Oppression Embodied: The Intersecting Dimensions of Trauma, Oppression, And Somatic Psychology

Through narrative somatic inquiry, this study investigates the lived embodied experiences and understandings of individuals who identify as oppressed. It explores the somatic impact of their oppression – how they embody oppressive social conditions through their non-verbal interactions, and how oppression affects their relationship with their body. The participants’ narratives suggest that a relationship exists between the somatic effects of trauma and embodied responses to oppression, and that the body is an important source of knowledge and power in resolving the traumatic imprint of oppression. These new insights are linked to the developing fields of somatic psychology and traumatology, and implications for diversity work in body psychotherapy discussed.

Oppression Embodied: Exploring the Intersections of Somatic Psychology, Trauma, and Oppression

The research discussed in this paper explores the somatic imprint of oppression – how we embody oppressive social conditions through our non-verbal interactions, and how oppression affects our relationship with our own bodies. The study integrates somatic perspectives with narrative inquiry (Clandinin and Connolly, 2000) to investigate how oppression is enacted and reproduced through the body, using a “body stories” approach (Johnson, 1997; Olsen, 1991; Sullivan, 1995) to access and document the lived embodied experiences and understandings of five women who identify as oppressed. This knowledge is then framed in the context of psychotherapeutic and psychoeducational practice, with particular emphasis on understanding how the somatic imprint of oppression may be linked to our emerging understandings of the body’s role in mediating trauma, and how somatic psychotherapists can more effectively incorporate issues of diversity and social justice in their work.

Read the full paper at Embodied Psychology here.

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An Introductory Narrative

For many years – well into my twenties, in fact – I would have insisted to anyone who asked that I was not oppressed. I was raised in a family of gentle introverts with a quirky disregard for social norms, and believed that my unique upbringing had successfully inoculated me against the kind of gender and sexual oppression that I knew other queer women experienced. For example, neither of my parents particularly treated me like a girl as I was growing up. Not that they treated me like a boy, either. Rather, they simply encouraged me to be myself – to identify and articulate my preferences, make my own choices, and take responsibility for my actions. My parents taught me by example and instruction to be more self-referenced than socially-referenced. They were always asking me what I thought, so I learned what I thought; and as a result, I knew myself much better than I knew the world.

It wasn’t until I started school that I began to recognize how different this made me, and how the combination of quiet, polite dependability and self-assured autonomy placed me outside traditional gender categories – I wasn’t really like the girls (too strong minded), and I wasn’t really like the boys (too reserved). More significantly, I understood somehow that I couldn’t choose between being “just like the boys” or “just like the girls” without sacrificing something essential to myself. So I didn’t. With the tacit but unquestioning support of my family and a series of friends who were attracted to my capacity to know my own mind and my relative disregard for what other people thought, I instinctively refused to “do gender” the way I was expected to. Of course, I refused to do many things the way I was expected to – not with any particular desire to rebel, but simply because it never really occurred to me to do otherwise.

The eccentricity that naturally developed from repeatedly choosing my own course when faced with an endless series of small but significant social choices pervaded all aspects of my identity. “Not fitting in” became such an intrinsic element of my day-to-day lived experience that it went relatively unnoticed, and was not understood by either myself or my family to be inherently problematic. Certainly, the effects of having constantly to choose between being true to myself and belonging to a social group were not analyzed, problematized, or politicized in any substantive way. It was just “the way I was,” and “the way things were.” Sustained by the care and understanding of a small circle of kindred spirits, the cost of my deviance remained unexamined until much later in my life.

Although I deeply appreciate the degree to which privilege undergirds the preceding statements – that I lived in a context where my oppression was not a vivid and painful figure, but rather an invisible but pervasive ground – I must also acknowledge the unique challenges it presents. One of the women I interviewed for this study remarked that she felt that one of the most destructive aspects of covert abuse was its capacity to render its victims unaware of the damage it inflicts, and my own process of reclaiming embodied knowledge lost to oppression echoes that experience.

As I noted earlier, this reclaiming process did not really begin until I was well into my twenties, through deep immersion in psychotherapy training that integrated bodywork, and a dramatic exposure to the ideas and practices of radical feminism. As a student in a professional training program in Gestalt Therapy, I was exposed to the full range of bodywork approaches that had influenced the development of Gestalt – bioenergetics, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Rolfing, and massage, for example – and this exposure was as much experiential as it was theoretical. Around the same time, I formed a women’s group with a number of my closest friends, and every Tuesday night for two very full years, we wrestled (sometimes literally) with the personal and interpersonal impact of living as women in a patriarchal society. I also began working as a counsellor at a shelter for homeless young women, where I witnessed first-hand the devastation of body, mind and spirit that violence against women perpetrates. My first night on duty at the shelter, I spent an hour cleaning dirt out of the ragged scrapes on a 16-year- old girl’s face after she was dragged across the pavement during a gay bashing outside a local dyke bar.

