Tag Archives: Stephen Harper

Naked, in disguise

9 Jun

Bowden as the Nike streaker in 2007. Click the image to watch the ad.

When people think of Mark Bowden, they might think of his 2010 book, Winning Body Language or see his techniques and coaching used by Stephen Harper in the 2011 election debates, or perhaps they think of his high-level training for high-level politicians and business leaders. But do people think of Mark beyond these terms?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I do. When I met with Mark recently, we talked about things other than the obvious business stuff, things like clothing and theatre and how they have affected him in different stages and incarnations of his life.

Respectful dress

When I met him, we wore a navy pinstripe Etro jacket with a fabulous patterned lining. His garb was simple and elegant with minimal but bold accessories. He likes Paul Smith and Ozwald Boateng of Savile Row for suits and sides with me on the importance of tailoring.

Mark is deliberate and likes to draw attention to small but substantial details in his dress because besides being stylish, these details can actually serve a purpose. He likes weighty French cuffs that are visible under his jacket sleeves to draw the eye to his hands (he works with them, you know), and he loves to wear red socks and red cotton shoe laces to go with his handmade Jeffery West red-lined shoes from Jermyn Street in London – the bright socks keep people interested and visually engaged during long presentations, you see.

We agree that looking one’s best is not only a positive reflection of ourselves but it is an act of respect for others.

“I care for my audience so I make an effort,” as Mark puts it.

We have other commonalities. For instance, Mark and I actually come from the same place, the theatre, but I studied design and he studied performance. Though the disciplines might be different, we both understand that theatre is about illusion and potential (i.e. not what it is, but what it could be), and we both use these theatrical concepts in our work.


Knowing about Mark’s performance training really adds a fascinating dimension to his professional body language and presentation services and I can appreciate the complex emotional power behind his work.

Mark studied performing arts at Middlesex University, London, under one of Europe’s leading practitioners of mask theatre, John Wright. As a performer, he describes his training as “liberating, using the mask as a tool to disguise yourself from the audience and subsequently feel more free to give deeper emotions and dramas to them.”

The actor uses the mask to acquire a deep connection to the character, a concept with very primal roots, back to the age of hunters who wore the heads of the animals hunted to absorb the spirit of the animal and as a disguise to trick the spirits.

While at Middlesex, John sent Mark to Philippe Gaulier, a performance master who impressed Mark with Melodrama, or “cheers and tears” as Mark described it.

This theatrical genre can give an audience clarity and perspective, causing people to “gain consciousness in the horror of their real lives,” he says. It also has the capacity to quickly change the way an entire audience feels with its pathos and big, passionate emotions. Mark learned how to master his emotions and the emotion of breath patterns to influence and interact with his audiences, so not only is he affecting the way people feel, but the potential for them to feel.

3 Roles, 3 Costumes

As an actor, Mark must incorporate costumes into his character as if he (as the character) really owns the clothes or as though he really is the embodiment of the creature he is dressed as and make it seem natural.

I wanted to know about his favourite roles and the costumes he wore for each to illustrate how powerful the costume can be not only to the actor but also to the audience. It so happens that his physical comedic roles are the stand-outs. Mark explained that comedy is about contrast, building tension, and then breaking the tension, and the costumes for these roles provided hilarious visuals.

The False Corpse: An ironic one-man comedy. His character in this play is a comedian who is going to commit suicide while on stage. For this role, Mark put together a jumble of iconic comedic costume pieces: large clownish collars, tights instead of trousers (to show the movement of the legs and their “speech”), and a proper gentleman’s tail coat as a topping contradiction.

Hamlet: Mark played a gravedigger, comic relief to the heavy play. His costume was another jumble of pieces, but this time of Viking armour! He said he put on anything he could get his hands on including breast plates, horned helmets, and several swords in an effort for the character to take on a “god-like soldier guise to give the mortals in the play a hand”.

