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Body by Eve

Originally published in:
PLAYBACK:stl (St. Louis)

Brian Jarvis
“It’s what I call the heartbreaking campaign,” Ensler says, “because there is no end. We spend 40 billion a year on beauty products, and the only end is vanishing.”

There’s a saying that the odds of writing a poem that will stir the world to action are akin to dropping a flower petal down a well and waiting to hear the splash. The chances of writing a collection of monologues that will launch a global movement is hardly more auspicious. But that’s exactly what playwright Eve Ensler has done.

Anyone using the theater as a vehicle for political power walks a delicate tightrope between heavyhanded preaching and sentimental cliché, but when handled right, the effect can shift paradigms. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible attacked McCarthyism against the backdrop of the Salem witch hunt; Tony Kushner’s Angels in America tackled AIDS and homosexuality. Today, Eve Ensler’s The Good Body wages war against nearly every Western ideal of physical beauty. An ordinary play? No. But Eve Ensler is no ordinary woman.

In 1996, Ensler seemed to burst out of nowhere with her Obie-winning play, The Vagina Monologues. Recounting women’s intimate sexual experiences in their own words, the bluntly named production ran for seven years and was translated into more than 35 languages.

By Ensler’s own estimation, she has uttered the v-word close to a million times, enough for her seven-year-old granddaughter to tell friends that her “Bubbie” invented the word. “Vagina” always had an uncomfortable, scientific-sounding ring, evoking blushes in health classes and seeming to have little usage anywhere else. Indeed, when Ensler’s play premiered, radio stations refused to say vagina on the air. TV stations ran entire segments on the play without mention of the word, and newspapers danced around it with abbreviations. Part of Ensler’s aim in so naming the play was to bring the word into the mainstream.

The effort paid off. On the heels of her play’s success, Ensler was inspired to create V-Day, a worldwide effort to stop violence against women through a host of measures, ranging from registering single women to vote in the United States to establishing the first safehouse for women in Egypt. To date, V-Day has raised more than $30 million. In 2005 alone, there were more than 2,500 V-Day events.

The V stands for victory, valentine, and, of course, vagina. Few women can claim an international campaign that took root from an obsession with private parts. But again, there is nothing ordinary about Eve Ensler.

“In the midst of a war on Iraq, a time of torture camps and daily bombings, when civil liberties are disappearing faster than the ozone layer, when one out of three women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime, why write a book about my stomach?”

So begins Eve Ensler’s latest collection of monologues, The Good Body.
To describe it as mere monologue, however, or as a segue to the next bodily target of self-hatred does the playwright a disservice. The Good Body is the product of more than 200 interviews with women from 50 countries, from actress Isabella Rossellini to Cosmopolitan founder Helen Gurley Brown. Ensler takes us from the Rift Valley of Africa to a vaginal laser rejuvenation center in Beverly Hills. Along the way, we meet such varied characters as a teenage girl at a fat camp and a veiled Afghan woman willing to risk imprisonment for a taste of ice cream.

The question Ensler asked each woman: So, what do you think of your stomach?
“I have the most shame around my stomach,” she says. “It feels more dangerous talking about my stomach than my vagina.”

A self-described radical feminist, Ensler remembers feeling struck by the irony: How could the author of The Vagina Monologues spend so much time obsessing about her belly? Or in Ensler’s words, her “not so flat, post-40” belly.

“What is at the core of this desire to mutilate and starve myself?” she asks. “We spend our days shrinking, fixing, lipo-ing, tightening, dying… I’ve yet to meet a woman who doesn’t do that, even if she’s pretending she’s not.”

“There’s a way women have learned to not like their bodies in every single culture. We’re all contaminated at birth. In some places you have to be fat to be the chosen bride, so you eat, eat, eat. Here, you need to disappear to be the chosen bride, so you starve, starve, starve. Somebody’s making this all up.”

At the center of Ensler’s work is the misguided notion that we’re all one body part away from perfection. If only we could get rid of that one wrinkle, graying hair, or layer of flab, then our obsession would end.

“It’s what I call the heartbreaking campaign,” Ensler says, “because there is no end. We spend 40 billion a year on beauty products, and the only end is vanishing.”

Ensler acknowledges that fighting an internal enemy—in this case, convincing women to change the way they view themselves—is not an easy struggle. “Body image is so deep and complex that the uprooting is very delicate surgery,” she says. “Ninety percent of the world is round and colored, but we’re doing everything possible to be skinny and blonde. That’s insane.”

Physically, Ensler is the antithesis of the skinny blonde archetype she rails against. Looking much younger than her 52 years, with black-framed glasses matching her bobbed, raven hair, Ensler recalls a rebellious schoolgirl—which, in a sense, she is.

Over the phone on a Tuesday morning, Ensler is modest and subdued. She rarely speaks before two in the afternoon, given the vocal cord-wrenching demand of performing eight one-woman shows a week for 25 weeks. An interview before noon—as she granted for this piece—is not her choice time slot.

“The Good Body is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I go out there and someone else comes through me.”

When she’s not performing, Ensler’s V-Day activities take up at least 12 hours a day, though she occasionally manages to fit in a yoga class. Since The Vagina Monologues, Ensler has been consumed with her work. “In the end, I’m just struggling for pieces of truth,” she says.

When Ensler addresses a crowd, however, a lioness roars from within and leaps to embrace the current events of our times—things a typical celebrity would be advised by his or her lawyers to avoid.

“The Bush administration is geared toward making us feel more secure, but I’ve never felt more insecure,” Ensler declared before a packed house at a November book festival in Miami. “As we blindly pursue that so-called goal, we become people we don’t want to be. People who torture, people who illegally invade foreign countries, take away civil liberties in our own country, and do whatever we want to the environment. All things done in the name of security.”

Ensler is working on a book entitled Insecure at Last. Security, she argues, is impossible to achieve. Instead, she offers a list of what is possible: connection, care, peace, service, and making the world a better place.

Distorted body image has reached a critical mass in the last decade. It’s not uncommon to hear middle school girls talk about their future plastic surgeries or for fourth graders to be on a diet. Certainly no statistics need to be cited to prove that a majority of women think they need to lose weight. Reality shows like The Swan spew blatant messages of inadequacy that make psychologists cringe.

The issue is not solely the domain of women, however, as Ensler is quick to point out. “Men are more tyrannized and oppressed than women,” she says. “They’re not allowed to cry. If I couldn’t cry, I wouldn’t be on this planet anymore. Crying saves my life, it’s how I process suffering.” Ensler scarcely pauses for breath. “Where does all that hardened grief and sadness go? Of course it goes into violence; where else could it possibly go? Men need space to live in their bodies, too.”

To show her commitment to men, Ensler welcomes them to her cause. This spring, she will help sponsor a workshop in New York for teenage boys to confront what it means to be a man. Featured speakers will include former NFL quarterback Don McPherson and hip-hop musician Wyclef Jean.

As for The Good Body, its success is best measured not by ticket sales (it routinely sells out), but by the individuals who approach Ensler after the show. In Miami, three women told her they were taking the money they had saved for facelifts and donating it to charity. Helen Gurley Brown has been recommending the show to all her friends.

The audience, as described by Ensler, is “anyone wanting to fix their body that’s not broken to begin with.”

Her cure: Stop fixing your body, start fixing the world.
“When women do what we’re not supposed to do,” Ensler says, “the world changes.”