In 1967 British zoologist Desmond Morris outraged creationists and scientists alike with the publication of The Naked Ape, a best-selling pop-anthropological study of man as just another in a long line of primates. Now Morris has produced Bodywatching (Crown, $25), a provocative book illustrating the infinite variety of appearance and gesture by which human beings express themselves physically. “The more we understand about postures and movements that we use to signal our feelings to one another,” says Morris, “the less insecure and uncertain we feel.” Morris, 58, who recently completed a research fellowship at Wolf-son College, Oxford has spent 15 years analyzing some 3,000 elements of man’s body language. He discussed his findings—as well as his observations of some prominent human specimens—with London correspondent Fred Hauptfuhrer.
What types of behavior have we inherited from our simian ancestors?
The way we walk, sit, stand, shout, frown, laugh, scream. We share most of these actions with other species. A chimpanzee in a submissive posture crouches, just as we bow our bodies if we are subordinate. When a sportsman has cut a great victory, he throws his arms up in the air to make himself bigger. We puff out our chests if we are very proud. A chimp will do the same.
Can body language be controlled?
Of course. The successful politician has to modify his body language so that it suits all men at all times. If he wants to appeal to the factory worker he’s got to backslap and punch the air; with the financier he has to be very restrained. A great leader must eliminate three things in body language; first, indecisiveness. It would scare the hell out of people to think they had a dithering person in charge. Second, emotional tension. If somebody is about to lose his temper when he has the power to press an important little button, that is worrisome. Third, he has to appear fit. That is one of President Reagan’s strengths. Everybody knows he’s been shot and had other problems, but he keeps coming back looking amazingly healthy, with extremely good posture.
Does Ronald Reagan’s body language tell the truth?
He gives a very good performance of always being relaxed. But how could anybody have a tense job like that and always be as easygoing as he appears? Even when he’s going to some major meeting, his smile and wave are the gestures of a man about to meet friends at the golf club. As an actor, he has this enormous advantage over other politicians in that he’s capable of playing the role of a man who emanates confidence through relaxation.
How do you interpret Nancy Reagan’s movements?
What surprises me is her lack of body language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her turn her head suddenly or respond quickly. In order to retain the formalities of her position, she has subdued her natural impulses. She hasn’t mastered her husband’s happy relaxation, but she has a dignified calm, which also gives confidence.
What feelings do the Gorbachevs communicate?
Although both the Reagans and the Gorbachevs represented superpowers at the Geneva summit, there was a slightly forced attempt on the part of the Gorbachevs to match the relaxed confidence of the Reagans. Having watched Gorbachev and Reagan in slow motion on videotape, I sensed, for example, that Gorbachev was more sensitive about who was going to sit down first. He and Reagan both tried to do it at the same time, as neither wanted to appear junior or senior to the other. The Gorbachevs’ body language, though subtle, seemed to say that here are people who feel slighty more sensitive about the need for an absolute balance of power.
Does Mikhail Gorbachev compensate in his gestures for his birthmark?
He’s made no attempt to have it removed; he’s simply learned to live with it. He’s fortunate that he cannot see it. If it were on his nose or hand, or if he could see it out of the corner of his eye, it might be more of a problem.
What can be said of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s expressions?
His face died long ago, and the rest of his body is still alive. It’s frightening. All emotion has been wiped away. People who lack facial expression are either psychotic or totally arrogant and cold. With the movement of our facial muscles we show that we are moved emotionally. In terms of human emotion, the Ayatollah doesn’t seem to exist.
Is there a papal style of body language?
Again, you have a public figure needing to display an image that is almost certainly at odds with his true personality. The Pope is the head of a church that embodies the concept of humility and poverty. But how can he sit in the midst of all the Vatican riches and pomp, which are totally against the teachings of Christ, and preach that poverty and humility are the ultimate solution? If the meek are going to inherit the earth, the Pope has to be meek, so his body language becomes the epitome of gentleness, as in the soft way he makes the sign of the Cross in the air. People think that yes, he is a sweet, kindly man. But can he really run that shop, keep that show on the road with the humility expressed in his gestures? Of course not.
