Feminist Art Therapy

Art (like movement) is a powerful means of expression. Words are a popular marker of experience but sometimes, words are inadequate.  I have run into the inadequacy of words both in my personal and professional life.

Prior to returning to school to complete a Master’s in Social Work, I worked as a substance abuse counselor in New York City. Even then, I was aware of the limitations of words.  Sure, words are powerful; they carry meaning and evoke emotion but words have their limits.  Often times, I would be face to face with a person who had so much to express, but again, words failed them.  Their stories were often expressed in physical and emotional pain, pain that words couldn’t adequately capture.  Sometimes the pain became too much and without the appropriate tools to first acknowledge and then eventually work through the pain, I would see individuals return to the streets.  Drugs felt “safe”– a familiar way to self soothe.


Art therapy project

After completing my Masters in social work, I worked for the state of Illinois, investigating elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation.  Although everyone’s story is different, pain is universal and again, I stumbled across the inadequacy of words.  In this work, I caught a glimpse of atrocity.  The underbelly of our society.  I was compelled to find a way to connect with the darkness that I saw in order to work with individuals (and often families) to find resolution and a greater sense of wholeness in the midst of chaos and injustice.


Art therapy project

The limitations of words were again forefront as I completed a post master’s clinical fellowship in psychotherapy.  I would come across individuals with brilliant and sometimes tragic stories, who couldn’t quite express them, verbally, in a way that felt sufficient.  Immediately following the completion of that fellowship, I began taking courses in art therapy in order to expand my tool box as a therapist.

This weekend I had the privilege of reconnecting with my “art therapy cohort” at a reunion hosted by the wonderful, Joanne Ramseyer of Blue Lotus Art Studio. Joanne is an artist, educator and trauma informed art therapist who has taught me so much in a short period of time. At the reunion,  I saw several familiar faces and made new connections as well.  This reunion made me think about the work that I did while studying with Joanne.  I took a class called “Foundations of Art Therapy.”  In that class we learned about the key players in the development of art therapy as a concept and as a profession.  Our final assignment was to pick an art therapist and give an overview of their work and then develop an art therapy lesson in the lineage of that particular therapist.  I was interested in looking at the intersection of art therapy and feminist theory.  Even though my interest diverged a bit from the assignment, Joanne gave me the freedom to move forward.

As I was researching, I found a lot of information on feminist theory and a lot of information on art therapy but very little on the intersection of the two. Feminist theory is based on idea that we live in a Patriarchal culture.  Our culture promotes disconnection from others and from our own bodies.  If we look at traditional psychodynamic theory, there is an emphasis on separation: “the self versus others.”  Traditional psychodynamic theory is largely an outgrowth of male thought  (Freud, Jung, Winnicott, Kohut).  Of course there are female “greats” as well, but the dominating theories are very much male-driven.  While there is so much to appreciate about “the greats” and what they postulate, so much of the theory is based on “the self.”  Even theories that are more relational (i.e. object relations theory) emphasize the experience of the self above all.

Art therapy is a relatively female-centric profession.  Some men enroll in Art Therapy Master’s programs, but enrollment is largely female. Much of art therapy was built around traditional psychodynamic theory which emerged out of patriarchal context and tends to misunderstand and neglect women’s experience.

Feminist theory challenges traditional psychodynamic theory which promotes separation, and instead focuses on connection– connection to others, to nature, to the world around us– connection to ourselves and to our body.  The disconnection from our body is generally a response to internalized images of how or who we should be, cultural messages, objectification of our bodies and possible trauma.

Interestingly, the way that the art therapy profession has organized and advocated for their professionalization as a field, is very much in line with feminist theory.  So, then why does the art therapy field (and other helping professions) continue to rely so heavily on theory that operates on outdated social constructs that serve to oppress women and other marginalized people?  Fortunately, not everyone practices with “old school” separatist methodology.  Feminist writers of the 60’s and 70’s were taking on these issues, which inspired a group of women (Judith Jordan, Janet Surrey, Irene Stiver and Jean Baker Miller) to get together in 1977 to discuss relationships, connections and communication.  These casual discussions ultimately led to a theory called Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) and in 1981, they became associated with the Stone Center at Wellesley College.

RCT focuses on growth fostering relationships, connection and the idea that isolation is the greatest cause of human suffering.  Conversely, mainstream psychological theory promotes separation and individuation as the goal for development.

I would propose that in RCT, the role of a feminist art therapist is to develop a relationship of mutuality and through that work to empower the client to transcend  internalized oppression, inadequacy and “otherness.”

