Under the skin

The Good Body

Eve Ensler <em>Heinemann, 224pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0434013161

Someone must love The Vagina Monologues - what began as a one-woman fringe show became a smash hit off-Broadway and in the West End, and has since been translated into 27 languages - but I'm damned if I know who. Most women of my acquaintance would rather have their bikini line waxed by a particularly brutal beautician than spend an hour or two listening to some-one explain what their vagina would wear if it got dressed (a beret and a pink feather boa), or what it would say if it could talk (favourite lines include "Yum, yum", "Rock me" and - oh, please, no - "Whoah, mama!"). Not to mention the dread fact that, once the stage play was deemed a "global phenomenon", its stars came to include such soaring theatrical talents as Dannii Minogue, Lesley Joseph and, erm, Caprice.

The Vagina Monologues is now more than a "good night out": it is a brand and also, quite possibly, a whole new belief system - Eve Ensler, its author, being the Reverend Sun Myung Moon of all things Down Below. A brief glance at the UK website for the stage show, for instance, informs me that, this very month, I can catch it in Bournemouth, Aldershot and Leeds. Obviously, in the provinces, where V-consciousness must still be raised, the show continues to pack them in.

But what to do about those fans who have seen it so often that they are entitled to wear knickers emblazoned with the legend "Job done"? The answer is to extend the franchise: write them a show about their other bits. As you read this, Jerry Hall is no doubt hard at it in some damp rehearsal room in south London, joggling her breasts, berating her belly and grappling with the (entirely imaginary) moon-like enormity of her arse.

Like the womanly ideal it rails against, The Good Body is a waif-like creature, one so lacking in substance that, were it female, it would fall down in a swoon. Like The Vagina Monologues, it is based on real-life encounters with women, and was inspired by Ensler's "dialogue" with her stomach - a chat that lasted three years and, if her preface is anything to judge by, must have been an exhausting affair. Ensler's stomach, apparently, is "a toxic dump . . . where explosive trajectories collide". When I first read this, I thought the author must have picked up some awful bug while interviewing burqa-clad women in Afghanistan. Then I realised: she is speaking symbolically, the little imp. Apparently, in our tummies, jostling for position with all those Krispy Kreme doughnuts, lurk both "the patriarchal mandate that women be quiet", and "the Judaeo-Christian imperative to be good" - and it is therefore only by exploring the stomach and "the life therein" that we may one day shatter these "dangerous constraints".

In short: relax, girls. Learn to love your body, no matter what its shape or size, and you will be liberated. This is hardly an original exhortation, and Ensler, black polo neck at the ready, delivers it with all the verve of some embarrassing student dramatist. In fact, her style - by turns portentous, faux-lyrical, banal and opaque to the point of being nonsensical - reminds me of nothing so much as that of Legs Akimbo, the ludicrously earnest "educational" touring theatre group in the BBC comedy The League of Gentlemen. Sure, in the modern democratic way, we get to hear plenty of "voices" (a model who is addicted to plastic surgery; a lesbian who is addicted to body piercing; a woman whose husband insists that she shave her pubic hair; a teenager at fat camp; a middle-aged Jewish woman who has had an operation to tighten her vagina). But their outpourings are about as convincing - and just as silly - as the anonymous "real-life" stories that you read in certain glossy magazines. Is there an actor alive who will be able to imbue these characters with a measure of authenticity? I doubt it.

Worst of all are the fatuous arguments Ensler employs to give her writing a whiff of the intellectual. Women, she thinks, can hope to run the world only when they stop worrying about their weight (it does not seem to occur to her that dieting and, say, high office are not mutually exclusive; or, indeed, that some extremely high-powered men spend time at the gym). She then runs with this a little - perhaps gallops would be a better word - and ultimately concludes that the demise of body fascism will happily, and necessarily, coincide with the demise of other forms of fundamentalism, women supposedly being far more liberal than men.

I need hardly point out that this is poppy-cock. But hell, perhaps I will anyway. Eve, dear, in some parts of the world - even in America - there are women who are all for public executions. And this, I'm afraid, is a view, however horrible, to which they will cleave irrespective of whether or not they feel great about their cellulite.

Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer