*Trigger warning: this project is about the intersection of sexual violence, trauma, and gynecological care.
Ensoma, a variation of the Greek word ensomatóno meaning embody, is one response to the question of what gynecological care would look like if determined by survivors of sexual violence. Existing between the home and care clinics, Ensoma supports survivors prior to and throughout their exams. The embodied practices and people that make-up this space are based on intimate research with survivors whom articulated a collective desire to move from universal routine care to informed, personal, and ritualized care that helps them to feel safe and seen.
As Bessel Van der Kolk writes in the Body Keeps the Score, “the imprints of traumatic experiences are organized not as coherent logical narratives, but fragmented sensory and emotional traces: images, sounds, and physical sensations.” In other words, trauma is embodied (it lives in the body, not the mind). This means that for some survivors experiences such as gynecological exams may trigger flashbacks, dissociation (or leaving the body), or even avoidance of care.
Over the course of the project I worked with many women--doctors, midwives, anthropologists, doulas, and body workers--but for this part of the project I worked directly and intimately with 4 survivors of sexual violence. They are 4 women of color, one identifies as queer, one is a mother, they are between 20-40 years old, and between the 4 of them they have experienced at least 10 incidents of sexual violence between childhood and adulthood. These are voices we rarely hear in settings of care for many cultural, systemic, and personal reasons. They talked about shame, fear, and not knowing who is safe to reach out to.
This project is in response to our collective lack of discourse about the embodied ramifications of trauma on individual well-being. We are in a time of cultural reckoning as personal stories reveal the severe and pervasive impacts of sexual violence. One of our responses must be to center care around survivors and, more specifically, collaboratively re-design care practices which can trigger responses such as flashbacks, dissociation, or even avoidance of potentially lifesaving care.
(Gallery photos by Alaska Sohne)
Each color within this space represents a person and each object within Ensoma emerged out of the intimate conversations. The pieces contain care tags made on printable fabric with instructions on how to use the object as a way to practice self-care and prepare for their appointment. The language used puts the survivor in control of how they participate with phrases also used in trauma-informed yoga spaces such as: “when you are ready”, “feel free to”, “If you would like”, “We invite you to…”. At the same time, there is a physical built-in sensibility such as the choice to make with linen to reflect one survivor’s comment that she wishes she could soften the world.
ENSOMA AS A PERSON
"The one time I was asked about my history of sexual violence they gave me a business card with a photo of a battered woman and a hotline number."
Signified by a blue shirt, the Ensoma as a person is a response to this statement and other real needs. For example, the business card did not inform how she received care and this also connects to the desire to be a part of care, to being involved as an active participant who is informed about what is going to happen, and knowing where they can go to get quality care without question. Several times I heard about the desire to talk to someone beforehand who will go through the process as well as someone to hold their hand during the exam or procedure.
The Ensoma as a combination of a doula and a community health worker. To broadly define a doula, they are a professional trained in childbirth who provides emotional, physical, and educational support to a mother who is expecting, is experiencing labor, or has recently given birth. The part I want to underscore is that they provide emotional, physical, and educational support. At the same time, Community Health Workers serve as frontline public health workers who have a close understanding of the community they serve particularly in reproductive and maternal and child health. They overlap with doulas in some ways, but one thing that makes them different is that they are liaisons between clinics and the community. They act as advocates for their community. Combining the Doula and CHW models into the Ensoma brings together education, connection to the right clinic for each individual, as well as embodied practices that serve to support the personal needs of each survivor.
SUN BREATH TOOL
"See me as a whole person."
Seeing in the context of this sun breath exercise means getting in sync with the survivor’s rhythm. The idea of rhythmically getting in sync lives within the overlap between trauma healing research and feminist theories on care. In fact, sun Breaths is a practice used by David Emerson, the director of yoga services at the Trauma Center. It entails one person leading and another following as they sit side-by-side. As the leader inhales naturally they raise their hands a couple inches off their legs and slowly lower them on the exhale. The person following matches their breath to the leader's for as long as they wish as they get into sync.
PINK GOWN AND GREEN ROBE
"Sucking it up and getting through it doesn't work anymore."
"I carry a lot of shame down there that I don't really think about until it's time for my appointment. Then it is all I can think about. What if they find something wrong with me?"
Both garments were made in response to conversations regarding the option to own your own gown or robe which you can bring with you to every appointment--one that helps to make someone feel safe and comfortable as opposed to the papery and semi-transparent covering most often used in clinics.
"The body reacts viscerally when stepping into the room."
This is a lavender sachet necklace. The scent of lavender came up as a way to calm anxiety while at the clinic or just in everyday life. The string is long enough to avoid feeling constricted around the throat and also long enough to hold it up to smell when needed.
YELLOW REIKI SHIRT
"I have felt really heavy and at times angry this week. There are a lot of layers to go through and they’re not always perfect or beautiful, so I have to know that it’s safe to look within."
Inspired by the ancient Reiki practice that uses the hands to provide healing energy, this shirt is made with pockets for specific hand placement over the head, heart, and stomach. There are a number of other hand placement positions in Reiki, but these felt the least triggering for survivors. During the prototype phase, one person called it the "quiet shirt" because
YOGA MUDRA BAG
"I rub my palms to feel."
Hands, as an expression of anxiety, came up in nearly every conversation--from consciously rubbing them to playing with a material such as clay to feel calmer in the moment. A couple of women found yoga mudras to be a useful practice to bring their mind back into the present. Similar to Reiki, yoga mudras support the flow of energy through specific hand and finger positioning. Within the bag are instructions for three different yoga mudras along with beeswax sculpting clay to act as a support for holding each mudra. The beeswax clay warms up naturally between the hands to be resculpted into finger or hand holds.
A Bag to Take What You Need
"Healing is not one size fits all. It's more about taking what you need in this moment to fill your cup and leaving the rest behind."
This bag is made for survivors who visit the space to keep the things that resonate with them. The options include space for writing or reading poetry or inspirational quotes as each woman mentioned that she goes to writing or the writing of others as an outlet for emotional support.