It happened, and she’s not proud of it.
Several years ago, when feminist activist Eve Ensler looked at her body, specifically her midlife enlarging belly, she became unhinged. Obsessed. "I know all the rational reasons why it shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. I became obsessed with the obsession itself, and put so much energy and the agony into this part of my body that I hated," saus Ensler, 52.
What a fix for a feminist. But in Ensler’s case, the anxiety turned into something quite constructive, even affirming: a play and now a book called "The Good Body," which is on its way to becoming an international phenomenon, just as Ensler’s "The Vagina Monologues" did.
"The Good Body" debuted on Broadway in October, 2004, and comes to Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center for a limited run through Sunday, October 16, with the playwright as the star.
So why this play? Why now?
In a phone interview on her way to an event at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York, a women’s prison where Ensler has been leading a writing group since 1998, the playwright/author reflected on her life, past and present.
Born in 1953 to upper middle class parents in Westchester, New York – her father was a corporate executive, her mother a homemaker – one of Ensler’s strongest memories is of two strikingly attractive people. "My mother honestly looked like Doris Day, my dad looked like Cary Grant, so looks were not taken lightly in our family. There was definitely an emphasis on ‘good bodies,’" she says, deliberately invoking her new play’s title.
At Middlebury College in Vermont, Eve Ensler majored in English and graduated in the class of 1975. Her politics were being formulated in the aftermath of the 1960s social foment.
Writing came easily and naturally, yet her groundbreaking play, "The Vagina Monologues" and its instant success were still somewhat shocking to Ensler. She originally performed the piece herself as a one-woman show based on her interviews with over 200 women about their associations with their vaginas -not an easy conversation to start, acknowledged Ensler, but ultimately enormously rich and revealing. Over time, celebrities began to step forward to perform monologues in the work, from Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg to Jane Fonda.
In 1997 Ensler started V-Day, a crusade designed to highlight violence against women and to raise not just consciousness but funds to fight that battle. To date, more than $25 million has been raised for the cause, and the "Vagina Monologues" has been seen around the world.
"The last years of my life have been a huge shock. I’m still getting my bearings, and the ball just keeps on rolling. It’s wonderful and it’s exhausting and it’s exciting," says Ensler.
And now "The Good Body" is creating its own sensation. "In many ways, this play is far more personal for me than the ‘Monologues,’ which essentially told the stories of others and their issues. This time, I’m also telling the world my own story," says Ensler, who has received a Guggenheim fellowship and an Amnesty International Award for her crusading work on behalf of women. Ensler who lives in New York City, is divorced and the mother of an adopted grown son, Dylan McDermott ("The Practice"). "Women are crazed. We’re tyrannized by ourselves and it starts when we’re too young to understand what’s going on," said Ensler, who for "The Good Body" interviewed girls of seven or eight who lamented being too fat.
As she traveled the world listening in as women talked about their bodies, Ensler was horrified. Even women generally acknowledged to be beautiful by society’s standards had deep insecurities about their bodies. "And I realized that if they stopped worrying about fixing themselves, they might just fix the world."
Furious at what she calls "the images and ideas thrust upon us," the title of her play is a decidedly ironic one. "’Good’ in females is when you behave, when you’re quiet, thin, and basically non-existent," says the playwright. "’Good’ means being flat in every sense of that word and certainly not messy or sexual or intense. So for millions of women, good is bad."
The playwright hopes to see a ground swell similar to the one that followed "The Vagina Monologues," where ending violence against women was the clarion call. This time she hopes that some sane thinking, talking, and consensus about letting go of the heartbreaking obsession with our bodies will result from the play. "In so many ways, the body is what it is. There’s only so much you can do to change it and tone it, but it’s your body. You’d better accept it."
And the personal, suggests Ensler, is definitely political. "If we’re always fixing ourselves, or worrying about fixing ourselves, then we’re missing out on the rest of life and the world. We’re enslaved."
The rare places where Ensler found women who weren’t obsessed with their bodies were in very poor, undeveloped, non-urban areas where women worked on the land with their bodies as allies. "Trust me, starving women in Afghanistan are not focused on their stomachs!" Alternativly, in most developed countries, the playwright found women "completely self-absorbed, self-fixing, and focused on one little country called the body."
In "The Good Body" Ensler tackles everything from Botox to fat camps. Ensler herself has come a long way since she began writing in a journal about her expanding belly and how she hated it. When her show debuted in San Francisco, her director suggested that instead of just talking about her stomach, she needed to show it. "So after being positive I could never ever do that, I stood on that stage and lifted my blouse. And my stomach got huge applause," says Ensler. "That’s when I knew that my journey had taken me to a far better place."
"The Good Body," through Sunday, October 16, the Annenberg’s Zellerbach Theater, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. $35-$50. 215-898-3900.