Self-perception is a very twisty concept

Below is a response to a question on Quora: Why does President Trump move and stand so strangely? I thought it was insightful, because I’ve also wondered why he persists in painting himself orange, why he has such weird candy floss hair, why he constantly makes those strange gestures as he talks. Hasn’t anyone told him that they make him look strange and freakish? I suppose it’s good that one doesn’t feel constrained by fashion, and is bold about facing the world as he wants, but he always seems to act as if he thinks he’s a beautiful, brilliant golden god. This explanation seems more likely.

Trump has some odd ideas about how he appears to the world, obviously. He dyes his skin a strange color, and does some very strange things with his hair. He knows that this makes him a joke in the eyes of the world, which is not the intended effect – he’s vain, thin-skinned and very publicity-conscious. So there’s some weird processing that happens in his head that makes him say “The fake news makes fun of me, but it’s because they’re jealous. Sad! Women want to grab my pussy!”

It’s a kind of dysmorphia, like Michael Jackson turning a perfectly good face into a Phantom-of-the-Opera physiognomic tragedy, while thinking he was getting closer and closer to perfection. Or like the body image of an anorexic, where everyone is saying with increasing urgency that they’re wasting away, and yet they see themselves as not thin enough.

Trump has an inner vision of himself that is exaggerated beyond any version of ‘normal’ – you can extend this to his psychological self-assessment – but in his mind he’s beautiful and sexy and he doesn’t have an alternate self-image. His orange skin and strange hair-art are cleverly covering over his weaknesses, he thinks.

In some degree, this isn’t so uncommon. Men with beards often brush off helpful comments like “Beards are so aging …” because they see themselves as mature and wise, perhaps, and their weak chin and vague jawline as something they feel needs to be hidden from the world. Women with strange Flashdance haircuts originating in the wayback time see their look through the same eyes as when they were 16. They know it isn’t contemporary, but it’s kind of locked in – they ‘look like themselves’ to themselves. When you look at that self-inflicted mess that John Bolton has for a face, you wonder what he thinks he’s playing at, but he’s like Trump – he looks in the mirror and he sees ‘intelligence’, perhaps. Some sort of a cunning disguise for the underlying ordinariness.

Trump takes a set of fashion faux-pas and private beliefs – that orange-dyed skin looks healthier, that his crazy greasy hair is youthful, that long ties make him appear taller and narrower, that suits cut too big hide his bulk and make him appear more impressive – and makes them into his superhero costume, his disguise.

Then he has ritualized ways of moving and posing that are part of the same scheme. You rarely see photos of Trump looking natural. He’s always posing, creating some look that in his own mind is as marvelous as his hairdo. When he sits he likes to get his knees apart to show off everything “down there”, then put his fingertips together between his legs in a sort of steeple, spire pointed down. He was probably told by someone a long time ago that this was an alpha position that symbolically shows that you’ve got a great big penis. When he talks he does that thumb-to-4th-finger thing, a variant of the A-ok sign. It means nothing, he just does it at random, but in his mind it’s an impressive gesture that indicates precision, perhaps, like a chef emphasizing just a soupçon. When he reads a teleprompter he slumps unhappily from one side to the other, tipping his head first this way, then that, like an animatronic figure in a Disney theme-ride. That seems to him to make it more casual, less stiff. When he stands he tilts forward, probably so that his belly isn’t the point of furthest advance, but perhaps for some other semi-magical reason.

It’s all of a piece – his weird look, his weird postures and movements, and his weird exaggerated sense of himself.

PS: I should add, to calm the angry legions of bearded gentlemen who feel they were materially harmed by what I said about beards, that it wasn’t about beards per se but about feedback. If someone says that beards are aging, they’re saying they wish you’d shave. That’s just them, and just you. Maybe all the really sexy ones think you look fantastico!! Who knows??

I picked beards as an example of anything-about-the-way-you-look because I have a beard. Instead of making mock of others I thought “What would Jesus do?” and Jesus would plainly have used a beard, long hair, and a crown of thorns as examples of things that critics might fuss about.

I can sympathize with that. I have my own self-image, and it shocks me every time I look in a mirror or hear my voice — only unlike Trump, rather than a golden god, I see myself as a schlumpy, homely, shambling blob, and the problem with mirrors is that they so accurately confirm my self-portrait.

Also, about beards…their presence or absence is just a thing. I keep mine because I’ve had it for forty years, and shaving it off makes me look so different that it adds an uncanny valley sensation to the expected schlubbiness. Our self-image is strongly built on prior experience and familiarity, you know. Trump likewise is accustomed to looking in the mirror and seeing an orange glow with pale rings around the eyes, capped with a wisp of pink floss. Anything else would seem alien to him.

He’s still creepy.