How do you interpret Prince Charles’s gestures?
He seems more thoughtful than the average figurehead. Most of us don’t mind if we’re looking a bit puzzled or scratching our heads or stroking our chins, but the typical figurehead is not supposed to show these indecisions. I sense a conflict inside Charles between the need to be a noncontroversial leader and somebody who is sensitive and analytical about all kinds of problems. You can see in the concern on his face that he can’t simply mouth platitudes without being worried.
Does Princess Diana compensate for her height?
Her being slightly taller than her husband has led to an intuitive lowering of her head, which works in her favor because when she’s got her head down slightly, her eyes are looking up from a lowered face. This is a modest and rather charming facial posture and one of the things that has made her attractive to people.
What impact has Michael Jackson’s new nose had on his expression?
It wasn’t a big nose, but in having it made smaller Jackson has given himself a very striking face. Nobody ever goes to a plastic surgeon and says, “Make me a bigger nose.” The biological reason for this is that babies have button noses and any type of baby-face element makes the human face appealing at an unconscious level. An adult with a smaller nose can give off sexual signals as well as signals that stimulate protective parental feelings.
What other personalities have this dual appeal?
Robert Redford has a small nose, as well as virility. A female can respond to him simultaneously as a sex figure and as a little boy figure. Jack Kennedy was similar. Experiments have shown that a big forehead, small nose, rounded cheeks and rounded head are features that trigger parental feelings.
Is there a feminine body language?
In earlier decades female body language had a certain restraint and shyness about it. Women were erotically inhibited. Madonna and other female performers are shedding those inhibitions. They are prepared to make all the pelvic thrusts, gyrations and facial expressions of an overtly sexual nature that were previously male territory. The “masculinist” movement, which calls itself the “feminist” movement, consists of women adopting not only male systems of social life and customs, but also male body language. Females haven’t worn clothing with padded shoulders of such width since World War II. Now they’re “at war” with males.
Did Rock Hudson reveal his sexual orientation in his gestures?
As a professional actor he managed to adopt an overtly heterosexual body language. I saw no clue at all except in a talk show here in England when he seemed rather waspish. Some of his answers did not have about them the slow drawl that complements macho body language. They were witty in a way that made one think of Noël Coward rather than John Wayne.
What is William (the Refrigerator) Perry’s appeal?
His instant stardom has to do with his being tremendously talented despite the fact that he is overweight. With the cult of the jogger and health fads, there is a kind of national guilt about being heavy. When a man of his size succeeds, there is a sense of relief. It’s like Orson Welles or Winston Churchill. We love them. We say they’re larger then life.
Would a skinny Sly Stallone have become a superstar?
Males have a different silhouette, with broader shoulders and narrower waists. Stallone has magnified that by developing his body so that he has become Supermale in his physical body language. That has almost turned him into a cartoon character. I once made this rather tasteless joke that he might have cosmetic surgery to remove his nipples to become totally masculine. My attempt at humor seemed to upset some Americans.
Who fulfills the female sexual ideal?
Brigitte Bardot in her prime. She had this little button nose, a broad face and pouting lips. Like Marilyn Monroe she pouted her lips with her mouth slightly open, so that it adopted a sort of sexual role. With the eyes half-closed and the mouth half-open, you’ve got a female who, even before you’ve spoken to her, seems like she’s halfway to orgasm. Monroe had this little girl’s voice and a slight clumsiness of movement, which added extra appeal.
Does Meryl Streep’s body language add to her appeal?
She’s very different. Streep is a thinking man’s crumpet who succeeds by her personality and subtlety. There’s much more complexity in her facial expressions and the way in which she uses her eyes to convey her inner feelings.