TEDWomen 2010

Eve Ensler: Suddenly, my body

Filmed:

Poet, writer, activist Eve Ensler lived in her head. In this powerful talk from TEDWomen, she talks about her lifelong disconnection from her body -- and how two shocking events helped her to connect with the reality, the physicality of being human.

- Playwright, activist
Eve Ensler created the ground-breaking "Vagina Monologues," whose success propelled her to found V-Day -- a movement to end violence against women and girls everywhere. Full bio

For a long time,
00:15
there was me, and my body.
00:17
Me was composed of stories,
00:21
of cravings, of strivings,
00:24
of desires of the future.
00:26
Me was trying
00:28
not to be an outcome of my violent past,
00:30
but the separation that had already occurred
00:33
between me and my body
00:35
was a pretty significant outcome.
00:37
Me was always trying to become something, somebody.
00:40
Me only existed in the trying.
00:43
My body was often in the way.
00:46
Me was a floating head.
00:49
For years, I actually only wore hats.
00:51
It was a way of keeping my head attached.
00:54
It was a way of locating myself.
00:56
I worried that [if] I took my hat off
00:59
I wouldn't be here anymore.
01:01
I actually had a therapist who once said to me,
01:03
"Eve, you've been coming here for two years,
01:06
and, to be honest, it never occurred to me that you had a body."
01:08
All this time I lived in the city
01:11
because, to be honest,
01:13
I was afraid of trees.
01:15
I never had babies
01:17
because heads cannot give birth.
01:19
Babies actually don't come out of your mouth.
01:21
As I had no reference point for my body,
01:24
I began to ask other women about their bodies --
01:27
in particular, their vaginas,
01:30
because I thought vaginas were kind of important.
01:32
This led to me writing "The Vagina Monologues,"
01:34
which led to me obsessively and incessantly
01:36
talking about vaginas everywhere I could.
01:39
I did this in front of many strangers.
01:42
One night on stage,
01:45
I actually entered my vagina.
01:47
It was an ecstatic experience.
01:50
It scared me, it energized me,
01:53
and then I became a driven person,
01:56
a driven vagina.
01:59
I began to see my body like a thing,
02:01
a thing that could move fast,
02:04
like a thing that could accomplish other things,
02:06
many things, all at once.
02:08
I began to see my body like an iPad or a car.
02:11
I would drive it and demand things from it.
02:14
It had no limits. It was invincible.
02:16
It was to be conquered and mastered like the Earth herself.
02:19
I didn't heed it;
02:22
no, I organized it and I directed it.
02:24
I didn't have patience for my body;
02:26
I snapped it into shape.
02:28
I was greedy.
02:30
I took more than my body had to offer.
02:32
If I was tired, I drank more espressos.
02:34
If I was afraid, I went to more dangerous places.
02:37
Oh sure, sure, I had moments of appreciation of my body,
02:40
the way an abusive parent
02:43
can sometimes have a moment of kindness.
02:45
My father was really kind to me
02:47
on my 16th birthday, for example.
02:49
I heard people murmur from time to time
02:51
that I should love my body,
02:53
so I learned how to do this.
02:55
I was a vegetarian, I was sober, I didn't smoke.
02:57
But all that was just a more sophisticated way
03:00
to manipulate my body --
03:02
a further disassociation,
03:04
like planting a vegetable field on a freeway.
03:06
As a result of me talking so much about my vagina,
03:11
many women started to tell me about theirs --
03:14
their stories about their bodies.
03:17
Actually, these stories compelled me around the world,
03:19
and I've been to over 60 countries.
03:22
I heard thousands of stories,
03:24
and I have to tell you, there was always this moment
03:26
where the women shared with me
03:28
that particular moment when she separated from her body --
03:30
when she left home.
03:34
I heard about women being molested in their beds,
03:36
flogged in their burqas,
03:40
left for dead in parking lots,
03:42
acid burned in their kitchens.
03:44
Some women became quiet and disappeared.
03:46
Other women became mad, driven machines like me.
03:49
In the middle of my traveling,
03:53
I turned 40 and I began to hate my body,
03:55
which was actually progress,
03:57
because at least my body existed enough to hate it.
03:59
Well my stomach -- it was my stomach I hated.
04:02
It was proof that I had not measured up,
04:05
that I was old and not fabulous and not perfect
04:08
or able to fit into the predetermined corporate image in shape.
04:11
My stomach was proof that I had failed,
04:15
that it had failed me, that it was broken.
04:18
My life became about getting rid of it and obsessing about getting rid of it.
04:21
In fact, it became so extreme
04:24
I wrote a play about it.
04:26
But the more I talked about it,
04:28
the more objectified and fragmented my body became.
04:30
It became entertainment; it became a new kind of commodity,
04:33
something I was selling.
04:36
Then I went somewhere else.
04:39
I went outside
04:41
what I thought I knew.
04:43
I went to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
04:45
And I heard stories
04:49
that shattered all the other stories.
04:51
I heard stories
04:53
that got inside my body.
04:55
I heard about a little girl
04:57
who couldn't stop peeing on herself
04:59
because so many grown soldiers
05:01
had shoved themselves inside her.
05:03
I heard an 80-year-old woman
05:06
whose legs were broken and pulled out of her sockets
05:08
and twisted up on her head
05:11
as the soldiers raped her like that.
05:13
There are thousands of these stories,
05:15
and many of the women had holes in their bodies --
05:17
holes, fistula --
05:20
that were the violation of war --
05:22
holes in the fabric of their souls.
05:25
These stories saturated my cells and nerves,
05:28
and to be honest,
05:31
I stopped sleeping for three years.
05:33
All the stories began to bleed together.
05:35
The raping of the Earth,
05:38
the pillaging of minerals,
05:40
the destruction of vaginas --
05:42
none of these were separate anymore
05:44
from each other or me.
05:47
Militias were raping six-month-old babies
05:49
so that countries far away
05:52
could get access to gold and coltan
05:54
for their iPhones and computers.
05:56
My body had not only become a driven machine,
05:59
but it was responsible now
06:02
for destroying other women's bodies
06:04
in its mad quest to make more machines
06:06
to support the speed and efficiency of my machine.
06:08
Then I got cancer --
06:12
or I found out I had cancer.
06:14
It arrived like a speeding bird
06:16
smashing into a windowpane.
06:18
Suddenly, I had a body,
06:21
a body that was pricked
06:23
and poked and punctured,
06:25
a body that was cut wide open,
06:27
a body that had organs removed
06:30
and transported and rearranged and reconstructed,
06:32
a body that was scanned
06:35
and had tubes shoved down it,
06:37
a body that was burning from chemicals.
06:39
Cancer exploded
06:42
the wall of my disconnection.
06:44
I suddenly understood that the crisis in my body
06:47
was the crisis in the world,
06:50
and it wasn't happening later,
06:52
it was happening now.
06:54
Suddenly, my cancer was a cancer that was everywhere,
06:56
the cancer of cruelty, the cancer of greed,
06:59
the cancer that gets inside people
07:02
who live down the streets from chemical plants -- and they're usually poor --
07:04
the cancer inside the coal miner's lungs,
07:08
the cancer of stress for not achieving enough,
07:10
the cancer of buried trauma,
07:13
the cancer in caged chickens and polluted fish,
07:15
the cancer in women's uteruses from being raped,
07:18
the cancer that is everywhere from our carelessness.
07:21
In his new and visionary book,
07:24
"New Self, New World,"
07:27
the writer Philip Shepherd says,
07:29
"If you are divided from your body,
07:31
you are also divided from the body of the world,
07:34
which then appears to be other than you
07:37
or separate from you,
07:39
rather than the living continuum
07:41
to which you belong."
07:43
Before cancer,
07:45
the world was something other.
07:47
It was as if I was living in a stagnant pool
07:49
and cancer dynamited the boulder
07:52
that was separating me from the larger sea.
07:54
Now I am swimming in it.
07:57
Now I lay down in the grass
08:00
and I rub my body in it,
08:02
and I love the mud on my legs and feet.
08:04
Now I make a daily pilgrimage
08:07
to visit a particular weeping willow by the Seine,
08:10
and I hunger for the green fields
08:13
in the bush outside Bukavu.
08:15
And when it rains hard rain,
08:17
I scream and I run in circles.
08:19
I know that everything is connected,
08:22
and the scar that runs the length of my torso
08:26
is the markings of the earthquake.
08:29
And I am there with the three million in the streets of Port-au-Prince.
08:31
And the fire that burned in me
08:35
on day three through six of chemo
08:37
is the fire that is burning
08:40
in the forests of the world.
08:42
I know that the abscess
08:44
that grew around my wound after the operation,
08:46
the 16 ounces of puss,
08:49
is the contaminated Gulf of Mexico,
08:51
and there were oil-drenched pelicans inside me
08:54
and dead floating fish.
08:57
And the catheters they shoved into me without proper medication
08:59
made me scream out
09:02
the way the Earth cries out from the drilling.
09:04
In my second chemo,
09:08
my mother got very sick
09:10
and I went to see her.
09:12
And in the name of connectedness,
09:14
the only thing she wanted before she died
09:16
was to be brought home
09:19
by her beloved Gulf of Mexico.
09:21
So we brought her home,
09:24
