Justin Trudeau’s Topless Body Politic

When Canada's prime minister takes off his shirt, he isn't just showing off — he's showing Canadians who they really are.

It all started innocently enough. The Godby family, from Peterborough in Ontario, Canada, was investigating the entrance to Lusk Cave in Quebec’s Gatineau Park, when they heard a “familiar voice.” As they stood there, dumbfounded, out trotted newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on vacation with his wife and family. Trudeau posed for a picture with one of the Godby boys and then headed off with his family. Jim Godby, the father, posted the picture on his Facebook page, under the caption: “When you step out your front door you never know what adventures await.”

“Citizen meets head of state” doesn’t really fit into the man-bites-dog rule of viral journalism — unless the head of state is famous for being heartthrob-handsome, which Trudeau is, and isn’t wearing a shirt, which Trudeau was not. As things were, the Godby photo exploded all over the internet, and newspapers across the English-speaking world picked up the story. Time reported it, as did Britain’s Daily Mail (“Canadian family sees PM Justin Trudeau walk out of a cave TOPLESS”). “Lusk Cave (more like Lust Cave),” leered Slate’s Double X blog.

As an American, the oddest thing about the Trudeau cave-selfie incident was the reaction from the Canadian government: nothing. If anyone on Trudeau’s staff had words with him about being photographed shirtless, he didn’t listen, because a week later it happened again. Marnie Recker, a photographer shooting a wedding on the Pacific beaches of Tofino, British Columbia, was snapping a photo when she saw a familiar face grinning behind the bride. There was Trudeau, holding a surfboard, wetsuit rolled down to his waist. Recker posted the picture online, and once again the internet blew up: Twitter started automatically suggesting “justin trudeau shirtless” when users typed his name into the search bar.

There’s something comforting, in our jaded age, in the knowledge that a blurry collarbones-up shot of an uncovered male torso can still lead to international titillation. But then this wasn’t just any torso: Trudeau is Canadian political royalty, the son of legendary Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the first non-crack-addicted Canadian politician in a generation to make an impact south of the 49th parallel; a man whose sexuality and attractiveness have been intimately intertwined with his politics since day one. And then there was the political undertone: Trudeau recently won a tough electoral battle against Stephen Harper, a man who was his opposite in both political outlook and sex appeal. Trudeau’s shirtlessness has so far bolstered his cred, reminding Canadians that good times are here again.

The presidential topless photo is a strange genre, resting as it does on the unresolvable dualism between the machinery of the impersonal state, with its disinterested and interchangeable bureaucrats, and the real flesh-and-blood humans by which that state functions. In the memorable formulation of Deadspin’s Albert Burneko, government officials are not ordinary people but the “meat suit an inhuman legal entity inhabits.” That inhuman entity, Burneko writes — a president, for example, or a comptroller of public accounts — needs the use of a human body “so that it can stamp things and use the telephone and spill soy sauce on its keyboard,” but it is not that body. The power and legitimacy of democratic office comes in the machinelike promise of the officeholder (“meat suit”) to follow laws even they disagree with and to discharge the responsibility without human foible or bias. In theory, the physical shape or appearance of Justin Trudeau, citizen, should have no relationship with the office of prime minister that he currently occupies.

In practice, of course, we know in our hearts that those who hold the offices of prime minister, senator, and president are people like us, who eat and sleep and shit and have sex and contradictory opinions and bad days. There is an understandable desire to peek behind the curtain, under the shirt, and see who these people are who rule us. And there can be definite benefits to their letting us, which different leaders and different nations navigate differently. But there are costs, too.

Consider Barack Obama’s reaction to his own topless brouhaha in late 2008 as newly elected (but not inaugurated) president. A tabloid photographer shot a picture of Obama emerging from the water, smiling and looking a little sun-drunk, and immediately it showed up on websites and tabloids around the world, where Obama’s body was judged and found … hot. “Fit for Office,” the New York Post gushed, “Buff Bam is Hawaii hunk.” The always classy Daily Mail called their piece “Commander in briefs: Obama shows off his war chest,” writing, “[W]e knew he had the stomach for a fight. And this is what it looks like.” Also in Britain, the Telegraph went full Mean Girls, rating Obama’s stomach and chest (favorably) against other world leaders who dared to take their shirts off in public: Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, had looked a “little overweight,” while Tony Blair “display[ed] the body of a man who had spent nearly 10 years enjoying … diplomatic receptions.”

