The Bodywork of Social Transformation

By Anna Mercedes

In a 2007 article, philosopher Maria Lugones quietly made a very large claim. She articulated the ways that modern colonialism violently rewrote sex and gender norms with what she called the “Colonial/Modern Gender System.” Building from other models of coloniality that theorized how modern colonialism built conceptual categories of race and gender, she described how it also constructed one normative fixed sexual orientation.

Modern colonialism enforced a singular model for how to be human, and it was at once a raced, gendered, and heterosexualized model. Its European Christian models of the patriarchal family were, in Lugones’ analysis, not just held out as ideals but as the only way to have human dignity (for more on Lugones’ analysis, see chapter two of my Interrupting a Gendered Violent Church). Thus, it’s in the cultural dissemination and imposition of the “colonial/modern gender system” that the origins not only of modern race categories but also of what my teen calls “comphet,” or compulsory heterosexuality, are found.

Years before I heard of Lugones’ term, I had been diving into theories of trauma. Through trauma studies, I began to see how individuals carry around the “shapes” of their trauma conditioning. Not only do people act out behavioral patterns that result from trauma—like fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning—but we also come to actually hold this conditioning as embodiment: not just as a set of actions but as a way our whole body is shaped. It can shape our musculatures and physical bodies but also the shape of our personalities.

As Resmaa Menakem has said, unhealed or unintegrated pain and trauma over time can look like personality. And he says that in a community, it can look like culture (see Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands). Retention of trauma conditioning or its “shapes” becomes so familiar and in some cases so generational that the patterns we associate with a person, group, or culture come to mistakenly be seen as their essence. Yet, when we unravel the deeper story, we begin to see that this isn’t their essence but instead a trauma shape: a trauma retention, a pattern that has become an embodiment. There is in reality much more to the person or the cultural group.

Thinking about trauma retention in light of Lugones’ colonial gender system, I began to see that many of our most familiar social identity categories can be considered trauma shapes. Our colonial/modern gender and race systems are, among other things, long-term outcomes of trauma. Race categories, binary gender, and heterosexuality are collective trauma retentions, embodiments we hold collectively as calcified survival patterns.

Gender Studies academics like me are used to saying that gender and race are social constructions rather than biological givens. But it’s a more specific claim to understand them as traumatic social constructions. This specificity matters because it directs us to social change in a distinctly different way. If our race and gender categories are themselves a distortion of human living—if they are trauma shapes—then no DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice) initiative in an educational or work facility will function well without intentional healing work.

It isn’t only the impacts of social oppressions that need healing, for example, healing for victims of racist violence or for the racist actors themselves. Rather, we need healing at a deeper level, one of understanding ourselves as being raced to begin with and of embodying that categorization so trenchantly. The same applies to understanding ourselves as being binarily gendered and heterosexually oriented.

It isn’t just healing for victims of heterosexist violence or even healing for those who commit homophobic hate crimes that will be needed. Rather, we need healing from the identity constructs of gender and sexuality that themselves cause society-wide pain. Sometimes individuals are so accustomed to traumatic pain that they don’t perceive it anymore (“Surely,” one says, “this is just how a lower back feels! Everyone is like this. It’s normal”). So too, centuries into the outworkings of modern colonialism, the collective body no longer notices the pain of our gendered, sexed, and raced trauma shapes.

So accustomed are we to constricted embodiment that it is possible to think our work is trauma-informed yet still not get to the roots of the trauma. Our social transformation efforts may focus on racism, heterosexism, or sexism as traumatic conditions. But we may not recognize as trauma retentions the act of categorizing by race or gender binarity or the assignment of normative correctness to sexual/affectional preference (why are we categorizing people this way in the first place?).

Though many initiatives might have excellent programming about the impacts of oppression, a body doesn’t release a traumatic retention solely out of an impressive speaker or persuasive facts about how bad things are. Those may actually harden a collective trauma shape: difficult topics and statistics on oppression can double down traumatic patterns if those stats are overwhelming. They may act as triggers to individual or organizational bodies already in the fight, flight, or freeze patterns that we know as social identities.

Social transformation means new social embodiments, yet a collective body acting out of trauma shapes will keep doing so until healing presents ways for that shape to soften and shift (see Staci Haines, The Politics of Trauma). So in our social transformation work, the healing needed is not only the healing of oppressive “isms” but rather a primary healing of our over-identification with trauma shapes as our definitive social identities. Why are we categorizing ourselves in these binary ways? That’s the first place to direct our healing. Next is the violence that flows from these trauma retentions.

What would it look like? Can we ask ourselves to have options beyond these categories as fundamental ways of seeing people?  What sort of societal and individual possibilities would be accessible if we had other ways of seeing ourselves and others?

Queer life is one way that helps us imagine this. Trans-politics, nonbinary politics, and gender fluid politics point us toward an inquiry of options beyond the trauma retentions of binary gender categories. Yet even queer political movements need to get beyond understanding liberation as simply the inclusion of queer people. It needs to recognize plural life options and resistance to binary categorization as necessary bodywork for trauma patterns that confine the social body more widely.

We have, collectively, a long way to go to release our social bodies from the bracing frames long confining them. But Lugones’ insightful “colonial/modern gender system” together with trauma studies offer a key to unlocking the intractability of many deep-seated patterns of our social pain. We can practice the trauma healing of modern identity structures as essential bodywork for the social corpus.


Anna Mercedes is Professor of Theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, and adjunct faculty at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Anna is also an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a member of the Christ Seminar with Westar Institute, and the author of Power For: Feminism and Christ’s Self-Giving and Interrupting a Gendered, Violent Church.  Anna has completed STAR Level II with the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and the Advanced Training Program with the Center for Mind Body Medicine, and develops resources for groups and organizations at

Counterpoint blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 03 July 2024.”

The views and opinions expressed on this website, in its publications, and in comments made in response to the site and publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, its founders, its staff, or any agent or institution affiliated with it, nor those of the institution(s) with which the author is affiliated. Counterpoint exists to promote vigorous debate within and across knowledge systems and therefore publishes a wide variety of views and opinions in the interests of open conversation and dialogue.

Image credits: visualsofdana on unsplash








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *