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Embodied Social Justice

Chapter One: Introduction

The lived experience of the body–that is, our bodily sensations, perceptions and behaviors–is the essential ground of human identity. Developmentally, our visceral impulses serve as the foundation for personal agency, guiding us as we move through the world, reaching for some things and refusing others. Our bodily encounters with the physical environment shape and reshape our understanding of the world; we learn about gravity by falling down and discover how our point of view changes when we walk around and encounter new perspectives. Language, often considered a function of our cognitive capacity for abstraction, is laden wi

th meaningful references to the body that hint at its sensorial roots. Indeed, cognition itself is increasingly understood as deeply intertwined with bodily feelingi.

When applied to our understanding of the social world, our embodied experience plays an equally important role. As we navigate interpersonal relationships and learn about the characteristics associated with different groups of people, our bodies help to create and maintain the power dynamics that can arise between us–for instance, by signaling dominance or submission through our gestures and eye contactii. We are categorized into sociocultural groups according to physical traits that are marked as desirable or deficient based on their appearance and functioning. Depending on our social identifications, we may learn to treat our bodies as sexual objects or as instruments of labor. In short, our nonverbal communication patterns, beliefs about body norms, and feelings of connection and identification with our bodies are all deeply affected by our assigned membership in different social groups and the privileges associated with that membershipiii.

However, despite the research evidence supporting these ideas, existing models of social justice have not been particularly attentive to the body’s role in reproducing oppressioniv in everyday life. Neither have approaches that specialize in working with the felt sense of the body (often grouped into a field called “somatics” v) offered many strategies for resolving the tension between the information available to us through bodily explorations of sensation and movement and the data grounded in social power and authority. However, it is possible to address the singular experience of the body in a way that does not bypass the political. Conversely, it is possible to work collectively to transform oppressive social structures while fully recognizing the micro-sociological building blocks that maintain those structures.

An embodied approach to social justice–one that recognizes the degree to which our bodies are implicated in the reproduction of social power–should not be considered a replacement for working on the macro-sociological level to make structural and ideological changes in social institutions such as education or healthcare, or as a substitute for legislative reform. Rather, it works to support change in the relational fabric of our lives so that structural shifts correspond with authentic transformations in attitude, and where legal rights and freedoms are experienced at the core of our beings and manifested in our everyday interactions with others.

A Practical Example A brief anecdote may help illustrate these ideas. About twenty years ago, I was facilitating a movement therapy group for survivors of childhood trauma. One of the participants brought an intriguing combination of willingness and reticence to the work of the group; she struggled with group dynamics and finding her voice in group discussions, but there was often a quiet smile on her face and a shy yearning in her eyes. One session we were improvising 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 Tonivi 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 nonplussed 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 became 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 physical attack. Although she was now well into her forties, she couldn’t remember ever feeling comfortable raising her arms over her head in the presence of others.

It struck me then just how critical the relational dimension of embodiment is, and how the ways we engage with others are so much about the body. From my perspective, there were incredible forces preventing Toni from being in her body, in her own way. That morning, Toni named her father’s abuse as one of those forces, but in the course of our continuing work together I heard her name many others – being a street kid, a lesbian, a drug addict, and a psychiatric survivor.

On the streets, she learned quickly that being invisible (small movements and hunched posture) meant being less likely to become a target for the random violence of strangers and the unwanted attention of the police. On the locked ward of the psychiatric hospital where she was taken after each suicide attempt, she learned that smiling and nodding led to increased privileges and quicker release. As a young lesbian coming of age in the 1970s, she discovered that there is no room for large, expressive movements in a closet. Street drugs helped to ease the pain by disconnecting her from the scarred and vulnerable body that she had come to hate. Taken together, these life experiences resulted in a tightly restricted movement repertoire overlaid with gestures of passive compliance and a prevailing sense of absence – of not really being present. In the evocative words of Mahershala Ali (2017) in describing the bodily impact of unrelenting persecution, Toni had “folded in” on herself.

In a way, Toni’s whole life history of oppression was held in her body – readable in her posture and palpable to others. After that first morning where she risked change by reaching her arms into the air, however, the group dynamic slowly evolved. Toni continued to take more space in the room (physically at first, and then verbally) and she became more expressive (beginning with facial expression and expanding to verbal expression). Eventually, she was able to hold her ground in disagreements with other members of the group. While these transitions were not always smooth, they always contributed to a more engaged, cohesive, and functional group. Over time, Toni and the other group members were able to see their group as a microcosm of the larger world, and to understand their progress within it as also possible outside it. For Toni, the changes in her nonverbal communication translated to increased agency and presence in her personal and professional life. She harnessed the calm authority of her own bodily sense of right and wrong, and stood up to an exploitative landlord and stubbornly pursued the reinstatement of a lapsed healthcare practitioner’s license. She dared to express her attraction to a woman she met at a political rally, and is now happily married. Although Toni’s current life is modestly ordinary in many respects–she works two jobs, co-parents three kids, and co-owns a home in a quiet residential neighborhood–it is worlds away from what it was. More importantly, Toni feels different inside herself. She is no longer afraid to breathe, to reach, to be seen, or to push back. These changes show up in how she carries herself, and she conveys them implicitly to those who now look to her for example and inspiration – her children, the students in the healthcare program at the college where she teaches, and the street kids at the inner-city youth center where she volunteers.

Toni’s story offers one example of how becoming more attuned to the felt experience of the body can reconnect us to a source of knowledge and strength beyond the social power we are accorded by others. It illustrates how being supported to experiment with bodily expressions of grace and freedom can transform painful and limiting movement patterns. It reveals the social and political dimensions of these patterns, and how behaviors that might otherwise be ascribed to individual weakness are perhaps better understood as an adaptive response to relational threat. Finally, her story suggests how the relational nature of embodiment–that we are always responding to the bodily signals of others and they to our– can work for social good as well as ill.

In the years since that movement therapy group with Toni, I have continued to develop and refine the insights offered by that single potent gesture of hers. Intrigued by the apparent relationship between trauma, oppression, and the body, I grew more attuned to the possible somatic manifestations of oppression in myself and others, and listened more carefully for connections between what clients told me about their bodies and the social contexts in which they lived.

I also became increasingly interested in how education (both social justice education and somatic education) might bring the embodied dimensions of oppression into a larger conversation. My motives for broadening the discussion beyond the psychotherapeutic context in which I typically worked included my awareness of how social stigma around mental health (not to mention the limited provision of service) restricts psychotherapy’s scope of impact. A related tendency (by the public and professionals alike) to pathologize and individualize any issue addressed by psychotherapy was also problematic; I certainly didn’t want this discussion framed as something that was “wrong” with “some individuals” who have experienced oppression. Lastly, I hoped that a learning focus, rather than a healing focus, would allow a broader range of practitioners to apply whatever useful knowledge emerged from my research.

Framing the Issues

The scholarly work being done in the areas of experiential and anti-oppressive education provided me with important theoretical and practical foundations, especially when integrated with insights and research findings from the fields of nonverbal communication and traumatology. Gradually, the interlocking and intersecting ideas I gathered from many disciplinary areas began to form a rough conceptual framework. While this framework seemed to lend support to my developing theories about the connections between oppression and the body, it also highlighted some gaps in current knowledge, and pointed to some questions that could usefully be asked as part of a formal study.

The conceptual framework outlined below is the result of a strategic review of the literature in educational theory and practice (especially anti-oppressive and somatic education), anthropology (embodiment theories and nonverbal communication research, in particular), and traumatology. Although a more detailed review is provided in subsequent chapters, here I outline some key findings in a sequence that articulates the underlying rationale that anchored my study and from which my research questions eventually emerged.

In short, anti-oppressive educational theoriesvii suggest that:

1) we learn oppression through daily lived experience of social and political life, and 2) it is possible to transform that experience of oppression (and collectively, oppressive social systems) through a process of anti-oppressive education that supports (often through a form of literacy work) the development of a degree of critical consciousness.

