In her preface to The Good Body, Eve Ensler responsibly explains her choice to write a play about her stomach when compelling world issues such as the war in Iraq or climate change need attending to. Her list of possible, and probable, reasons declares that she wrote the play precisely because women across the globe are so preoccupied with fixing their bodies that they have little energy left for activism. “I have talked with women in surgical centers in Beverly Hills; on the sensual beaches of Rio de Janeiro; in the gyms of Mumbai, New York, Moscow; in the hectic and crowded beauty salons of Istanbul, South Africa, and Rome,” Ensler writes. “Except for a rare few, the women I met loathed at least one part of their body.”
Ensler has been denounced for offering a fairly superficial and too personal lament about her own battle with beauty and feminine ideals—a play that is really, “All About Eve.” Yet, it is the writer’s candid confessions about her incessant vexing over a stubborn stomach that refuses to be Barbie-flat, and her deconstruction of the belly’s symbolic relation to what we understand as “good,” that invited me into this play.
The image-obsessed sentiments that self-destruct Eve and many of her characters invoke thoughts that invade my own mind. My (now admitted) fear of having an “imperfect” body is provoked, for example, by a recent account I heard of a man who wrote a condition into his marriage contract that his second wife remain under a certain body weight. My old boyfriend’s comment in high school also haunts me: “I love your body—it’s great, I can tell you’ll never get fat when you get old.” Here is the hegemonic nature of consumer culture: thinness, in this case, is the desired commodity—so a thin partner falsely symbolizes one’s success, one’s greatness. Believers strengthen the ideology of thinness by perpetuating it and, unknowingly, augment their own oppression when they surrender some of their psyche to the marketing message. The recipients then double as victimizers, as smug mouthpieces of misogynist beauty myths. It is becoming exhausting to filter out all of the fallacies. A proud, late-twenties po-mo feminist, I now unabashedly admit that the image-makers are getting to me too. Despite being cognizant of the cultural construction of gender and “beauty,” I am very much their victim.
In the literary world it is clearly known that “we read ourselves,” bringing our social identity to a text. If we find no reflection at all of ourselves or of the world we know, then we feel disengaged and may not continue actively reading or watching. So Ensler’s play socks me right in the gut, if you will. Part of the appeal is learning that even this radical feminist, 30 years in the field, continually labours to fend off The Beauty Complex mind-fuck. Her text is a prayer for more politicized minds. Although I now feel less alone, I’m even more terrified of the mighty misogynist beauty mill that Ensler traces globally. Its propagandistic media poisons body-image everywhere.
Ensler appreciates the vast and complex psychology that underlies “the good body.” She’s eager to problematize women’s preoccupation with beauty ideals; probing their “deadly self-hatred” or “zeal for self-mutilation.” In a responsible movement away from solely critiquing beauty ads and the fashion world, Ensler honours the multiple perspectives in her audience through monologues that heed women’s daily lives. By initiating a dialogue on the body, Ensler represents the far reaches of the discourse on having a “good” one. She introduces characters diverse in identity and experience, illustrating their relations to the culture of beauty in frank and vivid monologue. A young Latina woman describes her preoccupation with concealing her “spread,” and an African-American teen at fat camp protests against whoever let the “skinny bitches” in. Eve’s own hilarious running commentary on her treadmill mania, prayers for a parasite, and fad diets clarifies the absurdity of women tyrannizing their bodies: “Bread is Satan. I stop eating bread. This is the same as not eating food.”
Although the play has flaws, from its unsettling reference to American power (American women need to “spend more time running the world than running away from it”), its focus on able-bodied women, and its predictable celebratory conclusion, the play is too “real” to disregard, because its pertinent commentary is culturally current.
Thankfully, The Good Body resounds with the convictions of women who celebrate their bodies. A seventy-four year-old African woman offers Eve a new metaphor for her body—“love your tree”—and an Indian healer teaches Eve about the power located in her belly, “where we connect to our mothers.” The play’s pinnacle is its 1970s celebratory note, urging women to love their bodies which are by definition, “the good body.”
Cognizant of the poststructuralist call to challenge the category of “woman,” I nevertheless think my women peers periodically need a thick dose of women-centred feminism to battle the powerful misogyny that seeps into us via fashion ads created by beautymongers. Instead of whipping the body into shape, let’s train our minds to be fit for defence.
I have a woman friend who, when we meet after some time has passed, inevitably comments on my appearance, asking, “have you lost weight?” Another friend is sure to warn me that she’s gotten heavier. Too often, a beauty narrative is a subtext of these social interactions, reproducing an image consciousness that we openly rebel against. My young feminist friends will not admit it, but they’re incessantly concerned about having a good body. I hope they all read this play, and realize they already have one.