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A Body Language Expert Analyzes 14 Iconic Photos of Queen Elizabeth

Born to be a minor member of the royal family, Queen Elizabeth II became one of the most famous people on the planet. Here, we take a look at her journey—and what her body language said about it all.

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Queen Elizabeth IIJANE BARLOW/Getty Images

Editor’s note: Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, who sat on the throne for 70 years, has died at 96 years old. In a statement on Sept. 8, 2022, the Royal Family website writes, “The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon. The King and The Queen Consort will remain at Balmoral this evening and will return to London tomorrow.” The Reader’s Digest team sends condolences to the royal family and all of Britain at this time as we honor her life and legacy.

More than met the eye

The world continues to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who served as queen for seven decades before passing away at age 96. She was the longest-reigning monarch in British history, a milestone made official on July 18, 2020. To mark that occasion, we asked body language expert Patti Wood to analyze these iconic photos of the Queen, taken over her lifetime—and you might be surprised to learn what’s really going on in them.

Wood, who has been called “the Babe Ruth of body language,” holds advanced degrees in body language and nonverbal communication and is the author of several books on the topic, including SNAP: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma. She also analyzed what the body language of Prince William and Kate Middleton reveals about the evolution of their relationship.

Royal Broadcast with Queen Elizabeth IITopical Press Agency/Getty Images

The future foretold

Over the course of her 70-year reign, the much loved and highly respected Queen became one of the most recognizable people on the face of the planet. Yet her first 10 years were spent enjoying the life of a “minor” royal—one with no expectation of ever becoming the monarch. As Princess Elizabeth of York, she expected one day to be the niece of the next monarch and a first cousin of the monarch after that.

All that changed in 1936, when King George V died, leaving the throne to King Edward VIII, who abdicated less than a year later, moving the line of succession to Elizabeth’s father and his heirs. By October 1940, when this photo was taken of Elizabeth and her four-years-younger sister, Princess Margaret—addressing the children of what was then the British Empire by radio during World War II—both Elizabeth and Margaret appear well aware of Elizabeth’s future as queen, Wood tells Reader’s Digest. She notes how Elizabeth is focusing intently and fully on her script, her face is set in serious attention and her mouth has that slight downward curl we’ve come to associate with her. By contrast, Margaret’s gaze is soft and ethereal, and her body is relaxed. Clearly, the elder sister is there to do important state businesses, while the younger sister simply enjoys the ride.

Princess Margaret and Princess ElizabethCulture Club/Getty Images

The famous purse

In this photo, which dates back to the early- to mid-1930s, Wood sees the late Queen Elizabeth’s purse as an expression of young Elizabeth’s femininity and fashion sense, as well as a desire to be a “big girl.” Queen Elizabeth was known for carrying her purse everywhere she went, which some saw as evidence she used it as a communications tool with her staff. What Wood sees as significant, however, is that in a world familiar with celebrities tossing their purses and coats to their staff, Queen Elizabeth’s holding onto her own suggests she wants the world to see her as self-sufficient and capable of taking care of herself.

Queen & Duke of Edinburgh Diamond Wedding AnniversaryTim Graham/Getty Images

A woman in love

In this handout photo (one provided by Buckingham Palace to the media), Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, are newlyweds, strolling the grounds of the country estate of Philip’s beloved uncle, Louis Mountbatten. What we see in this photo, Wood points out, is a dynamic often seen early on in this marriage. The wife looks up at her husband and lets him take the lead. The husband steps forward but looks back, beckoning his wife’s focus. “Also notice his broad forward, uplifted gesture,” says Wood. “You can tell she is enamored with his energy.”

Royal FamilyKeystone/Getty Images

Just an ordinary family of four

Here we have a photo of the future Queen Elizabeth, holding her baby daughter, the future princess royal (Her Royal Highness Princess Anne), and standing beside her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, who’s holding the future King Charles III in his arms. But, as Wood notes, in the split-second moment this photo was taken, we’re not witnessing a royal tableau so much as a wife and mother fully enjoying her playful husband and her adorable children.

Coronation CoachFox Photos/Getty Images

A queen not yet crowned

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, but, per tradition borne out of respect for the recently deceased king, she was not crowned for several months. The Queen’s coronation was held on June 2, 1952, at Westminster Abbey. In this image, taken on her way to the coronation ceremony, the Queen’s face reveals her mixed emotions, Wood tells Reader’s Digest. On one hand, Elizabeth’s dear father has passed away. On the other, she is now the British sovereign. Wearing the crown and riding in a gilt carriage, she is apprehensive. This was, undoubtedly, an overwhelming moment, which is one thing that makes this photo so iconic. Here are more photos of the young Queen Elizabeth.

Queen And RegaliaHulton Archive/Getty Images

Joy and certainty following the coronation

As hesitant as the Queen might have looked on her way to her coronation, she’s equally regal and self-assured in this photo taken right after the coronation. Here, Elizabeth wears the Imperial crown and carries the symbolic orb and scepter, and Wood sees the genuine, natural smile of a woman who has taken the crown with “joy and certainty.” By the way, this is how much the British crown jewels are actually worth.