Somatic embodiment theoriesviii argue that:

1) we learn through our bodies (not just our minds), 2) our lived experience is significantly an embodied experience, 3) our lived experience is necessarily also a social experience, and 4) it might be possible to transform embodied experience through a process of somatic education that supports (often through a form of somatic literacy) the development of a degree of embodied consciousness.

Research into nonverbal communicationix proposes that:

1) we learn about social systems through patterns of interpersonal nonverbal communication, 2) these patterns of communication can be grouped into categories that assist in recognizing, assessing, and understanding how we communicate (and learn) through our bodies, and 3) the nonverbal component of social interaction (rather than institutional structure) is the locus for the most common means of social control.

And lastly, research findings in traumatologyx suggest that:

1) trauma is mediated through the body and manifested in embodied experience, 2) oppression is traumatic, and 3) the effects of trauma can be categorized in ways that assist in recognizing, assessing, and understanding how trauma (and perhaps thereby oppression) impacts embodied experience.

After several years combing through the accumulated knowledge of numerous experts, however, I had still not encountered a comprehensive description of how oppression manifests in and through embodied experience. Nor had I found specific tools, strategies, or approaches for identifying, unpacking, and transforming the somatic impact of oppression. I was left wondering just exactly how oppression is experienced in the body, and how we bring our bodies to the navigation of power differentials in our social interactions. I was also curious whether education could resolve some of the negative effects of oppression and provide a means for becoming more conscious and skilled in the way we embody power.

The multi-year study I undertook to help answer these questions represents a preliminary foray into a rich and complex area and offered the beginnings of new knowledge. It introduced embodied experience as both an analytic tool and a means of scholarly inquiry, and started to articulate how people experiencing oppression relate to their bodies and the bodies of others. It also provided insights from their lived experience suggesting that our embodied knowledge is critically important to our understanding of social justice. After publishing the initial findings of my research, a colleague and I embarked on a second phase of the study that included additional participants, refined the questions being asked, and explored new methodological strategies.

Based on the findings of this research and drawing on two decades of clinical practice with members of marginalized and subordinated social groups, I developed a preliminary model of embodied critical learning designed to address the somatic impact of oppression. I began working with this model with clients and in the graduate courses I taught in counseling psychology, refining it over a period of many years based on my own experience of using the model and on extensive feedback from students and colleagues.

After fielding requests to train people in the model so they could use it in their professional work, I realized there was a need for a more comprehensive document on the subject, beyond the journal articles and research report I had already published. This book represents the culmination of my wide-ranging efforts to better understand how social injustice affects our bodily selves in destructive and painful ways, and how we might unlearn the embodied patterns that keep oppression in place.

Overview of the Book

Embodied Social Justice introduces an approach to anti-oppression work designed for use by social workers, counselors, educators, and other human service professionals. The book explores the somatic impact of oppression–that is, how we embody oppressive social conditions through our non-verbal interactions, and how oppression affects our relationship with our own bodies. In documenting the embodied experiences and understandings of people who identify as oppressed, it offers clear descriptions of how oppression is experienced as a bodily “felt sense” and illuminates the mostly unconscious behaviors that perpetuate inequitable social relations. It then frames this knowledge in an interdisciplinary context, and describes how the embodied knowledge of oppression can contribute to the development of a model of embodied social justice. Consisting of a conceptual framework, case examples, and a model of practice, the book integrates key findings from education, psychology, anthropology, and somatic studies while addressing critical gaps in how these fields have understood and responded to real life issues of social justice.

