adopted by former German politician Joschka Fischer (Alliance 90/The Greens) and former Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. In Joschka Fischer’s case, it was the trainers he wore in 1985 while being sworn in as the first minister of an ecological party in Hesse’s State Parliament: “By sporting this icon of modernism, he was demonstrating to the electorate: I’m part of the counterculture,” says York Kautt. By contrast, after being elected Federal Chancellor in 1998, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder appeared in public wearing expensive suits, with a cigar in his hand. Political scientist Paula Diehl, who has spent years researching body images in politics, explains: “The message was: I’ve made it. A perfect symbol of middle-class aspirations along the lines: If he can do it, then I can too.”

Politicians using their bodies to make political statements – without any need for speeches, debates and strategy papers – is a feature of our image-dominated era. “The public is the basic medium of politicians,” says York Kautt. It’s an observation about the body, already made by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish: “…power relations have an immediate hold upon it”; more precisely: “…they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.”

Physical fitness as an expression of power

Politicians use their bodies to represent their office – and by extension the state of the nation. Ideally, the nation’s vigour as well. Whether we’re talking about the physical fitness of U.S. President Barack Obama, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Russian President Vladimir Putin or former French President Nicolas Sarkozy – we’ve seen images of all of them either stripped to the waist, fishing, hunting or on horseback. Even if showing bare skin is one of the last taboos in the world of politics, it’s a way for these men to demonstrate their virility – and their nation’s power.

Youthfulness is a status symbol in this profession, too. Take Silvio Berlusconi with his newly transplanted hair hidden under a bandana; German politician Michael Glos dying his hair; or Free Democratic Party (FDP) leader Christian Lindner’s freshly transplanted mop of hair. There has even been a court case over a German politician’s physical appearance: it was all about the claim that Gerhard Schröder’s hair was dyed.

Reflection of an achievement-oriented society

On the other hand, bodies that radiate less-than-optimal vigour are not necessarily a drawback. Images of politicians like that of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in a wheelchair, of Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel on crutches or of Rhineland-Palatinate Minister-President Malu Dreyer, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, convey a different message by suggesting a strong work ethic: “It’s quite possible to deal with illness and handicaps and still come out on top,” believes political scientist Paula Diehl. “The message is: we are disciplined.” And, adds sociologist York Kautt: “It means they radiate a Protestant ethic or at least a sober pragmatism.” Politicians who lose weight are following a similar pattern – like Joschka Fischer in 1998 or German Federal Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt: here is someone who’s in control of his physical appearance. “That radiates power,” says York Kautt. “Self-optimisation is a reflection of our achievement-oriented society.”

As the Roman politician Menenius Agrippa observed way back in 500 BC, the “body politic” is a system of interdependencies, similar to that of human organs. This principle is key to democracy – which explains politicians’ constant urge to ensure their legitimacy in the eyes of those from whom their power ultimately derives: the voters. In order to enjoy credibility, you must “literally stand upright,” says York Kautt. Today, though, the public image a politician projects is always part of a fictional narrative, too: “We are dealing with a generation that engages in self-presentation on Facebook,” says Paula Diehl. “It’s all about compelling pictures rather than authenticity.”