A sneak peak of forthcoming research….
Brigden, Noelle. Forthcoming. ‘Trauma-Informed Research Methods: Understanding and Healing Embodied Violence.’ Embodied and Entangled: Conducting Research at the Intersectional Crossroads of Interpersonal, Gendered Violence, edited by April Petillo and Heather Hlavka. New York: NYU Press.
Trauma-Informed Research Methods: Understanding and Healing Embodied Violence
Decades ago, before I ever imagined I would become a researcher, I shattered a vertebra. After nearly a year of physical therapy, I walked away from the hospital and into a new life, thanks to a medical discharge from the U.S. military and a veteran’s disability program that encouraged me to study. This lucky break caused me to reevaluate my own militarization, internalization of patriarchy, and violent masculinity: a fortuitous rupture in all that I had previously taken for granted. Grappling with the limits of my body changed me profoundly. However, over a decade later, my fieldwork on violence along the migration route from El Salvador across Mexico exacerbated the chronic pain from this injury. Compounded by emotional trauma and years of searching for physical relief, I began to lift weights and to embrace strength and growth over my body insecurities and deep shame. Eventually, I taught powerlifting and calisthenics at my field sites in El Salvador, founding a community gym that has reshaped my research trajectory. Like Wendell (1996) who examines the nature of disability starting with her own experience, confrontation with my physical limitations led to a series of feminist reflections about violence and methodology. In the process of discovering my own fitness rituals to cope with multiple personal traumas, I also began to encourage other people to move with me. One of the first women I encouraged was my friend Gloria. For a time, we shared walks.
Frankly, it took me too long to realize how Gloria’s experience and our friendship related to the multiple im/mobilities that I study, ranging from violence imposed by international borders and immigration exclusions on Central American refugees to the violently enforced boundaries between territories of competing Salvadoran street gangs and subsequent urban fragmentation. I had come to El Salvador, in part, due to its infamy for violence. Eventually, however, I began to see how everyday marginalizations had become engraved in Gloria’s diabetic body. Her life had become subtly entangled with the more sensationalist public violence of gangs and police that had been escalating in the last decade. Menjivar (2011) and Hume (2009) have examined the complex gendered interplay between structural violence, legal impunity, public and private violence in Guatemala and El Salvador respectively. But when Gloria and I strolled along the coast, sharing stories of bygone youth, I had not yet come to embrace a ‘trauma-informed research’ that recognized my own life ruptures, the ruptures in the lives of others caused by my presence and my (unintended) complicities with power, and how research itself might be a mutual healing practice. In the Salvadoran context, Markowitz (2021) argues that fieldwork researchers can learn from ‘helping professionals’ such as therapists and human rights advocates, and this chapter takes up this dialogue.
While in El Salvador, I kept a respectful countenance, volunteering in a rural Catholic convent and conducting interviews about the violence that people experienced during their northbound journeys to the United States (Brigden 2019). But with Gloria, I relaxed. When I told a dirty joke, Gloria’s cheeks would dimple with a conspiratorial smile, and she shook her hand at the wrist to say that I was naughty. We often met in the shade at the side of the road, where I would buy a Coke Zero for the long, hot bus ride to work. For a time, Gloria kept a small snack stand at the fork in the highway, where the road turned upwards away from the beach and toward the small town where I had been conducting fieldwork. Across the street at the bus stop leading up the hill, another aproned woman kept a cart that sold greasy sandwiches under a worn umbrella, and they eyed one another, like gladiators across a hot asphalt battleground. Eventually, Gloria closed the shop in fear, when gang members began to demand gum, cigarettes and money. She retreated behind the wall of her home, where her family took a loan to build a modest hostel for the surf tourists that visit the coasts of El Salvador. Her husband was well-respected, and she successfully raised three dutiful boys, all in their teens and still studying when we first met. The lone sandwich woman across the street, the woman I was never destined to be friends with, held her ground.