The Hobbit: Mark played one of the trolls in London’s West End in the J.R.R. Tolkien story. The three trolls wore large, heavy, difficult costumes, built on football player shoulder pads that had to be lowered over the head (not unlike those animal heads that the hunters wore for disguise, I imagine). The second tricky piece of troll costume was the footwear: Cothurni. Cothurni are elevated boots originally worn by Greek actors to increase their height and visibility to theatre audiences.

So Mark and the other trolls lumbered around on the raised platform Cothurni, arguing over whether they should roast, mince, boil, or squash the freshly-caught dwarves into jelly, using large body movements, having fun with each other and knocking each other around. Often, the plat-formed trolls would fall over and the smaller dwarves would have to help them to their feet. The costumes here brought out a “playfulness and cheekiness” in the characters that I’m sure absolutely delighted the audiences.

 Less is more 

Having explained all that, sometimes Mark doesn’t wear any clothes at all. In 2007, he was hired for a Nike commercial to streak through an English football match wearing nothing but a scarf and Nike Shox shoes; “a celebration of being free,” as he put it. For those of you who have been to a nude beach, you’ll understand this concept of freedom and having done so myself, I can tell you that communal nudity is amazingly liberating.

But I digress.

Clothing, or costume, is powerful. It creates different feelings within us and without us, and the people who see us will interpret our visuals and treat us accordingly.

“People make judgements based on what they see, and we have a limited time to make a good first impression,” Mark tells me.

Whether our wardrobe is for business or pleasure, or to create emotion in our audiences, we have the choice in the visual messages we send, and this is a powerful opportunity that should really be taken seriously; it is another tool of influence.

 You cannot climb the ladder of success dressed in the costume of failure.

-Zig Ziglar, American author and motivational speaker

For the love of politicians, part 2

28 Apr

Here's to finding common ground, not battle ground.

When it comes to party leaders, people tend to see them as figures who represent party ideology that may agree or disagree with them and will treat the party figure accordingly. We judge politicians very harshly according to what they stand for, for the agendas we think they carry, and the assumption that we make of them all being crooks, and non-human ones at that.

This week, I’d like to offer an alternate view, a social and neuro-biological point of view, an angle that sees Stephen Harper, Jack Layton, Michael Ignatieff, and Gilles Duceppe not only as humans, but as men, men enslaved to tightly-bound atoms that carry messages from one part of their bodies to another in the form of hormones, and also by the profound social structure that is born of seeing the world through googily testosterone goggles.

Politics as science

The Oxford English Language Dictionary (Oxford) defines politics as the art and science of government. Last week, I discussed politics as art and imagined the complexity of a political image and how important it is to a leader and the party “brand”. This week, if science is “a branch of knowledge involving the systematized observation of and experiment with phenomena”(Oxford), allow me to explain my objective observations about this beast.

Through science, we have insight into the conduct of people, in this case, male politicians, via brain structure which is influenced by testosterone. Six weeks after their conception, males are already under the heavy influence of this hormone that goes so far as to affect the formation of their brains. All humans have lots of testosterone in their bodies, but for those of you with the XY chromosome combination, testosterone has given you more brain space than females for aggression, sex, and power. But testosterone giveth and testosterone taketh away – your brain space for communication, emotional processing, and observation has been compromised and is smaller than in females. With a brain like this making decisions for the last six thousand years, it explains a whole lot about who we are as a species and what kind of world we live in.

Hierarchical Systems 

You may not have thought of this before, but any structure, system, or institution in our world has been born of the male mind. Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, categorizes the male brain as “predominantly hard-wired for systemizing… Systemizing is the drive to analyze, explore, and construct a system.” Systems that make things work like engines or paddle boats, or systems that influence ways of thinking and behaving like academia, law, or government are all very much products of the male mind.

Dr. James M. Dabbs, who spent his professional life researching the relationship between testosterone and human social behaviour says that “boys play war games and sort themselves into hierarchies. They compete to see who will be the leader, the quarterback, the top dog.” In the political system, it’s the Prime Minister at the top of the heap  (but in a different system could be the king or the admiral or the manager), in control and lapping up the power of the position of authority.

To me, the hierarchical system, generated by the male brain and under the spell of a very powerful hormone, pits people against each other where one figure dominates and controls power, giving us one “winner” and one “loser” in male language. Translated through the filters of my empathetic female brain, this means “someone who reached their goal” and “someone who felt bad”. Indeed, in The Male Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine explains that “pecking order and hierarchy matter more deeply in men than most women realize.”  You said it, sister.


Within a hierarchical system, one person, or one group of people with the same understanding, dominate and control others – and guess why? Yes, it’s testosterone again, driving men to fight for power in some way  (arguing or arm wrestling, for example) to win dominance over other people.

If the male brain wants to dominate and have more power, it will drive a man to attempt to out-do other figures that threaten him, so there is a need to prove oneself, to be correct, and to impress oneself on other people. Dabbs says that dominant people need “panache”: “the male animal equivalent of puffing themselves up, bristling, strutting, preening, spreading their tail feathers, and controlling space to intimidate their [perceived] opponents.” Our politicians compete with loud election promises, and they argue and finger point and call each other names in the name of dominance, it seems to me.

In the case of politics, competition, aggression, and the drive to dominate turns the goings-on in the House of Commons to the equivalent of an intellectual street brawl; the boxing ring for policy geeks. Stephen, Michael, Jack, and Gilles may not physically dominate each other by being big and burly, but they are out to dominate with their minds and their points, just like the Classical Greek men did, sans toga this time.

Extreme thinking

Testosterone likes to see in extremes and this is very evident in our society. Thinking in extremes forces wedges between people, suggesting or imposing a view that allows only one way or another to see an issue, instead of the sea of grey in between both points of view. Think about it, our culture forces a very black and white view (oh! there’s another one), specifically because the dominant culture sees through testosterone goggles and takes this way of thinking very seriously. Examples of extreme thinking:

  • right – wrong
  • whig – tory
  • guilty – innocent
  • win – lose
  • to be or not to be

In politics, the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” way of thinking breaks into very strict ideologies that forces wedges between people with only slight differences of opinion. Though I’m applying this idea to political parties, I could just as well apply it to any other testosterone-born organization: religion, sports teams, or court rooms, where you’re a believer or a heathen, a Rider fan or a Stampeders fan, guilty or not guilty.

Somehow, seeing things this way asks for a judgement as in, one thing is good or bad (another!), and I suppose this harkens back to the hierarchy and the dominance of the testosterone-laden mind, one that yearns for the position of being “better” than someone else. This, as far as I can make out, can only breed bad behaviour.

Politics breeds bad behaviour

You have all the characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner.Aristophanes, Greek comic dramatist, 424 B.C.E

Testosterone pushes for competition and the one-upmanship of competition creates unnecessary adversity as far as I’m concerned. In a political realm, bad behaviour in the form of insults, shouting, or smear tactics are used to compete with the intent to dominate. Ipolitics.ca recently reported on the recent electoral-related vandalism, from “slashed tires and harassing phone calls to sign vandalism and flyer-swapping skullduggery, citizen tacticians have taken the race into their own hands — often at the expense of their preferred party’s reputation.” It is amazing to me that within our society, people have been so profoundly influenced by testosterone that they will turn against each other merely for differences of opinion.

As per the ipolitics article, bad behaviour equates to people being “left with a bad taste in their mouths (a new Angus Reid survey shows 80 per cent of Canadians are politically “scattered between mistrust, cynicism and alienation”), despite the best efforts of most candidates to run clean campaigns.” Bad behaviour has a huge bearing on the candidate and the parties they represent, casting both in a less than palatable light. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think Canadians are into adversity like this, and I certainly do not feel properly represented by people who use intimidation to do their job, and act in a less-than-gentlemanly manner.


I see politics, in structure and operation, as the product of testosterone. However, despite the enormous links between the two, I also see irony. Testosterone is all about movement, exploration, and action, but for some reason, our politicos are not taking any. It seems that instead, they’re busy trying to out-do each other and dominate for power, just like their hormones dictate (I know it’s not the salary or the sex, drugs, or rock and roll on Parliament Hill).

Our four leaders in question, like all other males in the world, are under the chemical influence of testosterone which drives them to dominate, intimidate, and think in extremes in their support of a hierarchical structure that to my mind, breeds automatic hostility and a constant state of tension. Though I too have been conditioned to operate under such a structure, I wouldn’t want to be a male under what I observe to be a life of testosterone-laden strife (it must be exhausting!).

If we don’t like what politicians are doing or saying, remember this: men are not necessarily conscious of their behaviours and what drives them; they may simply be operating under the influence of the molecules that make up testosterone in a society that testosterone created. In other words, cut them some slack, they’re not as fully in control of themselves as we might think.


During the debates this month, the candidates stated that they wanted to work together to come to some agreement to get some things done. I think we’d all like that. And so I would like to challenge all candidates to really embrace their words and try to put differences aside to be able to come to the agreements imperative to making a country work, and look for common ground, not battle ground.

So on May 2, even if you’re a long-time party supporter, even if you can’t decide, even if you’re apathetic, just remember that, with all due respect to Ms May, who I greatly admire for having sensible estrogen and not swimming in the pool of political rhetoric, one of these men will be running our country and you have a say in which one does.

My only regret is that Steve Paikin is not in the race… 

For the love of politicians, part 1

21 Apr

2011 national leaders debate on a groovy set

Now that Canada is in full election mode, I’ve been busy researching and commenting in the media about political image.  I want to say first that I am not associated with any political party or political ideology represented by any party leader – I may happen to agree with bits from all party platforms, so in the end I have difficulty deciding who to vote for, but I do vote because I think voting is important.

For my blogs, I like to go back to basics, so I reached for The Oxford English Language Dictionary (Oxford) and looked up “politics” for today’s post: the art and science of government. I considered this definition of politics and thought about it in a way that made sense to me: politics as art (image) and science (testosterone), and applied it to Canadian political leaders. I started to see how complex and relevant both concepts are to a politician’s being, and remembered something that we so often forget: politicians are human.

Politics as art

Getting back to our definition, we should first ask, what is art? Oxford calls it a “human skill or workmanship as opposed to the work of nature.” To me this means things that are built, fabricated, or artificially enhanced. Politics is composed of many different types of art, including art in image terms: dress and public behaviour for example.

Dressing as art.  Some people think that politicians’ dress and visual image is irrelevant and policy is where we should be focusing. Intellectually, I completely agree: dress is irrelevant in the face of policy. But, since 55% of our message is conveyed visually, what we see is important and it should be congruent with all the other parts that make up that particular political whole, including policy, if we expect to make people comfortable and trust us.

So in the case of our party leaders, their dress and general appearance is of its own importance because it gives insight into the candidate as the person who talks about and embodies party policy, and we must decide if there is a trustworthy balance between what this person stands for, how he looks, and also how he behaves.

We make decisions about people we see within seconds, so it only makes sense that a leader should dress and groom in a manner that suggests comfort and professionalism. For those of you who think it petty to concentrate on what a politician is wearing, I’d like to offer you a different way of seeing things: our MPs and Prime Minister are representing us as a people on the world stage, and I would like to think that our leaders think well enough of themselves and of Canada to put their best foot forward and dress appropriately, neatly, and respectfully to the job and to their audience.

Candidates should visually reflect the groups they’re engaging but remain professional. I liked to see Mr. Harper rolling his sleeves up in the Winnipeg greenhouse, digging in, and enjoying what he was doing, but I was confused to see him checking machine oil in a sports jacket. The greenhouse scene was natural and engaging and seemed authentic; the Regina workshop seemed uncomfortable and a bit odd, which threw me off.

Clothing should compliment the individual and the individual should feel comfortable in their clothes, not come off as though made of cardboard – this breeds inconsistency and discomfort. I will also add that because humans are visual and appreciate attractive people, it is to a politician’s benefit to wear flattering clothing to make the most of themselves, as attractiveness has bearing on likability. A nod to Mr. Layton here, polished in a great suit and an excellent yellow tie during the English language debate, and Bloc leader, Mr. Duceppe, is of course our best-dressed player, hailing from Montreal. Now, I’m afraid that Je ne parle pas de Français, but since only 7% of our messages are communicated verbally, my understanding the words doesn’t count for much – I look at Gilles Duceppe’s face, into his eyes, reading the messages that lie there.

As a woman, I have an inborn ability to read faces and I appreciate that Mr. Duceppe takes time to prepare himself for public life by choosing stylish clothing in very flattering colours that draw my eye up to his face and his strikingly blue eyes that tell the story of what he stands for and how he feels about it. Remember that 55% of our message is conveyed visually and each gender will read the messages differently because our brains are not the same and operate and process information differently.

To be genuine during an election is art. Politicians are groomed, starched, choreographed, and memorized, and I expect that it’s difficult to drop the armor and truly be themselves during a political campaign, but revealing the genuine human side of a politician will always win points because many of us need to feel that the person who represents us should be one of us.

During the election race, the politicians mingle with us and put on a show for the media. When there are cameras around, people act differently so acting naturally must be challenging for the leaders. I think that we like to see these ordinarily stony and serious types letting loose and goofing off and enjoying themselves every once in a while because they can get quite intense there in the House.

Being comfortable with ourselves and being authentic is an enormous skill to a manufactured public political figure, as this kind of authenticity makes political figures approachable – a key public relations selling point. When Michael Ignatieff dove into his bag and ate a bagel right out of his hand, it showed me that we’re all weak for fresh Montreal bagels, and I like that Stephen Harper plays music and worked it into his election gigs, playing piano and singing with little Maria Aragon, revealing his rarely-seen creative side.

Self and body awareness is art. Being aware and in control of our mental, physical, and emotional states takes an enormous amount of self-understanding. Politicians must be aware of as much of themselves as possible because they’re under constant public scrutiny (she writes, dedicating this and the next blog post to the examination and dissection of the Canadian leaders).

If you check back to the 2008 national leaders debate and compare Mr. Harper’s body language to the body language of the 2011 debate, you’ll see a marked difference. Consider the situation: in 2008, Harper’s arch-enemy, Stephane Dion, and a woman of all things, Ms Elizabeth May, are now mixed into the gang of regulars. Mr. Harper was in attack mode, lashing out at Dion and sneering at May, defensive and constantly moving around. The 2011 debate featured a cast of characters with a completely different energy – Mr. Layton, bouncing back from a serious illness and hip surgery, and a Harper with a whole set of democratic blunders under his belt. This time, he wasn’t scrappy, this time, Mr. Harper was very controlled and stiff, his mouth twitching when topics he wanted to avoid came up.

Politicians are trained to be aware of themselves in ways that we may not think of: not only what comes out of their mouths but how they’re holding their mouths, not only how they’re standing but what their hands are doing, and how to control their emotions and be aware of their facial expressions when accusations fly. People love to blow politicians off, but imagine how much concentration it would take to be aware of yourself to that degree while you’re at work with cameras and microphones in your face.

So as the art of government, political image plays a fairly strong role. The political, public, and personal pressure that these men are under astounds me, and I applaud each one of them for not only getting involved in a job that very few of us would consider doing, but holding up to the intense analysis that they’re faced with on a daily basis, and forming the best image they can to represent their beliefs and ideological groups.

Quoting with me in a recent CTV interview about political image, Bernard Gauthier, the CEO of the Ottawa-based public relations firm, Delta Media, says that though political issues are important, “…when a campaign becomes more about the party leaders, then image will be the driving force.”

Next week: Politics as science – For the love of politicians, part 2