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The Body as Site of Protest Against Conventional, Western Ideas of Beauty in the work of ORLAN and Nao Bustamante

This is a presentation I was due to give at the end of last term but couldn't due to ill health. I've decided to post it on here. The work of these two women is fascinating and if this can inspire anyone to check them out then that's wicked. I'd like to note that in ORLAN’s ‘Frequently Asked Questions and Common Mistakes’ it is stated that ‘ORLAN is written in capital letters’, and so I will adhere to this assertion in this presentation.


I thought I’d start off with a few fun facts about every little girl’s favourite toy:

•There are two Barbie dolls sold every second in the world.
•If Barbie were an actual woman, she would be 5’9” tall, have a 39” bust and an 18” waist.
•She would have a BMI of 16.24 and fit the weight criteria for anorexia. She likely would not menstruate.
•If Barbie was a real woman, she’d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.

Now I grew up playing with Barbie dolls, and do not feel a great pressure to emulate that image. However there is no denying it is worrying if these facts represent one of the most popular toys for young girls. Even if it does not cause problems to the scale of eating disorders for most women, this is the hegemonic ideal image and according to Maine ‘a girl usually has her first Barbie by the age of three’ – a young age to start seeing such an unachievable body image.

It is for this worrying reason that I think the work of both ORLAN and Nao Bustamante is so important. They protest against Western dominant ideologies of beauty by taking on commonly used techniques, whether it be make-up or surgery, and taking them to their grotesque, parodied extremes (ORLAN Carnal 29), and also with their own bodies they present an alternative to the mainstream idea of beauty.

Without looking at male body work or the male presentation of the body in performance I cannot comment on gender difference – only on what these women do. Equally while I could delve into the topic of race – the issue of the presentation and deconstruction of the body in performance is complex and problematic enough. Both performers have years of work behind them and to consider their whole body of work, would be an implausible task and so I will focus mainly on ORLAN’s Reincarnation of Saint Orlan and will also briefly look at Nao Bustamante’s America, the Beautiful.

Nao Bustamante


I’ll begin by introducing Bustamante’s work as she is an artist we have not covered on this course N.B. Performing the Body at University of Sussex. Nao Bustamante is a Mexican-American performance artist, originally from California who works largely through improvisation and experimenting with images (Topiary np) – pushing physical and political boundaries in her performances. America, the Beautiful was first performed in 1995 and involved ‘Nao’s embodiment of the Marilyn Monroe, playing dumb, blonde, sex-kitten archetype’ (Ibid). She embodies in order to parody and thus protest against this pressured, ludicrous image.
The performance begins with Nao transforming into this archetype. First she removes all of her clothes until she is naked – revealing a voluptuous, Latina body: not the hegemonic ideal. Her hair is short and bleached with dark roots. She curls her eyelashes with a wide-eyed, almost demonic smile – drawing attention to how eyelash curlers do in fact look quite like an instrument of torture. She applies lipstick which extends far beyond her lips: resembling the Joker from Batman more than Marilyn Monroe. She then begins an extensive period of bronzing the face with gold powder until her face is glittering and yellow. She then dons an oversized blonde wig. For a period of 2 minutes and 17 seconds Nao applies hairspray to the wig – becoming less and less able to deal with the fumes. Pulling apart the hair-sprayed stiffness of the wig with a fixed grimace she now resembles the overly-made up ‘monster beauty’ (Knafo 147) – beyond an appropriate level of enhancement and into the levels of the grotesque. To finish off this image, Nao cling-films up her legs to fit the desired ‘hourglass’ figure, applies long white gloves and four inch white stilettos.

The rest of the performance involves her performing tasks while ‘severely handicapped by her requirements of feminine guile and beauty pageant pretensions’ (Topiary np). These include climbing a ladder, attempting and eventually succeeding to fit her body through two of the rungs so she is precariously balanced in the middle and finishing by playing the national anthem on glass bottles: a parodied Miss America show of talent.

The performance juxtaposes the winning smile of the pageant girl with the grotesque: flitting between the burlesque and the circus freak-show. When flowers are thrown on stage during applause we see, for a moment, a coyness and acceptance. That is until she proceeds to ravenously chew the flowers and then deal with the gruesome aftermath of this. Equally when she reaches the top of the ladder she is met with applause as she achieves safety and strikes a pose. Greater laughter follows when she subverts this pose into a comedic use of lighting by making shadow puppets from her hands. Bustamante is naked throughout the performance except her heels and gloves and yet through the expressive nature of her face, and the extreme to which the archetype is taken she denies the possibility of eroticisation. She makes herself look ridiculous and in so doing she deconstructs and thus protests against the ‘blonde bombshell’ archetype and shows it to be laughable.



