The lion hunter becomes a lion

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Portugal has won another soccer game, so this post is being written to a “symphony” of whistles, car horns, air horns and a good deal of shouting and clapping. Plus, I have a new kitten in the household. Molly thinks of me as ‘the person who makes the toys go.” Occasionally, I have to make the toys go. These are not ideal blogging conditions. (All blog complaints to your local Portuguese embassy or the court of Siam.)

Today’s topic: plastic surgery. According to the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, approximately 860,000 cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in 2002.

Does anyone think Greta Van Susteren looks better post-op? Don’t playmates almost always over do it? Have you found yourself thinking, “ease up on the face lifts there, buddy.” I want to focus on the banality of the transformations that happen beneath the surgeon’s knife.

This is not an aesthetic disappointment, but a cultural one. This innovation does not seem to open up the range of expressive possibilities. So far, it has closed them down.

The trouble is that generally the motive for plastic surgery is to make oneself more “attractive.” And presumably if you are going to go to the trouble, the expense, and the risk of surgery, you want to maximize the effect. You want as many people as possible to think you are attractive. So you go for the most obvious, hackneyed notions of attractiveness. There’s a problem here. Often, by making yourself more attractive, you make yourself less interesting.

What if this were France? The first thing you notice about Parisian women is how stunningly attractive they are. The second thing: they don’t always start with the great features, hair, skin, eyes, and figures that other women take for granted. This beauty is the work of science, art, craft, poise, self possession and a different objective. What they look for is interesting. What we get is attractive.

But this is only the first step away from the banality of the North American model. Others have gone much further. The artist called Orlan was born in 1947 in France. At 43, she began a series of surgical operations to change her physical appearance. Weintraub says,

Eventually, Orlan will possess the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the nose of Gerome’s Psyche, the lips of Francois Boucher’s Europa, and the eyes of Diana from a sixteenth-century French School of Fontainebleau painting. In addition, she aspires to the forehead of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

The effect is a little odd, but why not treat the human face and body as too predictable, somewhat unimaginative, and, in and of itself, banal? Why not reach for expressive new possibilities? The moment we decide it’s not about “beauty,” the possibilities are endless.

Jocelyne Wildenstein was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1946. She became a lion hunter and worked as such on the Wildenstein estate in Kenyan where she met Alec Wildenstein, an art connoisseur. Jocelyne and Alec eloped in 1978 and settled in New York City. It was there that Mrs. Wildenstein made an uncommon decision.

Jocelyne realized that Alec loved his jungle estate, and the cats that inhabited it, more than anything else in life. She returned to her plastic surgeon with an unusual request: She wanted to be transformed into one of the giant Cats that Alec loved so much. Though surprised at this unorthodox request, the surgeon did his best to comply. (Woloson, below)

The effect is very odd and earned Mrs. Wildenstein the title “bride of Wildenstein.” (And finally there is something very strange about starting out a lion hunter and ending up a lion.)

But here too it is not hard to imagine that, freed of the tyranny of mere beauty, people might decide to try on any number of transformations: gods, animals, mythic creatures, historical figures. Everyday a costume ball.

Anthropology is accustomed to seeing these transformations in other cultures. The question is: Could our tastes and preferences change this much?

Right now Orlan and Wildenstein are pretty close to kooks. But they could be harbingers. Our culture tries things on, takes things up, and just keeps going.

It’ll take awhile. But eventually your local bar could look like the one in Star Wars and not because it’s filled with aliens.

Excuse me. Molly believes this would be a good time to make the toys go. Oh, and another thing: Viva Portugal!


Kron, Joan. 1998. Lift. New York, N.Y: Viking.

Rosen, Christine 2004. The Democratization of Beauty.The New Atlantis. to be found here.
With thanks to Arts and Letters Daily

Weintraub, Linda. 1996. Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for art’s meaning in contemporary society, 1970s-1990s. Litchfield: Art Insights, p. 79.

For more on Orlan:

Wildenstein details from:
Jeff Woloson to be found here

9 thoughts on “The lion hunter becomes a lion

  1. Jesse Walker

    But isn’t the rise in tattoos, piercings, etc. a countertrend? It could be that the people who want to look more physically unusual simply aren’t using surgery as the means to that end.

  2. Jesse Walker

    (A countertrend to the increase in generic plastic surgeries, I mean. Sorry, I somehow left out the part of the text that I was referring to.)

  3. gary

    “Fashions often revert, but to be popular they modify. It could be
    that a re-dressed doctrine of witchcraft will be the proper acceptance.
    Come unto me, and maybe I’ll make you stylish. It is quite possible to
    touch up beliefs that are now considered dowdy, and restore them to
    fashionableness. I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or
    philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.”

    Wild Talents
    by Charles Hoy Fort, 1932.

    Your style of writing, the subjects you pick, and your views on them are a perfect blend. I savor this blog and will be linking permanently to it. Kudos.

  4. Grant

    Jesse, very good, the thing that troubles me about plastic surgery is that it is not very plastic. It makes for (some) spectacular transformations, but it demands “lock in.” The effects you are talking about are a little more dynamic. Thanks. Best, Grant

  5. Grant

    Gary, great quote, thanks! The new age practices, in their “reenchantment of the world,” usher back in a range of expressive possibilities that the reign of reason and rationality panned from discourse. This really opens up the expressive range. We shall have to wait to see how far it takes us. Best, Grant

  6. LK

    re “lock in” data:

    a friend’s brother works at a young beautiful people’s restaurant on robson street (the designated “trendy” strip in vancouver) and she reports that one by one the waitresses alongside whom he works get their breast augmentation done, take the requisite week of work, and then return to proudly display their wares, completely ok with their obvious artifice. that is not part of the’s more of a “wow, look what i just bought?” this seems an awful long away from the days when people would enter a version of the witness protection program when they got nose jobs, facelifts, eye lifts, etc done. the unspoken has become the vaunted.

  7. Grant

    Exactly so. Joan Kron says that people used to be stealthy about hair coloring and they got over that. For awhile we wouldn’t admit to plastic surgery, and we got over that. In a transformational society, we are newly candid. And once this barrier is truly down (and no transformation is seen to be a cheat), well, the sky’s the limit. Thanks, Grant
    p.s., Molly says hello.

  8. LK

    re joan kron: didn’t we (or at least i) kind of have to admit we dyed our hair, specifically in the 80s and 90s when hues not found in nature and tri-colour styles became popular…first on the fringes of course, and now everyone at the gym sports the style. hair colouring was more of an invisible transformation previously (witness: ‘does she or doesn’t she…only her hairdresser knows for sure) whereas the fuschia shades of manic panic (extremely bold hair dye product) made the question irrelevant.

  9. Grant

    Leora, I don’t know that it was a technical matter (that colors were too artificial to “pass”). I think we just “came clean” and once everyone does, the game is up. A good thing, surely. Best, Grant

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