Prince Of WalesHulton Archive/Getty Images

A pivotal moment for mother and son

Elizabeth’s eldest son, now King Charles III, was born on Nov. 14, 1948. At the time, he was second in line for the throne. When his grandfather, King George VI, passed away and Elizabeth took over as queen, Charles became heir apparent, which came with the titles Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay and several others that are not typically used in his day-to-day styling. Although the title Prince of Wales is used only by the next in line for the throne, it is not automatically bestowed. Rather, it must be granted by the current monarch.

Charles was 9 years old when the Queen bestowed the title Prince of Wales upon him in 1958. However, his formal investiture ceremony took place when Charles turned 21. That is what we are witnessing here at Caernarvon Castle on July 1, 1969. Although one can assume the Queen felt confident in making the crowning of her son as Prince of Wales official, Wood sees hesitation in the Queen’s body language. However, that hesitation likely doesn’t stem from doubt as to whether she’s doing the right thing but more from the weight of the moment and her desire for everything to go just right. Don’t forget to check out these other things you may not have known about King Charles III.

Princess DianaMirrorpix/Getty Images

Well-established family dynamics

The body language of the royal family members shown in this photo taken at 1985’s Trooping the Colour hints that Princess Diana, having produced the requisite “heir and a spare,” has now outlived her usefulness as wife of the future king. Wood notes that Her Majesty is fully wrapped up in the pomp and circumstance and clearly not in the slightest bit interested in the mundane family drama proceeding off to the side, as Charles hands off “the spare” (Prince Harry) to Diana, who stands visibly apart from the group. While Diana’s love for her children was undeniable, her face reflects what Wood sees as a quiet acceptance of where she stands with the royal family.

Queen Harry And WilliamTim Graham/Getty Images

Simpler times with Harry and William

A grandmother’s love is like no other. Here, the Queen’s happiness is unmistakable, Wood points out to Reader’s Digest, as she “leans in” to look at the world through the innocent eyes of her young grandsons, the Princes William and Harry, at the Guards Polo Club in Windsor in 1987.

Anwar Hussein CollectionAnwar Hussein/Getty Images

A horrible year

“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” Her Majesty stated in her public address at Guildhall on Nov. 24, 1992, which marked her 40th year as Queen. It had, as she put it, turned out to be an “Annus Horribilis,” which is the politest possible way the Queen could express her regret at the collapse of three of her children’s marriages, a devastating fire at the historic Windsor Castle and the related tabloid feeding frenzy. In this photo, the Queen, now 66, stretches her mouth tensely, pulling and holding back her emotions, as Wood puts it. Still, she maintains her composure as she holds her script, just as she did 56 years earlier (see “The future foretold,” above).

The Royal Family Attend The Annual Festival Of RemembranceChris Jackson/Getty Images

Quality time with a future king

In a much more mirthful moment, the Queen and her eldest grandchild, Prince William, have some fun together in the Royal Box at the Royal Albert Hall in London during the Annual Festival of Remembrance on Nov. 7, 2015. It’s a rare moment in which Her Majesty allowed us to see her enjoying her family, genuinely and without self-consciousness, Wood tells Reader’s Digest. 

The Duchess Of Sussex Undertakes Her First Official Engagement With Queen Elizabeth IIJeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Laughing with Meghan

One month after Meghan Markle’s marriage to the Queen’s second-born grandson, Prince Harry, we see the Queen successfully engaging her new granddaughter-in-law at their first royal engagement together, a ceremony to open the new Mersey Gateway Bridge, held on June 14, 2018. All is hopeful and happy in this moment, it seems to Wood, who notes, “Queen Elizabeth seems to be having fun with Meghan.”

Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph ServiceMax Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

What a difference a year makes

This photo, taken on Nov. 11, 2019, shows how things have changed for Her Majesty in the year or so since Harry wed Meghan. By the 100th observance of Remembrance Day (which marks the “11th hour” signing of the armistice that ended World War I between the Allied countries and Germany), relations between the royal family and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had grown prickly, and it appears the Duchess of Cambridge is taking the brunt of it, at least on this particular occasion, in which Wood sees Elizabeth II rejecting Kate’s friendly overtures. On this solemn occasion, the Queen wishes to be serious, Wood explains. Kate appears to accept the rebuff graciously.

Queen Elizabeth II LINDSEY PARNABY/Getty Images

A bittersweet but highly fashionable moment

On Jan. 19, 2020, Queen Elizabeth left St. Mary the Virgin Church in Norfolk, shortly after the royal family’s official announcement that a settlement had been reached with Harry and Meghan: The Sussexes would give up their “HRH” styling, as well as public funding, and begin a new civilian life, away from the royals, in North America.

“Oh, there are so many emotions here,” Wood says about this photo. “It’s as if the left side of her face is where all the happiness has gone, and the right side of her face expresses all the sadness.” While no one wears “dissonance” well, no one did it quite as skillfully or fashionably, observes Wood, as Queen Elizabeth.

Sources:

  • Royal.uk: “50 facts about The Queen’s Coronation”
  • Royal.uk: “The Prince of Wales”
  • Royal.uk: “A speech by The Queen on the 40th Anniversary of her succession (Annus horribilis speech)”
  • News.com: “‘Annus horribilis’: Inside the Queen’s year from hell”
  • History.com: “This Day in History: 11/11/1918 – World War I Ends”
  • Air Mail: “It Was a Royal Pain of a Week for …”

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.