Moving onto ORLAN, a French performance artist whose work is constantly a source of debate and controversy. The Reincarnation of Saint-Orlan was a project which started in 1990 and involved a series of plastic surgeries set across three years in which ORLAN would acquire the features of various female icons within classical art. She remained fully conscious throughout these surgeries and continued to perform – reading from texts such as those of Freud and Lacan. In this situation ‘the plastic surgeon occupies a higher social status (associated with gender, education, and professional position) than do most patients’ (Gimlin 11). He is a male surgeon and she is a female artist. ORLAN denies this patriarchal power and takes control in the situation - orchestrating the surgery before and while it is happening. Where the surgeon would usually use biotechnology to present digital images to the patient, it is ORLAN who presents her images to the surgeon. The operating room becomes her artist’s studio (Partouche 31) as she is the director of this arena, in control of the situation and having the medical staff in costumes rather than in scrubs.

The Protest

So how are these highly-theatricalised surgeries protesting against conventional ideas of beauty? Western media presents an ideal image which women are expected to emulate if they wish to be attractive, or even acceptable, within society. ORLAN’s image being in a state of flux conveys how much choice one has when it comes to appearance, but also crucially the thought behind that choice: whether to emulate a pre-existing image presented to you or whether to create your own image. ORLAN argues that ‘you can look like a Barbie doll or some big star, or you can try to create your own inner portrait’ (ORLAN FAQ np). In recent times, the idea of celebrity for a particular talent has been lost in favour of purely being glamorous with girls aspiring to be WAGS, then “stars” of “reality” television shows such as The Only Way is Essex or Desperate Scousewives – all with the same blonde, bronzed and overall preened image – a vacuous, thoughtless image. While these references come much after the work of ORLAN and Bustamante, it is this ‘Barbie doll’ image which is firmly placed in mainstream media they are protesting against.

The Reincarnation of St Orlan show changes in appearance which occur through thought and artistry – encouraging individuality and autonomy rather than adhering to the hegemonic ideal to attain beauty. ORLAN ‘reacts angrily when critics accuse her project of masking a desire to be more beautiful’ (Knafo 146). It is interesting that she would be criticised for this – as if it were so outside any realm of possibility for a woman to be changing her appearance for the sake of art alone. While it could be said that she has chosen features from beautiful women, ORLAN ‘insists she chose these icons for their personal qualities rather than because they embody an ideal of beauty’ (Ibid 146): features such as ‘adventuress’, ‘uncertain[ty]’, ‘life force’, ‘fertility and creativity’ and of course Mona Lisa’s ‘androgyny.’ These are all strong characteristics and examples of women which would now be deemed feminist icons, rather than just beauty icons. Perhaps ORLAN is showing that both psychological and physical attributes can go together: and if you are going to aim for an appearance of another, it could be because of character traits rather than for being physically appealing.

We can also see these surgeries acquiring these strong features as a process of matching the external to the internal. ORLAN reflects on this first realisation – ‘I was very rebellious yet, in the mirror, I resembled a cute, normal, banal girl. I was confused. I didn’t understand’ (Knafo 153). While we expect children to be ‘cute’, to ORLAN this lacked originality and did not make sense alongside her personality. Her physical appearance was an inadequate reflection of her inner self. If we all aimed to marry these two sides of ourselves – the physical with the psychological, rather than aiming to be as well presented as possible, or not, the room would be much more interesting to say the least.

Grosz writes about the primitive body being marked and scarred, and how it ‘offends Western sensibility’ (Grosz Volatile 138) as it is something permanent yet superficial. This is where some of the difficulty of ORLAN’s work lies: feeling anxiety on her behalf that these artistic adaptations to her face are permanent. However, Grosz goes onto state that ‘we are not so much surfaces as profound depths, subjects of a hidden interiority’ (Ibid 138). While the permanence of ORLAN’s work is alarming – it is for the very point of allowing her physicality to express this ‘hidden interiority.’
If you are going to be judged for your appearance it may as well be one which proclaims who you are.

