Ensler, the woman who transformed the vagina from a hushed "down there" into a marquee word that tumbles from the mouths of the highest-profile celebrities, has come to accept her private parts. But it was with some horror, she says, that she looked down at her "not-so-flat, post-40s stomach," and realized her self-hatred had simply crept upward.
Thus was born The Good Body, Ensler's new play about her own navel-gazing and the extreme efforts women make to shrink, starve, cover and fix their smallest imperfections. Her message? Learn to love your body, then get on with the bigger business of life.
"I want women to be free," she says. "I want us to get up in the morning and go, 'Oh my God, I've got a body, what a miracle!' "
For her one-woman show on Broadway, Ensler interviewed hundreds of women on several continents, visiting an American "fat camp," a Brazilian plastic surgery clinic, Weight Watchers meetings and gyms from Italy to India. Everywhere she went, she found women trying to fix themselves.
One of the people she interviewed was actress and model Isabella Rossellini. Ensler speaks of a recent day when Rossellini came to see the play. Ensler told her, "I can't believe I've been a feminist this many years and I still think this way." Rossellini responded: "'You? I'm the most beautiful woman in the world and I still hate my stomach."'
"So to me," Ensler says, "that kind of sums it up."
She says women everywhere have learned to see themselves as something that needs to be fixed. "Between the combination of Judeo-Christian religious 'be good be good be good' and capitalist 'something's wrong with you, buy this' and the parental upbringing, which is 'you're wrong, you're not thin enough you're not smart enough . . .' I mean, hello! We don't have a shot."
Sitting cross-legged in her dressing room at the Booth Theatre and eating a tofu salad with chopsticks, Ensler's passion for her cause is clear. She waves her bangled arm for emphasis and frequently uses "hello!" as a verbal exclamation point. That's because she sees her message as about more than just self-acceptance - it's about empowering women and changing the world.
"I think our preoccupation and the distraction of fixing ourselves is keeping us away from really focusing on the substantial issues at hand," she says. "I think that when enough women come into their power and come into their voice, everything's going to shift. I do. I really do."
From another mouth, that might sound preachy. But Ensler wraps her message in a thick blanket of humour. She is bawdy, frank and frequently hilarious.
Ensler adopts many personas in The Good Body. As an overweight teenager, she complains that plus sizes are kept in the back "like porn." As a Botox-injected 40-something, she cracks, "My face is numb but I'm insane in here." As Cosmopolitan magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown, she brags, "I'm down to 90 pounds. Another 10 years, I'll be down to nothing." "There's a strong political and social theme running through this play, but what's nice about it is it's also very funny," says director Peter Askin.
Ensler credits Askin with helping her transform her performance. For The Vagina Monologues, she simply read from a stool. In The Good Body, she does dozens of sit-ups, dashes across the stage and even throws in some dance numbers. "We initially thought, 'Well maybe I'll get off the stool,"' she says. "I feel like it's a musical now."
Ensler, 51, smiles often and laughs easily. As an activist for nearly 30 years, she has discovered that hitting people over the head with a message usually turns them off. "Humour often works. It seems to get people in a different way." Her cause remains a serious one: ending violence against women. Ensler was raped and abused by her father as a child and spent years struggling with drug addiction and self-destruction.
"Most of my early years were about just trying to not do myself in," she says. "So I used to have this deal that I said if I get through and I don't do this . . . I'll help other people." Writing helped her turn a corner in her life, and eventually start a global phenomenon. The Vagina Monologues, which started off-Broadway a decade ago, has been translated into 35 languages and been performed by such stars as Glenn Close, Oprah Winfrey and Winona Ryder.
A benefit performance of the play seven years ago kicked off Ensler's charity, V-Day. It has since raised more than $26 million US for shelters for battered women, rape hot lines, safe houses in Africa to protect women from genital mutilation and other causes for women's issues. Last year, there were 2,300 performances of the play on Valentine's Day.
V-Day's original goal was to eradicate violence against women and girls by 2005.
"We've got a lot of work to do," she says with a frustrated laugh. "Look, you know, it was a dream. We're adding a few more years. I'm not going to set any more dates, but I still believe it's possible and I still see it. I'm hoping that in 10 years we'll see such substantial difference. We've had huge victories all over the world, huge victories."
It's easy to understand her optimism as she rattles off cities where V-Day fundraisers have been held, from Africa to Europe to Asia and the Middle East. Visits to those places for V-Day helped inspire The Good Body, and the struggles of women in Africa and Afghanistan helped put her own body image in perspective.
In the play, Ensler re-creates a dialogue with a Masai tribeswoman in Africa who compares women's bodies to trees. "Do you say that tree isn't pretty 'cause it doesn't look like that tree? We're all trees. You're a tree. I'm a tree. You've got to love your body, Eve. You've got to love your tree." Eve Ensler, author of Vagina Monologues, takes on the rest of the body, by Lisa Tolin, AP, 26 Nov, 2004