2004_11_eveenslerlg.jpgEve Ensler, author of the play/media sensation The Vagina Monologues, used to worry about vaginas, her own and everyone else's, but after she hit 40, her worry moved a little higher—to her stomach. She obsessed about her weight just as much, if not more, than any fashion model, and tried just about everything to make her stomach smaller, flatter, thinner—in a word, good. Her latest play, The Good Body (also available as a book just published by Random House) opened Monday at the Booth Theater, and chronicles her journey through the oft-trod territory of body hatred to body acceptance, with visits along the way to Cosmopolitan founder Helen Gurley Brown, actress Isabella Rossellini, a fat camp, a vulva laser rejuvenation center, and around the world to places such as Kabul, Italy, India, Brazil and Africa. In the process, Ensler also reveals her family's treatment of weight, her partner's food obsessions and feelings about her body, and her own inner torment about how to be good.

Ensler, who founded the anti-violence V-Day organization, hasn't left her activist roots behind, and is eager to highlight Love Your Tree, the space whose name comes from a line in the play where an African woman tells her to "love your tree," aka, her body. The space, held at ABC Home and Carpet, will feature speakers including noted eating disorder expert Geneen Roth, Naomi Wolf, Nina Utne, Dr. Christiane Northrup, Rossellini, and others, and is free and open to the public. Ensler took time out of a clearly busy day, as she prepared for her show and the opening of Love Your Tree, to discuss body image, political activism, and the process of valuing one's self-worth.

How long did you work on this play, and how did it evolve? Was it always based on your own experience?
It was always based on my own experience. I worked on it for three and a half years, and it evolved out of my own not-so-flat post-40 stomach.

Were you thinking about these issues your whole life?
No, I was disconnected from my own body, when I came back into my body, I suddenly arrived and I had body issues.

Do you ever feel pressure to be a "role model" as a feminist and a woman, to be good in a different way, as in, to not talk about hating your body? Do you think in some ways that being a feminist makes it harder to talk about our issues with our bodies?

As a feminist, you think inside yourself you should be over this stuff by now, with all the stuff you understand conceptually and politically, but often that doesn’t translate into the body. That’s a process. I found myself going into the messy world of my stomach. What is feminism? The empowerment and emancipation of women. The deeper you go into your own truth the more empowered and freed you get.

Do you consider this a "women's" play?
No, I don’t. Who said that?

I noticed when I went to see it that a lot of the audience was made up of women.
I’m actually really moved to see how many men have responded to the show. I see it as a human play.

Do you have a target audience?
No, just anyone who has a body.

You've traveled all over the world and you detail stories from both your own life in New York and those of women you've met in various countries grappling with similar issues, but I'm curious if you think New Yorkers have it worse. Is there more pressure here, not only to look good, but to be successful on top of that?
No, I think women in general, once you’ve been shot up with the American dream at some point in your early beginnings, it’s shot into you. I think although in New York it may be slightly different-in some cultures it’s fashion, in some cultures it’s weight, in some cultures it’s the car you drive, it doesn’t matter in America. I think all women in this country feel compelled to be good. The capitalist tyranny exists everywhere in this country.

You open the play talking about what it means to be "good" and how for women, this means having a "good body," and certainly, little girls are still encouraged to be "good," but is there anything we can retain from the concept of goodness, like being morally "good?"
I think that for me "good" now isn’t the exclusion of our shadow self, it’s not where we’re perfect, thin, quiet, nonexistent. I think it involves embracing our shadow self and making a choice as a result of that to do good, to serve, to be kind, to be generous, to be empathetic, to be compassionate. I think sexuality is a part of our goodness, outrage is a part of our goodness, humor is a part of our goodness, sorrow is a part of our goodness, grief is a part of our goodness, our fear of death and how we struggle with it is a part of our goodness. I think this very, very narrow definiton that’s evolving in this theocratic country we’re living in, with this good/evil syndrome, undermines, marginalizes and disempowers women and gives them only one monotheic idea of good which involves the disappeareance in some way of some aspect of themselves.

Is this an all or nothing issue or can we be okay with our bodies some days, and not okay other days?
It’s a process, it’s a step by step process.

How are body image issues connected to a larger vision of political activism? In large part it seems like eating disorders and body obsession turns one's mind inwards, and that becomes the sole obsession.
I think with Love Your Tree what is clear is that in a culture where women and men are completely self-absorbed and self-mutilating and self-fixing, they’re unable to participate in the culture at large. Consumer culture has gotten people to completely consume in order to fix ourselves. If women would stop that they’d be able to serve the world in a bigger way and lead the world and see their role in the world. It’s gotten women very distracted and focused on one little country called their body while they’re missing the rest of the world.

Not to mention that the desecration of women’s bodies is very comparable to the desecration of the earth and the fundamental belief that something’s wrong with them. We take things from women’s bodies and the earth without giving anything back; we live in a world of women essentially raped and battered, and all those things are connected.

Do you think that loving our bodies, or our trees, as you put it, has to come from within first?
I think it’s both. You have to make a decision that that’s what you want, you don’t want to be stuck forever on this capitalist treadmill and you don’t buy it and don’t believe it. Part of it is developing enough strength and muscle to say no. And then I think it involves doing things for other people. The greatest antidote to self-hatred has been finding ways to serve other people.

Can you elaborate on that?
If I show up, for example, for women in Afghanistan, it’s hard to really care about my stomach, isn’t it? It becomes kindof irrelevant. I find meaning in what I’m doing and significance in my life and I see myself framed in a whole new way. It’s hard to hate my stomach as much.

Because there’s meaning in my life. The thing the African woman says to me in the play - she says, "You’ve gotta look up, you’ve gotta look out." When you’re participating in the world, you see your own power, you see your own strength you see your own meaning. You begin to reidentify your whole sense of yourself, including your own body.

Part of that is reconceiving what you think beauty and good are. For me, when I look at my stomach, it's my messy uncontrollable place. It’s the part of me that’s found a way to survive through all the stuff I’ve had to survive. It’s not perfect, it’s not respectable in that sense, it’s not gonna make everybody comfortable.

You're launching the Love Your Tree space at ABC Home and Carpet. How did this idea come about?
We had so many calls and emails after the play opened in San Francisco, and people were asking us what to do next. We wanted a living vision and installation where women could come to communicate, network, and heal. The speakers range from Carol Gilligan to Naomi Wolf to Isabella Rossellini. I'm very excited to be focusing on this issue and looking at the political psychological, and spiritual implications.

What advice would you give to a woman currently suffering from an eating disorder?
Come to the space. Phil Reynolds, the curator, specializes in working with women with eating disorders. There are people who are there addressing that issue and looking at it.

The Good Body can be seen at the Booth Theater through January 16. The Love Your Tree space is located inside ABC Home & Carpet, 888 Broadway, and runs from today through January 16th. Visit the Love Your Tree website for their schedule and list of speakers. For more information about The V-Day organization, click here.

Interview by Rachel Kramer Bussel