After years of quietly accepting the notion that my refusal to conform to society’s expectations was my individual choice (and therefore, my responsibility), I began to realize how very few genuinely satisfactory choices I really had with respect to gender and sexuality. For the first time, I began to question why I was repeatedly forced to refuse a social norm (to behave a certain way, to dress a certain way, to respond to men a certain way) and accept the consequences (alienation and marginalization), rather than feeling free to choose from a range of possible options, or to create my own. Radical feminist theory helped me to frame my discomfort and disconnection as systemic and political, rather than merely an introvert’s existential dilemma. Although very few feminists were talking about the body at the time (Price and Shildrick, 1999), my own work with the body in psychotherapy provided a rich source of material that linked clearly and directly with issues of oppression. Lightbulbs were going off – but they were going off in my body, not just my head.

These lightbulb flashes of insight illuminated a somatic landscape far more damaged by the effects of oppression than I would otherwise have imagined. As I undertook additional professional training in dance/movement therapy, psychodramatic bodywork, crisis intervention, and traumatology, I began to recognize a pattern of impact that echoed what I was seeing in my clinical practice working with survivors of childhood trauma. Specifically, the effects of oppression on the way I used and felt my body seemed very similar to the somatic effects of trauma.

A research study I conducted on movement therapy with survivors of trauma (Johnson, 1996) reinforced  for me the importance of recognizing the ways in which the body deals with traumatic experience, and helped me begin to articulate the somatic dimensions of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Subsequent trauma research (Levine, 1997; Nujenhuis, 2000; Ogden, Minton, and Pain, 2006; Rothschild, 2000; van der Kolk, 1994, 1996) has affirmed the role of the body in mediating trauma, and describes the somatic impact. These effects may include a sense of disconnection from the body (experiencing the body as somehow unrelated to the self, or an inability to feel all or part of the body) that the literature often refers to as somatic or somataform dissociation (Nujenhuis, 2000).

The somatic impact of trauma may also include a constriction of body movement (and a related discomfort with being physically expressive), somatic re-experiencing of traumatic events (body-based implicit memories in which only the physical sensation is present), a heightened startle response, and a range of somatic complaints (Scaer, 2000).

As I began to make these links for myself, I grew more attuned to the somatic manifestations of oppression in others, and began to attend more carefully for connections between what students and clients told me about their bodies and the social contexts in which they lived. I became increasingly curious about the ways in which the somatic imprint of social injustice might be experienced and understood through the bodies and voices of the oppressed themselves. What follows is the result of my research on the somatic dimensions of oppression, viewed through the lens of the accumulated knowledge of twenty years as a body-centred psychotherapist and somatic educator. To help locate this research in the context of my own professional work, another brief story is in order.

Several years ago, I was facilitating a movement therapy group for women in recovery from addiction. One of the participants brought an intriguing combination of enthusiasm and reticence to the work of the group – she struggled with group dynamics and finding her voice in group discussions, but was game to try any movement experiment I suggested. Her body language was hesitant, and her use of space limited, but there was often a smile on her face and a sparkle in her eyes.  During one session, we improvised to music using large chiffon scarves, imagining that our bodies were expressing the qualities of air. As the sound of harp strings floated through the room, I noticed that Julia was moving with more freedom and ease.

When the group sat down together afterwards to discuss our experiences, the grin on her face was impossible not to notice. Beaming with pride, she confided that she had put her arms over her head. I think we were all a little mystified by that statement at first, until she explained that her childhood experiences with a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic father had so stifled her ability to feel free in her own body, that she had become unable to raise her arms over her head without feeling completely exposed and vulnerable. She had been taught not to take up space, not to reach or strive or rejoice. She had also learned not to expose the vulnerable core of her body to possible attack by others. Although she was now well into her thirties, she couldn’t remember ever before feeling comfortable raising her arms over her head in the presence of others. It struck me again how critical the relational dimension of embodiment is, and how the ways we are with others (or fail to be) is so much an issue of the body.

From my perspective, there were incredible forces preventing Julia from being in her own body, in her own way. Although that morning Julia had named her father’s abuse as one of those forces, I had heard her name many other factors in the course of our work together – being a street kid, a lesbian, a drug addict, a psychiatric survivor, a woman. I resolved then to focus my professional work on understanding how multiple social forces work through the body to bring oppression into being. The research described in this paper is grounded in that resolve, and hopes to offer new insights, knowledge, and understandings that are relevant to scholars and practitioners alike.

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