Violence of Another Sort

Empowering women by redefining definitions of beauty

Since 1998, Eve Ensler, playwright of “The Vagina Monologues” and founder of the V-Day movement to end violence against women, has worked hard to make women feel comfortable with their vaginas.

Now, six years later, she’s taken on a much bigger task, to get women to accept it all—their stomachs, thighs, butts, noses—and love their body in its entirety.

“It all started with me and my particular obsession with my ‘imperfect stomach,’” Ensler wrote in the introduction to her new play, “The Good Body,” which had its official Broadway opening on Monday. “Maybe because I see how my stomach has come to occupy my attention, and I see that other women’s stomachs or butts or thighs or hair or skin have come to occupy their minds so that we have very little left for war or anything else.”

Ensler is certainly not alone. According to The Renfrew Center Foundation, a national non-profit research organization that specializes on eating disorders, one in five women struggle with an eating problem, a statistic that includes up to 24 million people in the United States and as many as 70 million worldwide. Even more frightening, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

“It just keeps getting worse and worse,” said Jill Hranicka, director of admissions at The Renfrew Center of Florida. “The increased focus on the body and on the importance of outer appearance has reached a level where we are now seeing eating disorders at epidemic levels.”

At the same time, people’s dissatisfaction with their bodies has also become widespread. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 25 percent of American men and 45 percent of American women are on a diet on any given day, yet between 95 and 98 percent of people gain back the weight back—usually within three years—wasting more than $40 billion on diet-related products and services each year. By age 13, according to the association, 80 percent of Americans have already attempted to lose weight.

Just as with the issue of physical and psychological violence against women, the growing epidemic of eating disorders is not one that affects just American women. Ensler argues that an obsessive emphasis on the perfect body has become another impediment in shaping a world where “women thrive, rather than merely survive,” according to Susan Celia Swan, spokeswoman for V-Day.

For Ensler, who has traveled around the world compiling women’s stories, body image is just another aspect of the same struggle—an internal violence hindering women from fully reaching their potential. In fact, Swan explained, this new aspect to the V-Day movement even came along in the same way as its original inspiration, “The Vagina Monologues,” with women then seeing “The Good Body,” and sharing their own personal struggles with Ensler.

“We workshopped it in Seattle earlier this year,” Swan said. “And right away Eve’s e-mail was inundated with women’s reactions and personal struggles.”

From her view at The Renfrew Center, Hranicka emphasized that the awareness of what constitutes an eating disorder is now spreading and crossing to all sectors of society – even groups, such as the Hispanic, African-American and LGBT communities which were once thought to be immune.

“We’re definitely seeing more diversity in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age,” she said. “We’re also seeing more requests [for treatment] from males.”

According to the center’s eating disorder guide, lesbians are at a greater risk of binge-eating than heterosexual women and among gay men, nearly 14 percent appear to suffer from bulimia and more than 20 percent appear to be anorexic.

“No one is immune,” said Hranicka. “We are all being bombarded with messages to be thin, the size zero cultural standard is growing, and crossing all boundaries.”

For young people struggling to define and gain acceptance for their sexual orientation, eating disorders have become symptomatic of the stress, fear and pain of coming out. According to Hranicka, the majority of lesbians they treat are in the “pre-coming out stages,” and a lot of their emotional struggles are attributable to today’s anti-gay political environment.

“I believe that the current political climate, which has raised same-sex marriage to be a moral issue, as if love between the same sex is amoral, wrong or anti-family, has increased internalized homophobia, fear of coming out and minority stress, all of which create fertile ground to breed body hatred, self-denigration and disordered eating,” she said.

Similarly, media messages don’t just portray unrealistic physical images of the heterosexual population. Hranicka gave the example the Showtime series “The L Word.”

“There really weren’t any lesbian dramas on TV and now there is one and all of them are model-beautiful and thin,” she said. “And this can send the same message as ‘Friends’ Jennifer Aniston or Courtney Cox.”

That apparently is exactly Ensler’s concern. And so with a new play on Broadway and an educational installation at ABC Carpet and Home, perhaps the same way that the “The Vagina Monologues” grew into a movement to fight violence, “The Good Body” may become a call for all women to accept and love their bodies.

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