The point, underlying all these examples, is that — meat-suit logic aside — these powerful men (and women) are not quite like us. Much in the same way of the godlike saviors of big-budget Marvel movies, we expect them, and their bodies, to be tighter, purer, more impressive. At the same time, a jealous part of us resents them for their power, and we look for ordinary human traits — fat, evidence of physical decline — to take them down a peg. So humanization is a double-edged sword: It means, for example, that suddenly the office of British prime minister and the power of No. 10 Downing St. is being conflated in a national paper with Tony Blair’s love handles. Whether out of personal shyness or a feeling that his topless pictures were unbecoming of his office, Obama put the kibosh on shirtless photos of himself. “I’m not going to let you guys take a picture of me with my shirt off,” Obama said to reporters on a August 2010 junket to the Gulf Coast. And the White House has held by that: Though shirtless photos of Obama occasionally come out, like this one of him playing beach football in 2012, they’re decidedly unofficial, grainy long-lens shots that come out in spite of the White House’s best efforts.

Of course, there are upsides to humanizing the office and linking it to your own living, breathing body. For example, if you’re an autocrat, holding personal power over a state is an extension of your own will. In this view, the topless photo can be a powerful piece of propaganda — as Louis XIV might have said, “L’état c’est ma poitrine.” The golden example of that strategy, of course, is Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin, around the same time as Obama’s Hawaii incident, doubled down on a photo campaign showing Putin doing manly things — wrestling tigers, fly-fishing, talking to horses — often shirtless, with a barrel chest that wouldn’t look out of place on a bouncer; a man who could take a punch and knock you out in return.

In Putin’s case, unlike Trudeau’s and Obama’s, these photos aren’t snapped by paparazzi or ordinary citizens: They come courtesy of Russian presidential photographers — and are duly delivered straight to Russian state media. The Kremlin even cooperated with Russian tabloid Zvezdi I Soveti on a thoroughly bizarre calendar last year, which includes a shirtless Putin fly-fishing and a (clothed) Putin nuzzling a rose over a caption about how Russian women are the most beautiful and talented. In Putin’s case, it’s hard to know how much of this is meant to say, “The tsar is in good shape, so don’t mess with him,” and how much it is a sort of sexualized advertising of the Putin brand, of the “women want to be with him, men want to be him” variety. Putin isn’t the only one stripping down to show off Putin. For his birthday in 2010, in an unintended commentary on both the uses of political nudity and the health of Russia’s independent media, 12 female students from Moscow State University’s journalism school released a calendar of themselves in lingerie, pining for Putin. Then there were the bikini car washes and sexually explicit pro-Putin ads — all put out by nominally independent groups that, according to the Russian chapter of Anonymous, are funded by the Kremlin.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on vacation outside the town of Kyzyl in August 2009. (ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

Trudeau has walked a middle way between Obama’s privacy and Putin’s chest-out publicity. He has been, well, casual, as perhaps befits a man who has been in the public eye since growing up in the court of his father, the late Pierre Trudeau. It’s possible that Trudeau’s toplessness has no political significance beyond the desire of a human man on a hot day to take his shirt off wherever he pleases. But the same cannot be said of the photos of Trudeau’s toplessness. It seems ludicrously unlikely that Ottawa doesn’t understand that the appeal of Trudeau’s body is mixed with that of his policies.

On the day he was elected prime minister, shirtless photos of him weighing in and flexing at a celebrity boxing match several years previous went viral. Likewise, this March, so did a 2013 photo of a grinning (although clothed) Trudeau demonstrating mayurasana, or peacock, a yoga pose that involves balancing in a plank on your palms. Back then, the Trudeau camp retweeted the picture under a caption that explicitly linked Trudeau’s sense of balance and his ability to transform Canada: “RT @gregkolz: JT is level-headed & able to bring Canada to new heights. That’s why he’s my choice for #Liberal Leader.” This casual physicality in public speaks to certain elements in the Canadian national character, calling back to a liberal golden age and anchoring more cerebral Trudeau policies.

To understand what seeing Trudeau topless means to Canadians, we have to understand some things about the national culture. In the short summer respite between the long frozen winters, Canadians burst into an orgy of wholesome physical activity, taking off their shirts (and sometimes more) to run, canoe, paddleboard, or swim in lakes and rivers. Like their fellow northerners in Scandinavia, this attribute bleeds over into a climatically inappropriate embrace of nudity: In the winter of 2014, a group of 30-somethings calling itself the BC Mobile Sauna Society parked a “sauna truck” in the backyard of my house in Vancouver so they could pass the winter with weekly mixed-gender, fully nude, oddly nonsexual “sweats.” And, if you’ll permit me one more aside, I knew a onetime tree-planter who bragged about how, to deal with the North’s terrible black flies, he “stripped buck naked,” slathered himself in oil, and went back to work; at the end of the day, he’d scrape the oil and layer of trapped flies off. This acceptance of nudity shares space with a playful, outdoorsy sexuality perhaps best expressed by the Canadian historian Pierre Berton in his famous line: “A true Canadian is one who can make love in a canoe without tipping.”

Outdoorsiness is a famous Trudeau family trait, binding together father and son — a fact Jim Godby, the Ontario man who saw Justin Trudeau exiting the cave, noted in his interview with the Toronto Star that “the hike even seemed like something the elder Trudeau may have done with his son.” That’s a valuable connection for the younger prime minister. His father was extremely popular — taking office in 1968 in an electrifying surge of support referred to (in that era when Beatlemania was still a recent phenomenon) as “Trudeaumania” — but he also, now, represents to many liberal Canadians what seems to be a lost golden age. Since Pierre Trudeau’s era, liberal Canadians have believed in a country that was multicultural and inclusive; that participated eagerly in multilateral exercises and peacekeeping; that welcomed dissidents and refugees from around the world (including American draft dodgers); and that built a medical system and welfare state to guarantee all Canadians a decent life.

This idea of a golden age — perhaps like all golden ages — was in some ways a fantasy, but it had the power of great national myth, and the elder Trudeau was remembered by many as someone who encompassed the best of Canada’s potential. For much of the 2000s, under the nine-year rule of Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, the era of those values seemed to have passed forever. Harper, who hails from conservative Alberta and called Canada a “welfare state in the worst sense,” brought to Ottawa the hard-right policies of George W. Bush’s administration. Under Harper, the Conservatives rolled back traditional welfare-state protections; privatized, deregulated, and sold off government services; and (as the Arctic melted) squashed any discussion by federal scientists or agencies of climate change. And as with the Bush clique, the notion of smaller government only went so far: The Harper government spent billions of dollars on ships and fighter jets to “defend the Arctic” and from 2012 to 2015 heavily promoted a bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812 that — in a break from a generations-old peacekeeping and even pacifistic national tradition — used the war to glorify Canada’s martial tradition and its defeat of the United States.

To many liberal Canadians, this seemed like a garish invasion of the worst of America: macho politics in the Republican mold, which is to say — as journalist and researcher Jerald Sabin wrote — in the “traditional masculine” mode of strong, stoic, uncompromising 1950s dads. Note that no part of this masculinity involved sexiness. Harper was an archetype of the anti-sexy, his sallow face connoting back-room politics conducted by sour, suited men whose idea of exercise is a walk on the treadmill while reading the Globe and Mail. It was fitting that Harper wanted to shrink government, because he was a man who made the very idea of government repugnant. The idea of seeing Harper with his shirt off is patently ridiculous: So much so that Canadian spoof-news website The Beaverton followed the Trudeau wedding photo-bomb story with a satirical piece headlined “Shirtless Stephen Harper photobombs Calgary couple’s wedding, 5 dead” — which, to give you an idea, features the words “paunchy,” “waddling,” and “local Red Lobster.”

