Art Therapy & Body Image

Francesco Clemente:  “After Attar’s ‘The Conference of the Birds’ V”

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.
                    Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

One of my earliest memories of making art was a day in preschool, when the teacher traced our bodies on large white paper, and then let us paint in the outline. At the time my all-time favorite heroine was Rainbow Brite and I spent the entire afternoon adorning my outlined figure with her fanciful apparel and colors. Long after the other children had moved on to another project, I was still painstakingly painting in her rainbow belt and star scepter. (According to my parents, this art project was a defining moment in my burgeoning career as an artist). 

San Borjitas Cave, Mexico

The human body has been a source of inspiration for artists since the first human figures appeared in cave drawings. Many artists such as Keith Haring, Ana Mendieta, Francesco Clemente, Daniel Goldstein, and Kara Walker have worked with the human silhouette or outline in particular. Art therapists often utilize the body outline technique in different settings and with varied populations. 

Body Image Group
A few weeks ago I facilitated an art therapy body-tracing session within a body image group. The group (Body Positive) addresses body image, nutrition, and mental health among HIV+ men. The idea behind the art therapy directive was to use the art process to foster greater body self-awareness and to encourage a dialogue with the group on body image. We taped life-size pieces of white butcher paper on the wall, and the group members worked in pairs to take turns tracing each other. (Note: For some individuals, being traced might be too triggering or uncomfortable. An alternative is to give the group pre-drawn silhouettes or ask them to ‘free-hand’ draw a silhouette). Once the outlines were finished, each person spent time filling in the outline in any way they chose. I provided them with oil pastels, markers, and colored pencils. (Paint would have been great, but we opted for dry materials to avoid making a mess in the conference room where the group was being held!) 

“Offensive Orange” by Jean-Michel Basquiat 

Not surprisingly, some of the group members were not sure where to begin and what to draw. I reminded them that this was not an “art class” and that they would not be graded on their finished art piece. I encouraged them not to over-think what they were doing, and instead to trust their gut and delve into the process itself. A few minutes later, the room was completely quiet as each group member worked intently on his body silhouette. The advantage to the life-size silhouettes is that they encourage a very direct relationship between the artist and the piece. The process really became a visual dialogue. I enjoyed watching the group members work on one area and then step back from the wall, to visually absorb the ‘gestalt.’ 

Processing 
When it was time to process the art, many of the group members expressed how surprised they were with the finished pieces. Imagery had surfaced in the outlines that they had not consciously planned, and yet while looking at the pieces the group members resonated with the imagery. One of the reoccurring themes was the idea of visual opposites. The theme of ‘hiding’ versus being ‘seen’ emerged for many of the men. For example, some of the group members created visual barriers around certain areas of their bodies (such as a lock and chain around a heart) but created openings to the outside world in other areas (a flower sprouting from the heart and bridging the internal body with the external). Two of the group members had drawn faces that were split in half; one side smiling and the other side frowning. We explored the notion that each of us contains polarities and the process of accepting this about ourselves. Many of the group members spoke about the experience of living with HIV, and sometimes feeling as if there was an invisible war being waged in their bodies.

“The Presence of Absence” by: Daniel Goldstein

I was very intrigued to see that the group members used the body outline to highlight both emotional and physical self-imagery. I had thought that the group members might focus more on physical body imagery, but what emerged spoke to both body and mind. I verbalized this observation during the group, and this led to a deeper discussion on how body and mind are connected. The group members were able to describe what certain strong emotions feel and look like in the body. One man had drawn swirling tornadoes in his body to represent the way that stress and other intense energies manifest for him. 

The group members seemed to take away many things from the group that day. The process of working within the body outline helped to illuminate the way each group member moved through the world, inhabited his body, interacted with others, and felt feelings within the body. In addition, creating the artwork within a group proved to be validating, as the men were able to visually and verbally process their experiences and find common threads with one another. 




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