and I prayed that the oil wouldn't wash up on her beach
09:26
before she died.
09:28
And gratefully, it didn't.
09:30
And she died quietly in her favorite place.
09:32
And a few weeks later, I was in New Orleans,
09:35
and this beautiful, spiritual friend
09:37
told me she wanted to do a healing for me.
09:39
And I was honored.
09:41
And I went to her house, and it was morning,
09:43
and the morning New Orleans sun was filtering through the curtains.
09:45
And my friend was preparing this big bowl,
09:48
and I said, "What is it?"
09:50
And she said, "It's for you.
09:52
The flowers make it beautiful,
09:54
and the honey makes it sweet."
09:57
And I said, "But what's the water part?"
09:59
And in the name of connectedness,
10:01
she said, "Oh, it's the Gulf of Mexico."
10:03
And I said, "Of course it is."
10:06
And the other women arrived and they sat in a circle,
10:08
and Michaela bathed my head with the sacred water.
10:10
And she sang -- I mean her whole body sang.
10:13
And the other women sang
10:16
and they prayed for me and my mother.
10:18
And as the warm Gulf washed over my naked head,
10:20
I realized that it held
10:23
the best and the worst of us.
10:25
It was the greed and recklessness
10:28
that led to the drilling explosion.
10:30
It was all the lies that got told
10:33
before and after.
10:35
It was the honey in the water that made it sweet,
10:37
it was the oil that made it sick.
10:39
It was my head that was bald --
10:42
and comfortable now without a hat.
10:44
It was my whole self
10:46
melting into Michaela's lap.
10:48
It was the tears that were indistinguishable from the Gulf
10:50
that were falling down my cheek.
10:53
It was finally being in my body.
10:55
It was the sorrow
11:00
that's taken so long.
11:02
It was finding my place
11:04
and the huge responsibility
11:06
that comes with connection.
11:08
It was the continuing devastating war in the Congo
11:10
and the indifference of the world.
11:13
It was the Congolese women
11:15
who are now rising up.
11:17
It was my mother leaving,
11:19
just at the moment
11:21
that I was being born.
11:23
It was the realization
11:25
that I had come very close to dying --
11:27
in the same way that the Earth, our mother,
11:29
is barely holding on,
11:32
in the same way that 75 percent of the planet
11:35
are hardly scraping by,
11:39
in the same way
11:42
that there is a recipe for survival.
11:44
What I learned
11:47
is it has to do with attention and resources
11:49
that everybody deserves.
11:52
It was advocating friends
11:54
and a doting sister.
11:56
It was wise doctors and advanced medicine
11:58
and surgeons who knew what to do with their hands.
12:00
It was underpaid and really loving nurses.
12:03
It was magic healers and aromatic oils.
12:07
It was people who came with spells and rituals.
12:10
It was having a vision of the future
12:12
and something to fight for,
12:15
because I know this struggle isn't my own.
12:17
It was a million prayers.
12:20
It was a thousand hallelujahs
12:22
and a million oms.
12:24
It was a lot of anger,
12:26
insane humor,
12:28
a lot of attention, outrage.
12:30
It was energy, love and joy.
12:32
It was all these things.
12:35
It was all these things.
12:37
It was all these things
12:39
in the water, in the world, in my body.
12:41
(Applause)
12:44

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About the Speaker:

Eve Ensler - Playwright, activist
Eve Ensler created the ground-breaking "Vagina Monologues," whose success propelled her to found V-Day -- a movement to end violence against women and girls everywhere.

Why you should listen

Inspired by intimate conversations with friends, Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues. The play recounts tender, funny, gripping and horrifying stories she gathered from hundreds of women about their bodies, their sexual experiences, and yes, their vaginas. Since its first staging in 1996, it has been translated into more than 45 languages, performed in more than 120 countries and re-created as an HBO film.

The Vagina Monologues' success allowed Ensler to create V-Day, a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls, which has so far raised $85 million to prevent violence and protect abused women. In February 2011, Ensler received the Isabelle Stephenson Tony Award for her philanthropic work. Ensler has also drawn praise for The Good Body, a play that cuts to women's obsession with their appearance, and her film What I Want My Words to Do to You, which portrays a writing group she leads at a correctional facility for women. Today, she continues to find new projects and push the envelope. Her latest play, I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, hit the New York Times bestseller list and just wrapped a workshop production in Johannesburg -- nest stop is Paris and then Berkeley in June 2012.