Elizabeth Grosz writes in Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies on how the ‘state can let no body outside of its regulations: its demand for identification and documentation relentlessly records and categorizes’ (107 Space). The state ‘relentlessly’ wants to know who and where its people are. ORLAN ‘relentlessly’ changes and creates new images for herself. We can only imagine the trouble she would have at border control. For an individual to fight against a ‘fixed’ identity and instead continually create new identities, even to the extent of changing names as well as appearances, may cause anxiety for a state wishing to ‘record and categorise.’ ORLAN even comments that she ‘no longer say[s] “I am” but “I are”’ (ORLAN FAQ np) – an indication of her post-modern multiplicity of images, meanings and ultimately identities. This multiplicity is a protest against essentialism. A woman does not have to be purely feminine: occupying one space and pursuing one image.

When Bustamante dons her bronzer, wig & cling-films her legs she becomes a ‘monster-beauty’ rather than genuinely attaining the ideal and appearing beautiful to the audience. The image is taken to such an extreme that it becomes grotesque. Equally, ORLAN chooses beautiful facial features from works of art – but when all of these are surgically put onto her face, the result is an amalgamation of different features resulting in an almost ‘alien’ like appearance. It could be said that both artists fail at their tasks. When you try to emulate an image other than your own failure is inevitable, which reflects Gimlin’s view that women are doomed as they can never ‘measure up’ to ‘inherently inconsistent and impossible’ to attain ‘standards for feminine beauty’ (17). “A woman’s work is never done”, whether it be in maintaining her hairstyle, make-up or on a grander scale – surgeries, such as those ORLAN has. It is not that there is one image of beauty ORLAN is aspiring to but several, hence the multiple surgeries.

There is a bizarre tension between finding disdain with an individual having the audacity to admit cosmetic procedures but also with an individual denying any such enhancement. Gimlin comments on how ‘plastic surgery speaks to issues of “passing,” of altering appearance in ways that might be perceived by others as somehow deceptive’ (13) – with ‘passing’ insinuating an attempt to disguise the newness of a feature. With ORLAN and Nao we watch the transformation. These artists protest against a culture fascinated by the wonders of cosmetics and the “before and after” image: a culture which places value on illusion and the final product, denying attention to the uncouth process. There is no deception with Bustamante and ORLAN as they show the gruesome transition: what it takes to become “beautiful.”

The only potential instance of “passing” and deception may be in the way ORLAN reflects on the surgeries. ORLAN denies the idea of the surgery causing pain, depicting that in the 21st century it is simply not necessary to experience such suffering. This is a notion which we may find hard to comprehend, and have to consider that her reflecting on her surgeries is a critical reflection which becomes part of the performance: the negation of pain giving her a stance of power, rather a passive, pained body at the mercy of the surgeon. Fellow performance artist Ron Athey comments that even if it is not the pain which ORLAN experiences or enjoys, she may be engaged in the ‘atrocity exhibition’ (Lee np) – the atrocity being her face cut wide open while she continues to perform. This continuing performance fights against the idea of female essentialism which would depict the female as passive and nurturing, instead favouring a strong performance – not even flinching as the surgeon’s knife cuts open her face. Indeed, in ORLAN’s ‘Carnal Art Manifesto’ she comments that she can observe her ‘own body cut open without suffering!’ (ORLAN Carnal 29). Regardless of her attitude towards her own suffering, the focus of this statement is on observing her body in the process of being altered, something which she refers to as ‘a new stage of gaze.’ Away from the medicalised gaze, with her unconscious and unaware, or a male gaze depicting her in the process of becoming beautiful – she finds her own gaze where she is in a place of observation and also power. It is a novel concept to see a conscious body, performing while being operated on (Knafo 154).

Bustamante is not against make-up or hairspray, only when they are taken to a ridiculous extreme. Equally it is not plastic surgery itself that ORLAN is against but how it is used. Women are operated on to the point where they no longer look like themselves, and their new appearance does not reflect their internal identity but simply a dominant ideology of beauty. Surgery is becoming used more often to deny the process of aging, and with continuous surgeries needed to maintain this taut, youthful face – the actual result is not one of “youth” but simply of someone who has had multiple surgeries. Greg Giraldo once said to Joan Rivers, a perfect example of surgery gone too far – “You used to look your age. Now you don’t even look your species” (Jarski 40): a comment which has often been made of ORLAN. In regard to attempts to remain youthful and beautiful Rivers is met with playful criticism. In response to ORLAN’s works of art she is met with abject horror. The methodology is the same: the intent is different. It is as if art is too flippant a reason to permanently alter one’s body whereas insecurity and aspiring to “beauty” is valid.