Despite the perpetual mischief in her eyes, Gloria suffered deeply. The loan for the hostel renovations cast a shadow over her sense of security. The sores on her swollen ankles betrayed a chronic and uncontrolled diabetic condition. Her feet often bloated uncomfortably with excess fluids, causing pain while standing; but in rural El Salvador, it’s expected that middle-aged women develop “sugar in the blood.” As Wendell (1996, p.17) explains, across the globe, “disability in women often goes unrecognized… because of the expectation that women need only be able to function well enough to perform household duties.” Gloria performed her duties without complaint. More than once, I wondered if anyone noticed. Indeed, I often marveled at her unmatched sharp wit in the home, but even more so, I marveled at the fact that both her husband and her sons seemed oblivious to how she outmatched them. Whatever the reason for neglect, doctors did little to make Gloria’s life comfortable, her family treated her plight as unremarkable, and her neighbors seemed to do everything in their power to make her life uncomfortable. When we began a morning ritual of taking walks together, her neighbors transformed our friendship into another source of pain for Gloria. We walked alone along stretches of rocky beach, and Gloria remembered her youthful days of athleticism, when she would run shoeless along the sand and climb rocks and swim in the sea. One day, as we walked by the row of restaurants along the now-fashionable beach, a woman called out to her, “I don’t know why you bother, Gloria! You will never be thin like her! You are fat!”13 Gloria was not surprised by the verbal assault and merely acknowledged that to leave the confines of her home meant to be vulnerable to this abuse. My own ‘fit’ body had been weaponized against hers. While she made no announcement, it was our last walk together.
After a long absence, I returned for a visit to the beach in El Salvador to rekindle old friendships. However, Gloria seemed distant. I invited her out for a girls’ night, and she accepted, but after several failed attempts to collect her for the festivities, her son explained that she was no longer allowed. Who disallowed it or whether Gloria simply no longer enjoyed my company remains unclear to me. Her son claimed she was on some heavy cocktail of antidepressant medications, and she no longer left her house. Gloria had retreated deeper behind the walls. It was the beginning of my awareness of how gendered micro-violences, embedded in diverse processes ranging from gang extortion to debt obligations to gossip to the medicalization of despair to subtle patriarchal devaluations within the home, constrain our mobility as importantly as territorial borders. As I remembered the insults shouted by Gloria’s neighbor, I also became aware of how my own white, petite, athletic body had become unwittingly implicated in boundary-making processes. I began to look for ways that my body and research could become instruments for collective healing, rather than harm.
The Bodies We Share
At the time, I could not see the true weight that Gloria carried. My own lifelong struggles with body image might be a natural starting place for research on a shared experience mediated by racial, class, ableist, and gender inequalities. These inequalities give meaning to the weight we carry on our body, though they are also often obscured by fat stigma and the blame-the-victim narratives so familiar in other forms of gendered violence. A rich interdisciplinary literature explores gendered body image, shaming and fat phobias in the Global North (Bordo 1993; Boer 2013; Dworkin and Wachs 2009; Ferrell 2011). In that context, Strings (2019) convincingly traces the racist origins of Western beauty norms that prize thinness. Despite widespread anxieties about a “global obesity epidemic,” the transnational medicalization of obesity and increasing fat shaming worldwide (Brewis and Wutich 2019), few scholars have looked at how people experience these shifting corporeal constructions in daily life in countries less-known for abundance (See Yates-Doerr 2015 for a notable and exemplary exception). As I reflected on how my own body has been weaponized and complicit in power relations in El Salvador, it became clear that white supremacy and the global apartheid system shapes body image and the meaning of fat in the Global South too.
The covid-19 pandemic laid the relation between health vulnerability and socio-economic inequalities bear around the world, making visible the deep cleavages within societies. Related to these vulnerabilities, a slow-moving crisis of diabetes has been sweeping the globe, devastating low-income communities in particular. Thus, the global problem of hunger has become a more complex problem of nutrition, shielded from outrage by fat stigma and its fictions. While news cameras chase the yellow police tape that cordons off crime scenes and sensationalist stories of homicide, more Salvadoran women die each year from diabetes than bullets. Their deaths, while not intentional homicides, occur systematically and predictably in a country where Coca-Cola can sometimes be more accessible than clean water and sugar plantations have long been a national mainstay. Much like the direct violence of the civil war and the subsequent street war, the twin public health crisis of poverty and diabetes must come to a reckoning with the neocolonial politics that structure them (see Moran-Thomas 2019 on Belize).