In the hard campaign to unseat Harper, Trudeau stood as polar opposite to all of this: in policy and also in his athleticism, easy physicality, and sex appeal. The Conservatives were quite aware of this; Sabin notes that much of the language used by the media and his opponents to describe Trudeau tried to tar him as immature, emotional, indecisive, or other traits associated with “stereotypically feminine” or “subordinate masculinity.” When Trudeau turned up on front pages with his arm around a young topless woman at Toronto’s Pride Parade, to celebrate the LGBT community, Conservatives tried to gin up a scandal. “Justin Trudeau is entering middle age, but he plays up his sexuality and youthfulness,” conservative commentator Ezra Levant wrote. “[W]hat does this say about Justin’s judgement? His attitudes towards women?”

This Republicanesque appeal to the prudish voter encapsulated the Conservatives’ whole campaign against Trudeau. It did not work. As Robyn Urback argued in the National Post, the episode made Trudeau’s Liberal Party look comparatively great. “They [Liberals] come off as progressive and egalitarian while their critics appear out of touch and curmudgeonly, spooked by a couple of nipples.… Had Justin Trudeau — or any other politician for that matter — refused to take a photo with a topless woman, it would surely say more about his character and judgment than did his compliance,” she wrote.

The photo, in other words, represents a complex equivalency: Being casual about nudity is progressive, just like Trudeau is progressive, and attacking it backfires, as did a similar Conservative scare campaign on marijuana. In the lead-up to the 2015 election, a Conservative campaign flyer warned that “Liberals WANT to make buying marijuana a normal, everyday activity for young Canadians,” which is not actually scary to most Canadians, especially not in the form Trudeau presents. The prime minister, who admits to having smoked while a member of Parliament, has been cautiously pro-legalization, dismissing immediate decriminalization as little more than a sop to organized crime and urging Canadians to be patient during the years of studies and law-drafting it will take to “do this right.” In any case, in the parliamentary election of October 2015, Trudeau’s Liberals took 184 seats, soundly beating both Harper’s Conservatives and Thomas Mulcair’s New Democratic Party.

Since his ascent to prime minister, liberal Canadians have watched Trudeau burn off the retro prudishness of the Harper years like a morning fog. He welcomed into the country 25,000 Syrian refugees, saying that “diversity is [Canada’s] strength.” He formed the country’s first-ever gender-balanced (and heavily minority) cabinet “because it’s 2015.” And, of course, there are plans to legalize marijuana by 2017.

None of this is radical — but then Canada, like the United States, is not a radical country. Rather it was a comforting return to past ideology and past glory, an upcycling of the traditional liberal heritage much in the same way Obama’s campaign was in America. Rather than securing borders and defending the Arctic, Trudeau talks about Canada as a place that is strong and, therefore, can afford to be both generous and vulnerable.

There is perhaps no better validation of that message than the existence of those shirtless photos from this summer. It is significant, and relieving, that as the world appears to go crazy, as terrorist attacks rock Europe and Donald Trump runs on a campaign of racism and warnings of incipient collapse, Canada’s head of state feels comfortable running around shirtless in the woods of Quebec or on the beaches of Vancouver Island. The Godby family’s picture in Quebec only happened because Trudeau, unlike Obama, can go hiking with his family in a cave. He only showed up in the frame at the Tofino wedding party because his security detail, unlike the U.S. Secret Service, does not feel compelled to shut down every beach he visits. In the “thriving slaughterhouse” of this new millennium, the site of the head of state’s naked torso — unguarded and publicly accessible — sends Canadians a vivid message that things back home are under control.

Ten days after the wedding party incident, Canadian comedian and CBC host Mark Critch managed to infiltrate a Trudeau photo-op on top of Newfoundland’s Signal Hill — shirtless. “Sorry to accidentally photobomb your @CityofStJohns pic @JustinTrudeau #shirtlessCritch #shirtlessTrudeau,” Critch posted on Twitter. Following the stunt, Critch was interviewed on CBC Radio’s As It Happens. “Wait a second,” the host asked, “the security detail charged with protecting our prime minister, all they did was stand by and snicker?”

That’s right, Critch said, harking back to a core bit of Canadian identity. “That’s a great thing about Canada. You can do a lot of stuff without getting tased.” Which, in another light, simply means: Show your nipples proudly, Canada. Happy days are here again.

Top image credit: Jörg Bittner Unna/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration

Saul Elbein is a freelance journalist from Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Texas Observer, and on This American Life.