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Restorative Embodiment and the Art of Body Mapping

Body mapping is a form of somatic narrative that captures our lived experiences.

Key points

  • Restorative embodiment focuses on the body as a resource to support and reinforce the internal sense of self-agency and resilience.
  • Body mapping is a form of expressive arts therapy that capitalizes on the body as a theme for narratives of lived experiences.
  • Body mapping is a multilayered, embodied process that integrates image and story.
Source: From Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy: Brain, Body, and Imagination in the Healing Process/Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D., used with permission
Source: From Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy: Brain, Body, and Imagination in the Healing Process/Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D., used with permission

In “The Body Holds the Healing,” I described a concept that is central to expressive arts and somatic therapies—restorative embodiment. In contrast to other somatic therapies, restorative embodiment is what we centralize in expressive arts therapy. The core of expressive approaches is grounded in active participation in novel experiences that reacquaint individuals with curiosity, playfulness, efficacy, and pleasure (Malchiodi, 2022). In other words, embodiment is not only defined as the development of physical awareness but also as an expansion of the capacity to inhabit one’s body and mind in soothing, invigorating, and recuperative ways.

Movement, rhythm, sound, enactment, and play are all forms of embodiment that have the potential to be restorative for body, mind, and spirit. In expressive arts therapy, there are many approaches that focus directly on the body to support restoration through specific strategies and prompts. One of these approaches is called “body mapping,” a guided process of visual and narrative exploration through creating a life-size body portrait.

What Is Body Mapping?

Body mapping is a form of expressive arts therapy that capitalizes on the body as a theme for narratives of lived experiences. There is a long tradition of this approach with individuals who have experienced psychological trauma and life-threatening medical illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and organ transplantation. These strategies focus on body image as not only a historical record of significant events, but also as a somatic source for the exploration of self-efficacy, capacity, and resilience.

Jane Solomon (2002; 2007) is credited with formalizing a process called “body mapping,” applying it to work with women living with HIV/AIDS, and immigrants. Other practitioners and even artists have used it with individuals who have had medical procedures for life-threatening illnesses. With these individuals, the process serves as a way to explore illness, as a form of legacy, and for some, as preparation for death.

While body mapping is a multilayered process that integrates image and story, it is essentially an embodied experience. Drawing, painting, collage, or other materials are used to represent stories about oneself as well as specific somatic experiences or memories. Paint is traditionally provided as part of the body-mapping approach. Art expressions may also include actual hand and footprints and colors and symbols are painted on or around the body outline in response to specific questions about one’s life, including events, challenges, and strengths. Because image-making may be challenging for some, I often modify the process by introducing a collage box of various images and words, phrases, and quotes for participants who find that language best expresses their experiences.

Typically, body mapping is a directive process. In other words, facilitators use a variety of prompts to guide the process, depending on the individual or group. This includes focusing expression on many of the following components (Malchiodi, 2020):

  • Choosing a body posture to represent oneself.
  • Focusing on personal history including “where I come from” and “where I am going” (such as goals or aspirations).
  • Depicting images or symbols on the body to represent challenges, events, or obstacles that have been overcome or are in the process of being overcome (often called “marks of resilience").
  • Including personal mottos, quotes, or slogans and/or symbols that are sources of strength (resources).
  • Symbolizing people and entities (pets, communities, or higher power) who have been supportive (represented by photos, symbols, or handprints).
  • Sharing messages or wisdom learned through lived experiences.

Body Mapping as a Relational Experience

Body mapping is relational, most often taking place within a group structure to capitalize on mutual support, inspiration, and ritual as part of the reparative process. For this reason, it can take several meetings over the course of days to complete. Solomon’s (2002) original body mapping guide recommends allowing at least five days or approximately 30 hours to complete a body map. Time is set aside for group members to convene and share observations, a process guided by facilitators or therapists. Its intent is to help individuals not only gain insights, but to express their lived experiences through stories and images.

The process of creating a life-size body map is complex and the facilitator plays a supporting role in helping individuals choose and create elements and symbols. Safety, structure, and pacing to make this type of deep exploration of personal challenges and historical resilience (life events, achievements, relationships, and social impacts throughout the life span) are foundational to the process.

Body Mapping as Restoration

Embodiment is a process of somatic self-discovery. Similarly, body mapping is a specific process designed to enhance that somatic self-discovery within the presence of a facilitator and group participants. It is an experience that helps one to recognize the capacity to thrive through exploring how life’s challenges have impacted one’s body over time.

The restorative process of body mapping is essentially twofold. First, the carefully guided process of visual expression through a body portrait emphasizes resilience as central to the restoration of the self. The second part is the power of storytelling through depicting and sharing the body’s lived experiences in images and narratives. In trauma recovery, Judith Herman (1992) emphasizes the importance of both telling one’s story and the return to community as key to personal reparation and restoration of the self. These forms of transformation are captured in the multilayered process of body mapping—a way to capture these stories through expressing the body’s awareness and witnessing its inner wisdom.


Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Malchiodi, C. A. (2020). Trauma and expressive arts therapy: Brain, body, and imagination in the healing process. New York: Guilford Publication.

Malchiodi, C, A. (2022). Handbook of expressive arts therapy. New York: Guilford Publications.

Solomon, Jane (2007). "Living with X": A body mapping journey in time of HIV and AIDS. Facilitator's guide. Johannesburg: REPSSI.

Solomon, Jane. 2002. “Living with X”: A body mapping journey in time of HIV and AIDS. Facilitator’s Guide. Psychosocial Wellbeing Series. Johannesburg: REPSSI.

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