The global diabetes epidemic hit El Salvador at the same historical moment that the country experienced a massive cultural shift. While transnational migration played a role in this social transformation, so has the dramatic and rapid diffusion of cell phone communications and social media technologies. As a consequence, a shared transnational imaginary emerged, and its messages and imagery often constitute a symbolic violence, devaluing bodies that do not conform to beauty standards embedded in existing, racial, class and gender hierarchies. Suddenly, the ‘body panic’ (Dworkin and Wachs 2009) and fat stigma of the Global North descended upon this corner of the Global South with renewed force. In turn, a pervasive fear of violence and economic precarity produced by neoliberal policies produce sedentary lifestyles, limiting fitness opportunity. In this way, people feel a double burden of blame, caught between unrealistic, ableist body imagery and the political reality of contemporary El Salvador situated at the margins of a global political economy. This is the reality that heckled Gloria on our walks together.
An encounter from many years ago illustrates how fat stigma conceals global socio-economic injustice. On a bus ride from the coast to the capital city, I met a woman returning home after over thirty years living in Brooklyn. She was the proud mother of a US Marine, who owned a California home. Another son had a wife and children in New Jersey, and yet another attended graduate school. She was rightly proud of how far her family had come, raised on her seamstress salary: an American success story. She also told me how far her little homeland had also come, because she believed there is no longer poverty in El Salvador. She explained it to me in English, occasionally interspersed with Spanish; “The campesinos have plenty of food. The government helps them. There are schools. But they are lazy and spend money unwisely. I see them buying bottles of soda. Many of them are fat!” I argued gently with her, but she remained adamant that “People have plenty to eat. It is not like Africa where people starve.” For her, only the image of bodies in a famine constituted the deserving poor. In her view, the fat campesino had enough to eat and made unwise purchases, like soda, becoming responsible for their own poverty. A few minutes later, as she talked about her own expenses, she complained about how expensive food had become in El Salvador. “You can only eat pupusas cheaply! The saying is that pupusas are a gift from God, but everything is expensive here (except pupusas).” A moment after that she explained that at least you can own a home here, you can live on next to nothing, in comparison to expensive New York. From this perspective, the fat pupusa-eating poor seemed far removed from her own struggles in an expensive faraway land where she was forced to fend for herself. Her experience of mistreatment as an immigrant in the US and her resilience in coping that adversity seemed to have driven a wedge between her and the poor of her homeland, and in our conversation, their alleged obesity represented a visible embodiment of that barrier.
In many similar conversations, women made sense of economic inequality and their position in the global hierarchy by referencing gendered, racialized and class-based body imagery. On the one hand, to have perceptible body fat can be a sign of status and abundance, distancing people from so-called “real poverty.” Fat can be a term of endearment in El Salvador, not necessarily an insult. In Central America, more generally, body commentary often does not imply the same judgment as it does in the United States, allowing for more matter-of-fact observations or descriptions of shape, color or size unladen by emotion; even if people fear ‘obesity’ as medical category, fat can be beautiful (Yates-Doerr 2015, p.181). Indeed, my own athletic build is far from the stereotypical ideal. On the other hand, fat sometimes serves as an indicator of poor choices, and the images of a large female body can be evoked to set individual blame for poverty, viewed as self-imposed. Thus, even while ‘skinny’ evokes hunger, fat stigma sometimes evokes irresponsibility, transgression, and ignorance. No matter what body women inhabit, they become caught between injurious corporeal discourses of blame and loathing (Bordo 1993). When I asked a local personal trainer about the ideal female body, he dryly replied that Salvadoran men “are enchanted by whatever woman; here they have a fat wife and a very fit lover.” This attitude is not necessarily body acceptance or a worship of shapely curves or diversity of forms, but instead a devaluation of women as expendable appendages to men: a different female body to suit every male need. In this sense, the pressures confronting Salvadoran women mirror the pressures that women confront in the United States and elsewhere within the contradictions of a global, capitalist beauty-industry. As explained to me by a group of young women, fat women frequently hear insults from other women about their body size in the street, and women who lose weight, thereby complying with the collective criticism, often hear loud accusations of bulimia or anorexia; regardless of body type, she is likely to receive reproach from women and catcalls from men. Thus, these practices and norms are contested and complex. Nevertheless, they are disciplining and boundary-making, defining acceptable roles and spaces for gendered bodies. Indeed, body images are fundamental to how we build relationships with other bodies, or how we do not.
