In the first weeks of Donald Trump's presidency, his relationship with his wife Melania, the First Lady of the United States, has been under constant scrutiny. It started on inauguration day, when a gif of Melania grinning widely and then immediately frowning went viral. Some even speculated Melania was perhaps trapped in an abusive relationship. #FreeMelania trended and protesters at the Women's March wrote the phrase on their signs. In reaction to a slew of appearances from the new President and First lady, two camps emerged—those arguing that Melania needs help, and those arguing she's actually her own person and doesn't require your sympathy.
Of course, no one knows what the interior of the Trumps' love life looks like. But what's become incredibly obvious is the stark difference between the way the Trumps handle their affection in public, and the way Barack and Michelle Obama handled theirs.
To offer a more thorough reading of Donald and Melania Trump's relationship over the years, we spoke with Patti Wood, a body language expert and author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma. Wood used her body language skills to analyze 10 photos of Donald and Melania ranging from 1999, when the two were still just dating, all the way up to Inauguration Day, when #FreeMelania started trending.
March 17, 1999
Less than a year into their relationship, Donald Trump and Melania Knauss appear together at a restaurant in New York City, where they met in Sept. 1998 at a party.
Wood pointed out the way Melania's arms and legs are crossed away from Donald, not toward him. She also mentioned the tension that appears in Melania's face. "She was a model, so she should be comfortable in front of a camera," Wood said. "She should know to be open and relaxed. I looked at other photos of her in other situations and she's more open. Here, she seems to be more closed, which tells me that there's something about her being public in this relationship that [makes her] feel the need to close herself off a little bit from him."
Donald, on the other hand, appears to be enjoying himself, according to Wood. "In that photo, I see that joy I was looking for from him in the inauguration. Here I see it—I'm with my beautiful girlfriend," she said.
May 16, 1999
Almost a year after meeting, the couple attends the premier of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace at a movie theatre in New York City. Wood was struck by how happy the two both look in this particular moment, proving the recent stiffness in their behavior some have observed lately hasn't always been there.
"This is the happiest I've seen them," Wood said. "It's a playful moment. She is just exuberantly happy, and she has sort of a mischievous smile on her face. You can see the playfulness."
Wood drew attention to the fact that Donald's fingers on Melania's back are splayed, and not clasping her, which connotes a bit of tension. "She wants to be closer to him in this," Wood said. "She's got the front of her lower torso and her heart facing toward him, she just feels that intimate connection with him. This is a photo of them actually having a moment together—there's a playfulness and a happiness between the two of them."
January 16, 2004
Just a few months before Donald would propose to Melania, the couple attends a party for the editor of Page Six in New York City. Wood's reading of this photo is that it was a very intimate moment that was interrupted by a bright camera flash in what looks to be a dark room.
"This is a very intimate, more sexual photo," Wood said. "He's showing some ownership, [but] she's not relaxed into him. That could be because it's a bright flash in a dark place." Wood also noticed it looks like they had just been holding hands, and had just kissed or were about to.
"The overlapping bodies shows they're a couple, they're a union, they have a desire to merge," Wood said. "They're caught pre- or post-intimacy. There's intimacy in the photo, and there's tension as well."
December 13, 2004
Several months after getting engaged in April 2004, Donald and Melania attend an event for a Leaders in Tourism event at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
"She's in what I call the V position with him, there's a slight overlap of her body with his," Wood said. "He's got this look a man has that's like, Hey I'm with her, I've got a babe and she's mine."
Wood also pointed out that Melania's face is very "open," which means her eyes, cheekbones, and mouth are up, and her front teeth are showing. It's one of only a few photos of Melania where she's smiling with her mouth open, another notable photo being one from her wedding to Donald a month later in January 2005. In a photo that looks to be taken just after the two were married, Melania is the most joyful she appears in any photo of the couple. Wood pointed out the way her arms are lifted away from her body, showing joy and expressiveness.
"This photo is still much more subdued than the wedding photo," Wood said. "In the wedding photo, she was in the moment."
February 1, 2016
On the campaign trail, however, that playfulness and joy shifted. At a campaign event in Iowa, Melania touches Donald as he gives a speech to his supporters. "That photo shows her desire to connect with him," Wood said. "She's reaching out with both hands. [Her] mouth is closed, it's not a smile. As I'm reading this, it looks like a desire to connect, rather than showing a connection."
Wood drew attention to the fact that Melania's hands are straight out, and her fingers aren't curved. She appears to be stiff, not relaxed. "I still read that as a desire to connect, or maybe even a desire to get him to stop talking," Wood said.