Embodied Social Justice is organized into four sections. Section I: Body Stories offers a series of narratives drawn from my research into the embodied experience of oppression. These ‘body stories’ illustrate how racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism are experienced in and through the body. The narratives use language that reflects the vivid and visceral qualities of embodied experience and employ direct quotes from participants to provide a real-life context for the model of embodied social justice described in Section III. The final chapter of this section articulates the five themes that emerge from the narrative data, and links the material from the body stories to the research literature in nonverbal communication and traumatology. The next section (Section II) reviews the topic of embodied social justice and some of the scholarly literature in which this book is grounded. This section walks the reader through key findings in anti-oppression education and somatic studies and further articulates the problems and gaps in knowledge that served as the conceptual grounding and impetus for my research into the somatic experience of oppression. It also orients the reader to key information that will support their understanding of the model presented in the next section. Section III: Grasping and Transforming the Embodied Experience of Oppression introduces a model of transformative learning that privileges body knowledge (e.g., bodily sensation, body image, and nonverbal communication) in exploring issues of social justice. In addition to detailed descriptions of each phase of the cycle, strategies are provided for facilitating and assessing use of the cycle in clinical, educational, and community settings. The fourth and final section offers suggestions for readers wishing to explore further the topic of embodied social justice, and includes a recommended reading list, links to professional associations and trainings, and websites devoted to the topics of embodiment and social justice.


  1. Ali, Mahershala. (2017). Screen Actors Guild award acceptance speech. Retrieved from

  2. Cohen, B. B. (2012). Sensing, feeling, and action: The experiential anatomy of body-mind centering. L. Nelson, & N. S. Smith (Eds.)

  3. Csordas, T. (Ed). (1994). Embodiment and experience: The existential ground of culture and self. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

  4. Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace.

  5. Dovidio, J. & Ellyson, S. (1985). Power, dominance and nonverbal behavior. New York, NY:

  6. Springer-Verlag.

  7. Hanna, T. (1970). Bodies in revolt: A primer in somatic thinking. Novato, CA: Freeperson Press.

  8. Johnson, A. (2001). Power, privilege and difference. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

  9. Kumashiro, K. (2000). Toward a theory of anti-oppressive education. Review of Educational Research, 70(1), 25-53.

  10. Noland, C. (2010). Agency and embodiment: Performing gestures/producing culture. Harvard University Press.


i The assertions in this paragraph are supported by the work of a number scholars across a range of fields. The work of Thomas Csordas (1994) helped me more fully appreciate the fundamental role of the body in experience, and the neuroscience research undertaken by Antonio Damasio (1999) and others undergirds my statement that the body plays a fundamental role in emotion and cognition. I am also indebted to Carrie Noland’s (2015) work on embodiment and agency and the developmental movement work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (2012). ii See the nonverbal communication research on issues of social power, in particular Steve Ellyson and John Davidio’s (1985) work on power, dominance and nonverbal behavior. iii I understand these aspects of embodied experience as the visceral expressions of social constructions of power and identity, not as manifestations of natural, absolute truths about bodies or selves. Although I believe that we construct the social realities that generate such experiences, my research suggests that we respond to these ideas about the body as if they were real. iv I define oppression as the unjust use of socially-assigned power. Systemically, oppression is often enacted through laws and norms that subjugate members of a subordinated social group to benefit members of the dominant group. According to antioppressive educator Kevin Kumashiro (2000, p. 25), “oppression refers to a social dynamic in which certain ways of being in this world – including certain ways of identifying or being identified – are normalized or privileged while other ways are disadvantaged or marginalized”. Allan Johnson (2000, p.20) notes that “Oppression is a social phenomenon that happens between different groups in a society; it is a system of social inequality through which one group is positioned to dominate and benefit from the exploitation and subordination of another.” He argues that it is through our implicit values and unconscious behavior that we most effectively collude with a system of oppression, and thereby contribute to its maintenance in a society. Participation in oppressive systems is not optional, but how we participate is. Accepting privilege is a path of least resistance in an oppressive system. According to Johnson, oppression requires no malicious intent, simply a refusal to resist. v Somatics is a term coined by existential phenomenologist Thomas Hanna, who used it to refer to ways of working with individuals and groups that privilege the first person subjective experience of the body (Hanna, 1970). It is an umbrella term that encompasses a diverse range of body work, movement approaches, and mind/body practices. A discussion of somatic perspectives and practices is offered in Chapter Ten. vi Toni’s real name and identifying details have been changed to protect her privacy. vii See Chapter Nine for details and sources. viii See Chapter Ten for details and sources. ix See Chapter Eight for details and sources. x See Chapter Eight for details and sources.

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