Experiences of trauma, fat stigmatization, and the medicalization of obesity are closely linked (Gay 2017; Morgan 2020; Palmisano et al. 2016;). Irena’s story highlights how our bodies refract and inhabit this symbolic violence. I stayed in Irena’s home while conducting research in Intipuca, El Salvador in 2010. She was the owner of a pupusa and hamburger stand, and her son had enrolled in school to become a chef. Despite the pride that she and her son both took in their exquisite cooking abilities, her relationship to food had become fraught with anxiety, tied inexorably to a complex configuration of stressors, both past and present. The requirements of standing on her feet all day had pushed her knees into a painful refusal, and her mobility was now bound to a cane and short distances. As she talked about her struggle with her appetite and her body weight, other stories emerged: of debt and economic dislocation, her husband’s physical abuse and gambling addiction, the loss of her parents to migration and then their premature death, the fragmentation of her relationships with siblings, cruelty suffered by her beloved nephew with down syndrome, mental illness and her daughter’s sexual promiscuity, spiteful gossip by neighbors which destroyed her reputation, and ultimately finding fear of Satan and solace in God. She began to eat as a form of self-harm. In desperation and loss, she had seriously considered killing herself and poisoning her two children, but God forgives. As she framed these stories, she often juxtaposed my lithe body with hers, reminding me of how fortunate I am by complimenting how thin I remain despite gobbling down multiple servings of her deliciously prepared food. Our different body shapes seemed to contain our divergent fates, and the frequent comparisons, often with an undertone of self-loathing which I hear often from other women on my travels, made me entirely uneasy. However, in moments of greater levity than our meals, Irena and I would attempt to Zumba together in front of her television, laughing at our shared ineptitude in the dance routines.
Bodies and Worlds Drifting Apart
Unlike those difficult meals with Irena, Fatima and I had an easy coffee, catching up after my pandemic-imposed absence from El Salvador. As we talked about Fatima’s own fitness habits, our conversation veered to why Fatima quit her primary athletic hobby. She quit running after a man assaulted her during a morning jog. In what constitutes a mundane occurrence, he had slapped her hard on the ass as he rode by on a bicycle, and she had cried tears of anger and frustration. In contrast to Fatima’s experience, joggers routinely circle the US embassy compound, finding a sense of security under its surveillance. Disciplining practices associated with class and gender, refracted in this instance through the geopolitical presence of a neo-imperial outpost within an urban landscape, shape our access to fitness. So, I asked Fatima about these women, often scantily clad in sports bras and Lycra that would attract an obscene amount of attention in working class neighborhoods. Fatima’s explanation of the relative safety for jogging in the rich areas near the embassy seamlessly strayed into talking about the pandemic quarantine’s limits on working class mobility. She pointed out that the quarantine had been strictly enforced where she lived in Zacamil, as soldiers and police descended on the neighborhood to whisk violators away to concentration centers, but she imagined a similar siege did not occur in wealthy parts of the city.