OK, enough contemplating homely old geezers. Here’s a palate cleanser, a little beefcake to put in your dreams.

Yeah, sure, that’s what all Americans think they look like. Right.


  1. peterellis says

    I initially grew a beard when I first started teaching undergraduates – precisely because I was only a couple of years older than than and a bit “baby-faced”, and the beard made me look older. A few years later, I shaved it off… and once again, the change made me look older. So I grew it back, and looked older again.

    It’s almost as if that’s how time works :-(

  2. johnson catman says

    Not really hiding anything in particular with my beard. I just hate shaving. I have not shaved my beard off since around 1983. I only shave my neck underneath the beard every couple of weeks when I trim my hair and beard with a Wahl clipper. It doesn’t grow at all high up on my cheeks (wolfman-style), so I don’t even have to trim there.

  3. says

    In some degree, this isn’t so uncommon. Men with beards often brush off helpful comments like “Beards are so aging …” because they see themselves as mature and wise, perhaps, and their weak chin and vague jawline as something they feel needs to be hidden from the world.

    The author sounds like a jerk here. It’s not up to him to police how other people should look like.

    I should add, to calm the angry legions of bearded gentlemen who feel they were materially harmed by what I said about beards, that it wasn’t about beards per se but about feedback. If someone says that beards are aging, they’re saying they wish you’d shave. That’s just them, and just you.

    This isn’t why I dislike what the author said about beards.

    Every human being should be free pick their preferred haircut, make-up, fashion, etc. Your visual appearance shouldn’t be about trying to please the society, it should be about enjoying yourself and being comfortable with how you look. Your appearance shouldn’t depend upon how “well-weaning” advisors want you to look, it should be about how you want to look.

    Personally, I have chosen to ignore all the fashion advice I have ever been told in my life. I routinely brush off “helpful” comments about my appearance. But that’s largely because I am not cis, and all the advice I have ever gotten was about how to look more like the gender I was assigned at birth.

    Granted, if some person does weird things with their body, because they incorrectly imagine that the rest of the society will like it, then that’s also a problem.

    By the way, I am sexually attracted to men, and I have no preferences when it comes to beards. Either having or not having a beard doesn’t make a guy more attractive to me.

  4. drew says

    That all gives Trump credit for being deeper than he is. I think he and his followers see these things as power moves. We’ve moved on from the power ties of the 80s, though he sports one of those, too. Someone can practically paint himself like a clown, gesture wildly, be crass, and constantly discover new sides of his mouth to talk out of. And he’s President. Those are clearly signs of his power. How many “job creators” could get away with that?

  5. Zeppelin says

    Trump certainly lacks self-awareness, but I’m pretty sure at this point that he also has actual dementia that is causing motor issues as it progresses.
    His gait and posture have been getting weirder, and he often clings to the lectern with both hands instead of gesturing wildly like he did during his campaign. That “man girdle” he wears all the time now is also commonly given to dementia sufferers to help with balance issues. He’s also been tripping over his own feet a lot.

  6. rabbitbrush says

    Hmmm. I’m an Amerikan and no way do I think I Iook like that, nor do I want to look like that. Eeek.

  7. Artor says

    I did not inherit my family’s unibrow or wolfman style, but I got a little of it, and my fortunately separate eyebrows have always been thick, and are going a little feral these days.. I wear a short-trimmed beard to balance my face. Without some lower facial hair, my eyebrows take over and unbalance everything. It’s been over 15 years since the last time I shaved it off, and I looked like a teenager. No interest in trying that again.

  8. schweinhundt says

    What I’ve always found curious/off-putting is Pres. Trump’s habit of sitting w/his his arms tightly crossed against his chest–even when speaking. As someone prone to gesticulating while speaking (as Trump is while standing) it just strikes me as creepy.

  9. harryblack says

    I just knew the comments would be full of dudes defending their beards! Its ok folks, bearded guys seem to be considered way more desirable these days by most of the young folks I know.

    The actual substance of the post (how we view ourselves in what we choose to portray to the world regardless of whether or not that is an effective portrayal) is really fascinating to me as it applies to powerful and image conscious people. Its also something I see in myself with my arbitrary dislike of certain modern trends in fashion.

    I find Trump to be such a fascinating character and want to read as much about his psychology and dysfunction as I can get my hands on. Im also fascinated by the folks who dont even stop to think about how he presents himself. Their lense of the world is so disjointed from my own that I really want to dig in and see what it is that makes us different.

  10. F.O. says

    Berlusconi also was tanned and with several layers of make up.
    He had a hair transplant and wore shoes with thick sole to look less short.

