Some years ago, playwright-performer Eve Ensler became mortified by her not-so-flat, post-40s belly. She starved herself, hired a trainer and watched late-night Ab-Roller infomercials. She compulsively worked the treadmill and even fantasized about contracting a parasite.
No matter that Ensler had authored the taboo-busting feminist global hit, "The Vagina Monologues." Her preoccupation with her midriff eroded her confidence and her ability to work.
"I couldn't understand how I, a radical activist, could spend this much time thinking about my stomach," she says.
Hungry for answers, she created a new solo show, "The Good Body," which dissects her angst and that of similarly obsessed women.
In the funny and brash play, Ensler recounts her dismay upon viewing svelte magazine cover girls, whom she describes as "the American dream, my personal nightmare."
She adopts the role of 11 other women, including a model made over by her plastic surgeon husband, a Puerto Rican who dreads "the spread" and a Jew who cries upon realizing she's got her mother's tuchis. Then there's legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown -- purveyor of the thin-is-sexy ideal -- whose own mother said she was plain.
"I'm down to 90 pounds," the 80-year-old character says in the play, while completing 100 sit-ups. "Another 10 years, I'll be down to nothing. But even then, I won't feel beautiful. I accept this terrible condition."
Brown's self-loathing was typical of the myriad women Ensler met while researching the play on her "Monologues" tour.
"It's given that a woman will despise at least part of her body, and increasingly deemed advisable for her to go to any lengths to correct it," she says.
Ensler blames the negative conditioning on continuing pressure from popular culture in patriarchal societies.
"What a great way to keep women out of power," she adds, sounding cheeky and earthy during a phone interview sandwiched between Miami performances. "As long as we keep focusing on fixing ourselves, we aren't going to rise up and fix the world, are we? We spend an unprecedented $40 billion a year on beauty products. But what if we used that time and money to improve life on this planet?"
Ensler, 52, certainly practices what she preaches. She has parlayed benefit performances of "Monologues" into a worldwide V-Day movement that has raised millions to end violence against women.
Critics mostly honor her intentions and her status as a feminist icon, and a number have lauded "The Good Body." But some considered its theme old news when the play debuted on Broadway last year.
"Self-help books and cultural manifestos have been decrying the country's emphasis on irrationally idealized body image and its pernicious influence on feminine self-esteem for decades," the New York Times said.
Indeed, Susan Orbach published "Fat Is a Feminist Issue" in 1978, and Naomi Wolf wrote "The Beauty Myth" in 1991.
"The show often serves as therapy rather than crusading ideology," the Philadelphia Inquirer said.
Ensler scoffs at the suggestion that "The Good Body" is lightweight or irrelevant.
"We've been talking about issues such as body image and domestic violence for as long as we can remember, and it's not like we get done," she says, annoyed. "And in an era when we have more anorexic girls than ever, and when extreme-makeover shows proliferate on TV, we clearly have far to go."
Carole Black, a V-Day activist and former CEO of Lifetime Entertainment, agrees. "I have so many friends who are heads of networks who always worry about something, [such as] flabby arms or thighs," she says. "It's amazing that we still agonize about this, because the men I know don't care."
Perhaps Ensler's approach works because it is more visceral than academic.
"The power of Eve's words turns something very personal into something very universal," said Pat Mitchell, V-Day Council chair and the president and CEO of PBS.
After listening to Ensler, even an initially skeptical Guardian reporter came around. "I felt something happen inside -- intellectual anger about beauty tyranny changed into physical rejection of it, a less sophisticated but more formidable force," she wrote. "[Ensler's] plays are transforming armchair post-feminists into activists, and radicalizing women more effectively than a whole generation of feminist theory."
Ensler traces her fixation on disenfranchised women (and her stomach) to her abuse-ridden childhood in Scarsdale, N.Y. She says her late Jewish father raped her from the ages of 5 to 10; thereafter he beat her and tormented her with food.
"He considered showing hunger to be gauche, revealing your lack of class and manners," Ensler recalls. "He said, 'Only pigs eat bread.' Our dining room table was all about not eating too much, sitting up straight, which utensils you were supposed to use.
"I spent years liberating myself from the terror of that table. In fact, I didn't have a dining room table until this year, because it was the set piece for so much anxiety."
Young Eve found respite in a "nurturing, big-busted, luscious Jewish aunt" who stuffed her with brisket, taught her to love food and "to associate all things emotional and real with being Jewish."
Meanwhile, Eve's own blond, non-Jewish mother seemed dismayed by her theatricality and her resemblance to Anne Frank, Ensler says in "The Good Body." Eve was hardly the paradigm of the "good" (i.e., blonde and perky) 1950s girl.
Enemas, perms and dancing lessons were prescribed to "clean me up, shut me up, make me good," she says. When the budding performer spoke out, she felt like the 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was "Jewish and in deep s---."
By the time Ensler was in high school, she was drinking heavily to numb her childhood pain. After college, she wandered the country in an alcohol-induced haze, living naked in communes, subsisting for months on booze and marinated mushrooms.
Playwriting and activism provided a crucial part of her recovery in her 20s and 30s.
By 1996, Ensler had interviewed hundreds of subjects to write "The Vagina Monologues," which celebrates female sexuality, decries domestic violence and the shame women associate with their most private of parts. After performing the show for years, she says she "finally felt comfortable with my vagina after talking about it so much."
When her shame moved up to her stomach, Ensler again grabbed her notebook and consulted women around the world. She met Asians who poisoned themselves with skin-lightening creams, mothers who removed their daughters' ribs so they would not have to worry about dieting, Texas matrons who had their feet surgically narrowed to fit into Manolo Blahniks.
She also met Indian and African women who celebrated their roundness and helped Ensler to embrace her body.
So after performing "The Good Body" for more than a year, is the artist finally over her stomach? She says she is -- mostly. She no longer meticulously diets and exercises, although she does feel the occasional twinge when she sees waifs with flat, pierced bellies. But she appreciates how generous her body is.
"It performs eight shows a week for me. It travels the world. It doesn't often get sick," she says.
Ensler was pleased when several older Jewish viewers in Miami "got" her message after viewing her show recently.
"They said they were donating the money they had saved for plastic surgery to charity," she says.
"My prayer for all women is that they stop seeking to look good and to be 'good' but to do good."
"The Good Body" runs Jan. 31-Feb. 12 at the Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Building 226, Brentwood. For tickets, call (213) 365-3500. For information, visit www.thegoodbody.com.