In response, I asked about the impact of the quarantine on the working-class women that Fatima works with through a nonprofit outreach. She explained that incapable of selling in the streets and carrying their goods over their head to market, the women had no physical activity at all. Under four months of stay-at-home, the women also experienced terrible food insecurity, relying exclusively on the inadequate nutritional supplies donated by the government. In a moment of levity, Fatima laughed remembering what her teammate Maria told the women after seeing them again, concerned about donors’ willingness to give charity, “… nobody is going to believe that they are in poverty, because they aren’t undernourished… they are just malnourished. Because all of them were fatties. All! But it was because of this… because the food [insecurity].” While our conversation was lighthearted and Maria’s comments were meant to be a gentle ribbing among friends all sharing the same struggle with their weight, a bit of dry camaraderie, I wondered aloud what suffering simmered underneath the good humor. I asked Fatima if she thought they felt good about their bodies. The answer was an unequivocal “no”. All of the women reported the worsening of various health conditions, and two of them needed emergency funds for x-rays due to debilitating back pain.
Indeed, the covid-19 quarantine had a deleterious impact on the wellbeing of working-class urban women in El Salvador, compounding preexisting trauma and illnesses. In this moment, interpersonal and familial violence at home also intensified dramatically. Thus, Federici’s (2020, p55) writing seems prophetic, “Beside the danger of medical speculation and malpractice, there is the further concern that body remakes remain individual solutions and add to the process of social stratification and exclusion as the ‘care of the body’ requires more money, time and access to services and resources than the majority can afford… While some bodies are becoming more fit, more perfect, the number of those who can hardly move because of excess weight, illness and poor nutrition is growing. Bodies and worlds are drifting apart.” When I shared these thoughts with a group of working-class women, they immediately connected their fitness challenges to a context of State impunity, endemic intimate partner violence, and gang and police predation. To understand their analysis of these connections at a deeper level, as well as respond to their immediate needs, I am developing research to grow our worlds back together by healing our relationship with our bodies.
Research as Healing
To conduct this work, we formed a nascent research partnership between a non-profit that I founded, called Pesas y Poder, and a women’s empowerment non-profit in El Salvador, called Programa Velasco. As a team, we ask Salvadoran women how they feel, think, move, describe, and see their bodies before, during and after a series of movement workshops. We analyze how body and identity respond to structural violence and everyday trauma, tracing the relationship between our gendered sense of corporeal Self and the inequities of urban life. The physical containment of the quarantine multiplied and threw in stark relief these inequities. By simultaneously exploring how violence is worn in the body and also promoting empathy for our own bodies and those of others, it is trauma-informed research.
The danger of this research lies in its potential to reinforce corporeal discipline and fat stigma, rather than become a liberatory practice. Whether conducting research in El Salvador or the United States, participants bring their own purpose to these projects, often informed by preconceived ideas about the health value of weight-loss and mainstream notions of feminine beauty. As women, we carry our trauma in our movements, posture and breathing patterns, as well as our motivation. Participants may enter the program, not primarily to explore the embodiment of their trauma or resist power structures, but instead to achieve aesthetic goals; this mismatch of aims signals a fundamental tension between the goals of body acceptance and body transformation, which may be difficult to reconcile in activities coded as ‘fitness’ or a space recognized as a ‘gym’. By encouraging physical practice, the research could become an additional source of shaming for nonconforming bodies. This danger is compounded by my own leadership, as a foreign, white, athletic, cis-presenting woman. To navigate this danger, women will engage in a feminist collaboration to design an embodied empowerment program for others in similar situations. This design self-consciously harnesses empathy and our own body intuitions to strive toward solidarity. Grounded in participatory action research (PAR), this work builds on interdisciplinary literatures from fat studies, recent innovations in trauma-informed yoga and weightlifting, and feminist methodologies, which together suggest the importance of somatic approaches to both research and healing.14
The concept of trauma provides a focal point for grounded exploration of the complex co-construction and socio-spatial interweaving (“intercorporeality”) of body, mind and lived environ to which feminist scholars of embodiment have long called our attention (e.g. Grosz 1994; Price and Shildrick 1999; Young 2005; Weiss 1999). The body carries our oppression in its neurological system, physical mannerisms, and patterns of social interaction, sometimes passed down over generations in a community (Haines 2019; Menakem 2017). This trauma can be deeply internalized, held subconsciously in muscle memory rather than surfacing in narrative-form (Van der Kolk 2014). By definition, trauma ruptures the Self, undermining a sense of autonomy and security (Herman 1992). In the aftermath of this rupture, survivors often experience emotional and sensory dissociations that preclude possibilities of trust, both in their own body and in other people (Herman 1992). Prolonged adversity can rewire the human body, altering its hormonal signaling and internal messaging with epigenetic impact (Harris 2018). The mechanisms underpinning these responses are simultaneously biological, cultural and psychological.