November 9, 2016
In the early hours of Nov. 9, just after celebrating his presidential victory, Donald and Melania share a brief embrace at his election night party at the Hilton Midtown hotel in New York City. Although the two are touching and sharing a moment as a couple, Wood reads this photo as very stiff and formal.
"Her arm is not wrapped around his, the fingers on her hand are splayed out instead of together or cupping his arm," Wood said. "It's a distancing hand placement. That's not normally how you would respond to a kiss from your husband."
Wood also noticed Melania is sort of pulling back from Donald with her body. "She's holding her chest back, and she's arching her head and chin up instead of going in," Wood said. "It's a pretty picture, but she's not kissing him back."
What's worth noting, as the two begin their public life as the future POTUS and FLOTUS, is that in 1999, Melania mentioned in a New York Times interview that she would be a "very traditional" first lady, like a Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy.
"There was just a shyness about Jackie O, formal and reserved, rather than tense," Wood said. "We can feel [Melania] wanting to be reserved. We don't know with certainty, because tension is complex to analyze. But we can see that [tension] is a choice, because she's acting differently than she did before."
January 19, 2017
The day before Trump's inauguration, he and Melania arrived in Washington D.C. and shared a very brief hand hold while walking off their plane. Wood said she was fascinated by this particular moment.
"They very, very briefly touch hands, [and] that says to me that would be normal for them, and they're fighting against normal," Wood said. "It would be normal to hold hands and reassure each other before you go into the battle of what's going to happen when they get off the plane. I was very happy to see there was a little moment."
The fact that the two touch hands made Wood happy because it seems like something a normal couple would do. But she isn't pleased by the brevity of the handhold. "The brevity showed me that they're making a decision not to show intimacy in the public eye," Wood said.
January 20, 2017
The morning of President Trump's inauguration sparked a lot of the speculation that Melania was trapped in some sort of loveless union with her husband. Wood said that in order to talk about the photo of Melania trailing behind with her present while Donald approaches Barack and Michelle Obama, she'd need to talk about the whole video of that greeting.
Wood mentioned there's etiquette to situations like the one the Trumps and Obamas were in, and there are several ways Donald could have handled this moment. But the way he did choose to go about it was to approach the Obamas first, on his own. "He's not looking back, he's not waiting for her, he's not looking for her, and he's decided he wants to be introduced by himself rather than as a couple unit," Wood said. "He's saying, I'm on my own, I am singular, I am president. That would be one way he shows his power."
January 20, 2017
This particular video of Donald appearing to look back toward Melania, her grinning, and then immediately looking down and frowning as he turns away is the video that sparked a thousand #FreeMelania tweets in the days following the inauguration. But contrary to what many people thought, Wood doesn't believe Donald actually made contact with Melania in this moment, and that could explain why she looks so downtrodden afterward.
"Throughout the inauguration, I was looking for moments of unity, tenderness, like a little private moment between the two of them," Wood said. She examined this video to see if this was perhaps one of those little moments of unity, but did not read it as such.
"[Melania] read it as he's looking at me. What created her facial expression is that she was expecting a moment, because he looked back, but he didn't connect with her," Wood said. Then, her face shows what Wood describes as, "sadness mixed with a little bit of anger that she didn't get it."
Wood pointed to Melania's obviously visible "up" versus "down" body language. When Donald turns back, Wood said Melania's entire face lifted—her eyebrows, the corners of her mouth, her entire head lifted up. To Wood, that indicates happiness and exuberance. But when Donald turns away, we see that body language shift dramatically. "That made her shift downward after he looks back and doesn't linger more significant," Wood said.
That doesn't necessarily mean, though, that Melania is trapped or needs rescuing. "It's a moment," Wood said. "I think...theirs is a very different relationship from the Obamas'. The contrast is very sharp, it makes us project even further."
January 20, 2017
Many people also pointed to Melania's stiffness during the inaugural dance as an indication that she was deeply unhappy in her marriage. Wood noticed that stiffness also, but can't judge the couples' happiness based on just this one dance.
"There was one moment where she kissed him but it was very, very formal," Wood said. "They didn't seem to have intimate moments during the dance, it didn't seem to be about them as a couple."
Similarly to the way Donald approached the Obamas by himself that morning when they arrived at the White House, the Trumps' posture during this inauguration dance could be Donald's way of asserting himself as a strong, new leader, rather than celebrating the moment as a couple with his wife.
"The fact that he broke into song toward the audience makes it less about them," Wood said. "He was happy in the moment, but it didn't seem to be a shared, intimate moment."
Wood also mentioned, again, Melania's tension, which reads as intentional to her. This tension could be an attempt to appear as a Jackie O figure, like Melania said she would back in 1999, if she were ever to be a first lady.
"She might be taking measures not to be seen as a sexual being," Wood said. "She wants to be seen more formally."
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