The surgery and subsequent feature which has caused the most controversy are ORLAN’s horns on her forehead: not enhancing or changing an old feature but creating a new one. ORLAN ‘argues, the horns ‘‘protrude . . . like volcanoes erupting against the dominant ideology’’ (Knafo 147) - asserting that her art, and her face – in this case interchangeable terms: is a conceptual rather than superficial construct. This volcanic image exemplifies an extreme and visual form of protest against the dominant ideology. For such a medically advanced procedure where anything is possible, the way it is used – ‘to make you prettier or more cute’ (Lee np) as ORLAN states, is minimal to say the least.


Grosz speaks of Foucalt’s idea of knowledge being used as a weapon (Grosz keynote np) – and we can see through Bustamante and ORLAN’s performances that they understand and make use of Western beauty strategies, and it is through doing this that they are able to deconstruct and attack the ways these processes are used. They make us aware that we can change who we are through artifice until that becomes the more concrete image and we almost forget the original. Even after an hour of America, the Beautiful it is uncanny to see Bustamante walk off stage naked as herself, without the wig and the ‘costume’. That is where the difference between the work of ORLAN and that of Bustamante lies – in permanence. Bustamante will walk off having left an impact on the audience but with her appearance changing only for an hour, whereas ORLAN leaves the operating theatre with a new addition on her face that will stay with her, until she enters surgery once again. Crucially though both performers leave us with the premise that the hegemonic ideal that Western society, particularly the media, presents us with is implausible and to aspire to such a standard will only result in failure. These performance artists show that beauty comes from within – from choice, confidence, power and the ability to laugh at oneself.

Works cited

America, the Beautiful. Perf. Nao Bustamante. The Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library. New York University. Web. 24 Nov. 2011. .

Bustamante, Nao. "America The Beautiful, 1995." Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas. Ed. Coco Fusco. London: Routledge, 2000. 196-200. Print.

Carnal Art. Perf. ORLAN. 2008. You Tube. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. .

French Artist ORLAN: 'Narcissism Is Important' By Stuart Jeffries. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 01 July 2009. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. .

Gimlin, Debra L. Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture. London: University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Grosz, Elizabeth. "Keynote Address." Address. Feminist Theory Workshop. Duke University, Durham NC, USA. 2007. International Resource Network. CLAGS, The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, 27 May 2010. Web. 07 Dec. 2011. .

Grosz, Elizabeth. Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies. London: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994. Print.

Jarski, Rosemarie (Ed.). World’s Wittiest Wisecracks. Chester: Marks and Spencer plc, 2011. Print.

Knafo, Danielle. "Castration and Medusa: Orlan's Art on the Cutting Edge." Studies in Gender and Sexuality 10.3 (2009): 142-58. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. .

Maine, Margo. Body Wars: Making Peace with Women’s Bodies: an Activist’s Guide. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze , 2000. Print.

Nao’s Short Bio-Pic. Perf. Nao Bustamante. Blip Networks, Inc, 20 July 2009. Web. 26 Dec. 2011. .


ORLAN. "CARNAL ART MANIFESTO (1989).” Trans. Simon Donger. Orlan: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. Ed. Simon Donger, Simon Shepherd, and ORLAN. Oxon: Routledge, 2010. 28-29. Print.

Partouche, Marc. "To Place Oneself at the Centre of the World (2000).” Trans. H. Dye. Orlan: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. Ed. Simon Donger, Simon Shepherd, and ORLAN. Oxon: Routledge, 2010. 31-32. Print.

The Human Canvas. Prod. Andy Lee. You Tube. Channel 4 - Art Shock, 23 June 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2011. .

Topiary, Samuael. “Wobbling in High Places: An Interview with Performance Artist Nao Bustamante.” Rev. of America, the Beautiful. San Francisco Bay Times 27 July 1995, Volume 16 Number 20 ed. Samuael TOPIARY. WordPress, Mar. 2011. Web. 26 Dec. 2011. .

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. London: Vintage, 1990. Print.