Mutuality in the context of feminist therapy is the concept that the therapist and client work as a team to use the clients experience in a way that fosters growth and healing, using empathy as a corrective experience.  The focus would be on sharing power rather than having “power-over”– this involves acknowledging power differential in the therapeutic alliance.  It also highlights the importance of an openness of the therapist to being influenced by the client as opposed to setting rigid boundaries and assuming a stance of neutrality. The thought is that by acknowledging power differential while also dismantling traditional hierarchy in the therapeutic alliance, the therapy itself can serve as a corrective experience without inadvertently eliciting feelings of powerlessness and isolation in the presence of a powerful “other” and subsequently enhance disconnection.

I have an interest in using expressive therapies (yoga, art, etc.) to work with individuals around body awareness and acceptance.  RCT views body image as internalized images of ourselves in response to the messages we pick up from our culture, our family and our experiences. I think we can all agree that we are bombarded with powerful images every day.

In thinking about body image and the ways in which we internalize our own experience, the culture in which we live provides content for our personal beliefs about who we are.  These messages are impossible to escape but we do have the power to become aware of the messages we receive about who we are and decide for ourselves whether or not we want to embody these depictions.  RCT describes “cultural controlling images” as socially constructed ideas that serve to maintain the status quo and keep people in power, in place.  The dominant culture group constructs images that represent distortions of a non dominant culture group with the (either conscious or unconscious) intent to disempower, demonize and pathologize.  Some examples of “cultural controlling images” are the stereotype of “the welfare queen”, “the Jewish mother” and “the Borderline client.”  If you are not familiar with the term “borderline” just Google it and you will see how this “diagnosis” is depicted in mainstream culture.  It is frankly horrifying.  I really like what Anji Capes writes on Borderline Personality Disorder  (she writes from the UK where the diagnosis is known as “Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder.”)

These caricatures lead to disconnection and to dismissal of personhood.  When we label and stereotype in this way, we are doing great harm.

I mentioned earlier that I delved into this topic to explore the intersection of art therapy and feminist theory for my final project in a foundational art therapy class.  For my final project, I decided to use art to explore body image and understand the messages we internalize and embody.

Body tracing is a nice way to explore body images issues as it creates a visible container to externalize intense emotions that we hold in our bodies and eventually rid of the internalized images that no longer serve us.  This process enlivens empathy, connection and relationship, both with ourselves and with another person (i.e. client and therapist.) Body tracing and the discussion that it incites allows us to use our imagination in order re-envision who we want to be and who we believe ourselves to be.

I facilitated this project with a friend for the purpose of this class.  See below for the steps we used to carry out the body tracing…

  • Traced full bodies on large banner paper
  • Responded to our bodies as we perceive ourselves.  We used markers to depict positive, negative and neutral responses to our bodies.  We used shapes, lines, images, symbols and words in response to our internalized image of ourselves and drew drew the responses where they resonated in our bodies.
  • Respond to each others image in terms of our perception of the other person
  • Based on our perception of the other, we added supportive images to the other person’s body outline (again using markers but obviously you can use whatever materials you like!)
  • Discussed our feelings in response to the other persons perception and images they provided.
  • We then used pipe cleaners to connect the drawings in order to symbolize the connection forged through the process.  (My friend had a strong urge to connect the drawings at the head. I wanted to connect at the hands and heart.  We did both.  After connecting at the head, my friend sighed in relief.  The pipe cleaners bowed and created what she described as “an empty head between our heads—a clear mind to balance the chaos”.)

During this process, we were able to express our internalized images of ourselves, our “hang-ups” about our physical bodies and both cry and laugh about these internalizations.  We acknowledged that these negative beliefs may not disappear but externalizing them, and seeing how we view one another diffuses some of the power of these beliefs. This project elicited dialogue about standards of beauty and how oppressive these standards are.  The maintenance of these standards are in line with RCTs concept of “cultural controlling images” and the misnomer that ideal womanhood means: petite, waif life, submissive and compliant.  These images of womanhood serve to maintain power of the patriarchy.

I believe strongly in the need to continue to challenge our internalized images or who we are and to challenge ourselves to examine how we internalize groups that are different from ourselves.  Even if our intentions are good, until we examine our own deep-seated beliefs, we can’t be assured that we aren’t part of the problem.


“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way- things I had no words for.” – Georgia O’Keeffe


5 thoughts on “Feminist Art Therapy

    1. acorn Post author

      Thanks! I just read your post on prison pink. Uncannily similar to the pink in the art therapy project I posted a photo of. Thanks for reading!

  1. Emily

    Hello, I stumbled upon your blog the other night and I really have enjoyed reading all your posts. I am a college student working towards my bachelor’s degree and I am majoring in social work and I’m hoping to continue on to grad school for social work as well. I was wondering if I could pick your brain for some advice since you are already gone down the path that I want to go down.


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