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Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” Essay

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Updated: Nov 16th, 2021

How valuable am I to my community, not in money, but generally, as a person? This isn’t a question asked often, but it is one that bears some consideration in learning how I think about myself. When thinking of this question, it is difficult to decide whether it was society’s idea that a certain trait is valuable or if my estimate is an original evaluation. Even if that answer can be traced to its original source, which definition carries the greater weight – society or individual? Psychologists say that a sense of self is developed through both internal and external forces, both by society and through individual self-evaluation.

However, even that self-evaluation will be defined by the individual’s desire to either blend in with their society or stand apart from it. For most of us, the answer is neither one nor the other, but a collection of both responses that help to shape how we see ourselves. Plus, the way we blend this information to define ourselves is in a constant state of change as we learn more about the world around us and our definitions become more specific. This blending of desires to determine a sense of self-value is difficult to understand without concrete examples. By reading through Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, the idea of how the environment impacts the perception of self becomes clearer by understanding how the people in the story adopt community values and how they work to separate themselves from that community.

In The Vagina Monologues, Ensler attempts to demonstrate how women have ignored a major anatomical portion of their bodies based on the value definitions attributed to it through society at large. In the introduction offered by Gloria Steinam, she says “I come from the ‘down there’ generation. That is, those were the words – spoken rarely and in a hushed voice – that the women in my family used to refer to all female genitalia, internal or external” (Ensler, p. vii). The discussions included in the book are all designed to break this general attitude of silence regarding women’s vaginas that is demonstrated to have also translated to women’s understanding of themselves. Older women interviewed regarding their “down there” reportedly had difficulty even whispering about the subject. “I had always thought of my vagina as an anatomical vacuum randomly sucking up particles and objects from the surrounding environment” (Ensler, p.44) one woman said.

This displays her sense of value for this vital part of her based on the stronger attitudes of her community. Another woman relates the story of how she overrode her own very strong feelings regarding shaving the hair away from “down there” in order to please her husband. Even more importantly, rather than validating that a woman’s feelings are at least equally important in a relationship, a marriage counselor “asked me why I didn’t want to please my husband. I told her I thought it was weird. I felt little when my hair was gone ‘down there,’” (Ensler, p. 10). Nevertheless, when they went home, the husband “got to shave my vagina. It was like a therapy bonus prize” (Ensler, p. 10). In the beginning cases, the women just accepted that their vaginas were taboo subjects, even to themselves. This was a gradual acceptance, taught from a very young age. In the latter case, though, the societal idea that a girl became a woman when hair grew “down there” in combination with the husband/therapist evaluation that hair didn’t make a difference led to a strong clash of internal evaluation and societal evaluation.

It is when these clashes occur between long-held beliefs and new societal values that we begin to re-evaluate our sense of self as opposed to rather than in comparison to the new society. The woman in The Vagina Monologues who did not want to shave for her husband suffered this clash of convictions, discovering she had a strong opinion about her vagina she had not been aware of: “There was no protection. There was no fluff. I realized then that hair is there for a reason – it’s the leaf around the flower, the lawn around the house” (Ensler, p. 11). It was this revelation that she had such a strong differing opinion that gave this woman the ability to re-evaluate herself as opposed to society’s opinion and find strength in herself.

Other women expressed the same opinions forming once the taboo had been broken. A woman attending a special class focused on rediscovering the vagina said “[m]y vagina, like some mystical event that keeps unfolding another aspect of itself, which is really an event in itself, but you only know it after the event” (Ensler, p.46) about the first time she saw her own vagina using a hand mirror. However, other women, particularly those who have suffered some great indignity like the Bosnian women from the slave camps, held their own personal reasons for closing that part of their bodies out of their minds. As one woman said of her vagina: “They invaded it. / Butchered it and burned it / down. / I do not touch now. / Do not visit. / I live someplace else now. / I don’t know where that is” (Ensler, p. 59). Through a horrible experience described in disturbing detail, a woman tells the story of how she had once valued that part of her anatomy and now does not know it at all.

Examining the way different women felt about their vagina and the varying levels of comfort they had in talking about it made it clear that our identity is largely formed by how much we believe in the things we grew up believing. If we have been taught that part of us is shameful and dangerous, we are more likely to act submissive and as if we have no rights to that area. When we close it off from ourselves, we are no longer a whole person. Only when we find it possible to reclaim it, because of shifting values in our community or the introduction into a new community, can we become a whole person again.

Works Cited

Ensler, Eve. The Vagina Monologues. New York: Villard, 1998.

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