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25 March 2005

Don't stop to wave, you'll drown

Eveensler “Why are women immobile? Because so many feel like they’re waiting for someone to say, “You’re good, you’re pretty, I give you permission.” –Eve Ensler

This week, I watched a videotape of Eve Ensler speaking at the 2004 Omega Institute “Women in Power” conference. Ensler is a playwright most famous for “The Vagina Monologues,” which has played in 76 countries, with 35 translations, in places like Karachi and New Delhi and Cairo. It’s been described as a poignant and hilarious tour of the last frontier, the ultimate forbidden zone, a celebration of female sexuality in all its complexity and mystery.

In it, Ensler gives us real women's stories of intimacy, vulnerability, and sexual self-discovery. Based on interviews with over 200 women about their memories and experiences of sexuality, “The Vagina Monologues” gives voice to women's deepest fantasies and fears, guaranteeing that no one who reads it will ever look at a woman's body, or think of sex, in quite the same way again. It is witty and irreverent, compassionate and wise. "At first women were reluctant to talk," Ensler writes. "They were a little shy. But once they got going, you couldn't stop them." It was (and is) an international phenomenon.

Ensler was overwhelmed by the numbers of women who lined up after performances of the play to tell her about their experiences of sexual or physical abuse at the hands of others. She knew, herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father, that she had to do more. And she did. Ensler founded V-Day, a global movement to stop violence against women and girls, a catalyst that promotes creative events to increase awareness, raise money, and revitalize the spirit of existing anti-violence organizations.

Agnes_2V-Day generates broader attention for the fight to stop worldwide violence against women and girls, including rape, battery, incest, female genital mutilation (FGM) and sexual slavery. Ensler tells the story of Kenyan Agnes Pareyio who had been genitally mutilated as a child, and had made a decision to stop it. She had devoted her life to walking from village to village on foot, educating boys and girls and mothers and fathers about the dangers of FGM [female genital mutilation].

In eight years of walking, she stopped 1,500 girls from being cut. “When we met her,” Ensler recalled, “we said, ‘What can we do for you?’” She said, “Well, I could go more places if I had a Jeep,’ so we got her a Jeep. She then saved forty-five hundred girls. Then we got her money, and she built the first safe house in Africa. People turned against her, but when the house was dedicated, hundreds and hundreds of people walked miles and miles to come to the ceremony. Two months ago, she was elected deputy mayor of Nura. And there’s a good chance she’ll become the mayor. That, to me, is my vision of V-Day.”

Ensler_2_1Eve Ensler’s new work is called “The Good Body.” “Whether undergoing Botox or living under burkhas, women of all cultures and backgrounds feel compelled to change the way they look in order to fit in with their particular culture, in order to be accepted, in order to be good,” she says. “Just imagine what we could accomplish if we harnessed all the energy we spend hating and changing our bodies in order to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘good enough.’”

“There are two things going on. There’s the violence that comes toward us, and there’s violence we do to ourselves—we’re picking up the magazines, we’re dieting, we’re getting the lipo. Why are women immobile? Because so many feel like they’re waiting for someone to say, “You’re good, you’re pretty, I give you permission,” she said in a recent interview in Mother Jones.

Over the next six weeks, videotapes of the keynote sessions from that Omega Institute conference will be shown every Tuesday night here in Asheville. It is a great way for a small community to connect to large ideas. Little did I know last Tuesday night that sitting in a straight chair in that church meeting room, watching a small TV screen with a tiny image of this woman on it, would so change my life. And I almost didn’t go because I was tired.

All of that is just a long prelude to the real message: I want to be Eve Ensler when I grow up.

I’m going to Kim’s Wig Shop downtown and get her black, shiny pageboy hair in wig form. I’m going to speak out and be energetic and articulate and have something important to say. I’m going to pay attention to what’s going on in the world as if the fate of the world depended on me paying attention. I’m going to have a point of view and an opinion without waiting for other people to tell me what it is. I’m going to do the work I know I need to do, that I must do, that I’ve been waiting my whole life to do, without waiting for an audience. I’m going to sit up straighter and I’m going to make people hear me. I’m going to ask a lot more questions and I’m going to pay attention to the answers as if they really mattered. I’m going to really, really listen to people when they tell me their stories. I’m going to raise my voice if it needs to be raised. I’m going to lend my voice to people who have none. I’m going to figure out how to be an effective advocate for others. I’m not going to care anymore whether people like me when I speak my truth. I’m never going to ask for permission again. And, as Ensler said, “I am going to hold who I am in the face of anything.”

Know what you know,” she said, “see what you see, say what you say wherever you can say it.

Women, she told us, have to overcome their fear of not being liked. “It’s a choice we have to make between being good—quiet enough, thin enough, pretty enough, pleasant enough, good enough—and being great.”

When she wrote “The Vagina Monologues,” Ensler describes that she was a way, way off-Broadway playwright who had created her persona around being marginal, being outside the power structure. When the play became successful, she feared losing who she was by becoming part of the mainstream. Then she realized that she didn’t have to lose herself. The metaphor she used was that of a river. She spoke of being drawn toward a fast-moving and powerful river, being part of that river, and of creating in and of the river.

“The only time I got into trouble in the river,” she said slowly, “was when I wanted people to look at me in the boat in the river, when I wanted to stop and wave and make sure people saw me in the boat.”

I believe it’s at those moments when we try to wave and be seen and praised that we are actually drowning. As poet Stevie Smith wrote, “I was much further out than you thought/And not waving but drowning.”

The message I took from her metaphor? Give in to the river and fully embrace it and flow with it because it knows what you should be doing with your life. Move with it without pause, without trying to stop the boat so people can admire you and like you, so they can say “you’re good, you’re smart, you’re pretty, I give you permission.” Keep moving, keep seeing, keep knowing, and keep saying what you know to be your truth, without needing or looking for the admiration of others. Give in to that damn river.

You are good. You are beautiful. You are smart. Give yourself permission.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

What’s your river? Find it and jump in. There will be times, as Ensler said, when you have to paddle a little; sometimes you’ll need to paddle a lot. And there will be other times when you are swept into a maelstrom of whitewater. Be there; don’t stop to wave, to have your picture taken, or to have your boat admired. Just go as if your life depended on it. Know what you know, see what you see, say what you say wherever you can say it.

Be great, not good.

Support Eve Ensler’s work to end violence against women and girls by telling others about it – pass this newsletter along to others, consider giving a donation to V-Day

– do what you can do.


“In many ways we were drugged when we were young. We were brought up to need people. For what? For acceptance, approval, appreciation, applause...” - Anthony De Mello, from Awareness


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