Within this integrated mind/body approach to understanding the impact of violence, research workshops use bodywork, including strength training and calisthenics, to break cognitive scripts and pose new questions for participants. Guided physical activities and community building exercises can literally move us beyond narrative and into touch, posture, spatial awareness, balance, and breathing to challenge ingrained modes of Being in the body. In the process, we make discoveries about our experience of violence, how it shapes our body, our patterns of movement, and our relation with others. We become physically grounded. As a collective, we will also explore the double entendre of words like resistance, power, mobility and performance, which carry meaning in both athletic and political worlds. In addition to these group exercises, in the privacy of their own home, a small cohort of women will be asked to perform gentle strengthening movements, provided in a video format. Then, at the offices of the local nonprofit, they will privately report changes in their sensations, attitudes, perception and understanding of their body and the bodies of others over time at a listening kiosk station. The women will also provide feedback to design actionable plans for self-care for other women in their social setting, and we will ask women to draw connections between their exercises and their usual work and household tasks, encouraging them to identify hidden forms of athleticism in their daily lives. Ultimately, participants will be offered the opportunity to critique the program, altering the design to facilitate discoveries for future cohorts.
The research aims of this initial project, which is still in the preparation phase, are: 1) To describe the experience of quarantine for urban Salvadoran women; 2) To understand the relationship between this experience and intersecting oppressions of class and gender that structure their daily lives; 3) To design an embodied empowerment program specific to the cultural understandings, needs, resources available to them during and after the covid-19 crisis; 4) To understand when and how gentle, daily movement can change sensations, attitudes, perceptions, and narratives of the Self and others, thereby creating opportunities for resilience and resistance to structural violence. This research self-consciously blurs the boundary between research and healing. Strength-training fosters resilience, increases a sense of agency, practices healthy nervous system responses, and facilitates positive relational connections to Self and others (Whitworth et al, 2017; 2019). High intensity and functional movements may offer special benefits for coping with trauma (Mastrorillo 2021). A key step for trauma survivors is the reestablishment of a sense of autonomy and control, followed by social reconnection and recognition of our mutual interdependence (Herman 1992). Encouraging survivors to take ownership of research and program development fosters this recentering of Self. Encouraging survivors to create community in that process, building empathy for how others inhabit their own bodies, fosters the recentering of solidarity. Thus, I hope to practice ‘trauma-informed research methods’ to explore how spectacular and mundane violence(s) intersect within our bodies.
Trauma provides a conceptual tool for locating struggle and social fragmentation in the body. Following Wendell (1996) and an ethics developed by feminist scholars of disability, this project emphasizes the quest to live within our bodies’ limitations, rather than transform its shape, eliminate weakness, or transcend suffering. In that sense, athletic performances and fitness rituals can serve an unconventional purpose; the goal is an awareness of the intersectional oppressions that shape the body. We thereby encourage self-compassion and collective confrontation of those injustices. As Federici explains, “our struggle then must begin with a reappropriation of our body, the revaluation and rediscovery of its capacity for resistance, and expansion and celebration of its powers, individual and collective.” To celebrate these powers, we also need to embrace our bodily imperfections and pain, experiencing and contextualizing our corporeal limits (Wendell 1996). Answering this call for embodied discernment, research becomes healing and care-work. In this way, the convergence of feminist theories of the body and somatic-healing practices promises a timely intervention upon both our knowledge and experience of multiple, intersecting gendered violences.
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