    A friend of mine used to be friend with a really, really rich girl our age.
    Once, at her place, the rich girl mentioned she had missed the school bus once, despite running to catch it.
    Her mother gazed at with sudden, angry disapproval.
    Her guilt? She had just confessed a weakness to someone outside the family.
    It struck me.

    I wonder if rich people learn from tender age that no outer weakness is acceptable.
    Because they know the kind of people they surround themselves with.

  11. F.O. says

    Regardless of the psychology of these little rich men, what is the psychology of the people keep fawning all over them?
    Is it just racism that turns off your brain? “Give white men someone to look down to, they’ll give you their wallet”?

  12. Allison says

    that’s what all Americans think they look like

    All Americans? Or are we talking about the default Americans, i.e., cis het white male Americans?

  13. psanity says

    Cap clearly does not wear shorts, or tighty-whities either, under his skin-tight bodysuit (he can wear whatever he wants under his civvies). Obviously, he wears a dance belt.

    As for the variously self-image-challenged Trump, his strange posture, with his butt sticking out and his arms hanging oddly, is because he wears lifts, substantial ones. He’s not nearly as tall as he would like to be, and he’s not physically adept enough to mask the way lifts put his body off-balance.

    (This has been your useless FYI bulletin of the day. Oh, and I think beards are quite nice.)

  14. dianne says

    I occasionally wonder whether Trump could pass the mirror test. He really does not seem self-aware. As for Cap, maybe he’s picking up Tony’s tighty whities.

  15. says

    @#15, F.O.

    There’s actually a stance which the Tories paid a consultant to develop and teach them for photo opportunities, called the Tory “Power Stance”. (You can Google it.) It was particularly associated with May and her supporters.

    The hilarious thing is that it was designed for above-the-waist photos, and none of them realized that so there are photos all over the place with them standing with their legs out looking like they’re staring into the sky at an oncoming missile and trying to decide which direction to run while maintaining a pretense of bravery.

  16. says

    Perhaps some of the more recent changes in Trump’s posture etc. are because he’s wearing body armour under his clothes. Getting a Kevlar vest that would fit Trump properly would be a bit of a chore I suspect, so he might squirming around because it’s uncomfortable.

  17. DanDare says

    Trumps behaviour is weird enough to poxssibly be a marker for some mental dysfunction.
    However its his decisions and anti social, inhuman behaviour that really give it awat.
    And then you have to think about his core fan base and tremble in fear at the extended phenotype.

  18. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    a little beefcake to put in your dreams.

    Eh, the plant’s alright.

  19. microraptor says

    I thought Trump’s weird posture was just because of the actuators in the prosthetic human costume starting to break down due to lack of maintenance.

  20. says

    One must wonder if PZ would also attack Hillary for her recent facial surgery if she was president. No, I don’t have to wonder, he would never do such a terribly sexist (or whatever) thing. PZ has no thoughts of his own, at least not anymore. He’s just a part of the “orange-man-bad” npc crowd. Meanwhile democrats in the House are leaving their party. I miss the real liberals that actually think. We never hear from them.

  21. says

    Norman’s use of “npc” is also a tipoff. It’s short for non player character, a term lifted from role playing games, and used by some on the hard right earlier this year to denounce people they don’t like. It seems to have come out of the MRA/MGTOW/Incel axis.

  22. antigone10 says

    Literally dehumanizing someone by calling them an NPC won’t suddenly make us not human. It just is a series of psychological tricks to make it easier for someone puppeteering you into hurting us.

    And the Daily Mail wouldn’t know what a liberal was with 2 dictionaries and an English professor.

  23. Stuart Smith says

    Wait, did Captain America just take a dump in a potted plant? Because that’s what that picture put in my mind…

  24. says

    George, you miss the point.

    If Trump got plastic surgery (and maybe he already has…that hair seems to be from a weird set of plugs) to look younger, that would be one thing — I wouldn’t mind something that made me look prettier. What’s curious is that he does a whole lot of cosmetic stuff that makes him look like an alien in an ill-fitting human suit. Why? Does he not understand what people look like?

  25. wzrd1 says

    “I have my own self-image, and it shocks me every time I look in a mirror or hear my voice — only unlike Trump, rather than a golden god, I see myself as a schlumpy, homely, shambling blob, and the problem with mirrors is that they so accurately confirm my self-portrait.”

    Yeah, don’t get me into the amount I’m stuck paying annually for my self-destructing mirrors.

    As for odd motions, got those down pat as well, due to a failed L4-L5 disc causing nerve root and cauda equina compression.
    Movements range from a rolling gait, one stiff legged gait (keeping the weak leg knee locked), occasional failures to feedback, causing a sudden roll to one side and more.
    Oddly, I still manage to waddle more naturally than Orange Julius Caesar Wannabe.

    An additional oddity, never was ever suspected of impeachable behavior or actions.