Orlan – The French Performance Artist Who Used Plastic Surgery to Challenge Beauty Standards

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We’ve heard countless stories of women who go through procedure after procedure in an attempt to improve their looks, but when I first read about Orlan, a French performance artist, I was shocked. She has also undergone several surgical alterations to her face, but for a different reason – to challenge the standards of beauty that society has set for women. She makes use of plastic surgery as a part of her art, to transform her face and body in such a way that it questions traditional perceptions of beauty.

Orlan has done things to herself as bizarre as reshaping her face to resemble Zimbabwe’s Ndebele giraffe women. The whole purpose of her art, she says, is ‘to shock’. “The whole point is to be against the idea of social pressure put on a woman’s body,” Orlan is reported to have said. Her present day career is inspired from an incident that occurred in her life, way back in 1978. She was preparing to speak at a symposium one day, when she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency surgery. “I almost died because I had an ectopic pregnancy,” she said. “They had to operate to save my life and remove what they told me was a non-viable fetus.” What was most unusual about this incident was the way Orlan chose to handle it. In what can only be called the beginnings of reality television, she took a camera crew along with her to film the operation as it happened. She also insisted that she remain conscious throughout the procedure. “I wasn’t in pain and what was happening to my body was of profound interest to me. Pain is an anachronism. I have great confidence in morphine.”


Black Gums Are Considered a Sign of Beauty in West Africa

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I’ve read about people getting tattoos on the weirdest places of their bodies, but this one just beats them all. Never before have I heard of people getting their gums tattooed. Not in any particular design, but just a uniform black color. This is actually a popular practice among women in West African countries like Senegal, because over there apparently, black gums are a thing of beauty.

Tattooed black gums are especially popular in small towns and villages like Thies, in Senegal. Women here practice this ancient tradition to get a smile that is considered more attractive. Of course, the process is nothing short of painful. Marieme, from Thies, is one such young girl to have gone through the procedure. I watched a documentary on YouTube that covered her journey from having regular gums to the more desirable black variety. Before she went for it, she said, “I want black gums to obtain a more beautiful smile. It’s become an obsession. I do fear the procedure. But I’ll be OK.”


Frano Selak – Truly the World’s (Un)Luckiest Man

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What would you call a man who has managed to cheat death seven times, and also win the lottery? ‘World’s luckiest man’, might just be an understatement. But that’s exactly the story of Frano Selak, an 81-year-old music teacher from Croatia.

At first glance, there’s nothing noticeably special about Selak. He looks pretty much like your average, everyday octogenarian. But the life this man has lived is quite extraordinary. He survived one plane crash, several train and car wrecks and other disasters such as falling out of a plane through a door that was blown open, only to land on a haystack. Obviously lady luck’s favorite son, the icing on Selak’s record came when he won a £600,000 (almost $1 million) lottery about 7 years ago, on the occasion of his fifth marriage. Until recently, he owned a luxury home on a private island and a vast fortune. But Selak realized that “money cannot buy happiness,” so he sold his home, gave away his fortune to family and friends and moved back to his old home – a modest dwelling in Petrinja, south of Zagreb, right in the middle of Croatia. The only bit of winnings that he kept for himself was to pay for a hip replacement operation and to build a shrine to the Virgin Mary as a way of thanks for his luck. He now enjoys his life with his wife in his humble home.


The Real-Life King Arthur and His Biker-Druid Followers

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If you’re a King Arthur fan and plan to visit Stonehenge sometime soon, you should totally go there on the summer solstice. Because that’s when your chances are high to spot the real-life King Arthur and his 20,000 followers – a motley crew of tourists, pilled-up teenagers in sportswear and neo-druids.

Their leader, formerly known as John Rothwell, now claims that he is the living embodiment of the 1575-year-old legendary British monarch – King Arthur. He rose to fame in the 1990s, when his efforts to open up access to Stonehenge during religious festivals like the summer solstice paid off, after winning a case at the European Court of Human Rights. Fast forward to present-day and you will find Arthur elected as the ‘Battle Chieftain’ of the Council of British Druid Orders. ‘King Arthur’ and his ‘Loyal Arthurian Warband’ represent the political wing of Britain’s neo-druid community. What’s more, King Arthur also has a partner, his very own High Priestess, and the two of them are quite active these days in protesting for ancient druid remains to get out of the hands of archaeologists and reinstated to their rightful resting place.


Macabre Rituals – The Annual Cleaning of the Dead at Pomuch Cemetery

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It’s fascinating how bizarre the rituals of the dead can get. The latest we’ve discovered is from Pomuch, Campeche, a small Mayan town in Mexico. In Campeche, the day of the dead, which is not unlike Spring Cleaning, is honored each year. On this particular day, families visit the cemetery to participate in the ritual cleaning of the bones of their loved ones. The squeaky-clean remains are then placed on display along with flowers and a new cloth for veneration.

The custom applies to anybody who dies in Campeche, ranging from young to old. Every corpse is buried for three years and then, on the Day of the Dead, the bones are dug up, cleaned and transferred to a wooden crate. The waiting period of 3 years is important because the bones need that time to dry out. The wooden crate is placed on permanent display in the cemetery. From then on, people go to the cemetery to pay their respects and clean the remains every year. Nov 1st is the day dedicated to dead children, known as the Dia de los Niños (Day of the Innocents), and Nov 2nd is for everyone else. The custom of cleaning the remains of dead relatives is said to date all the way back to Mayan practices – when the skulls of ancestors were retained and worshipped. The significance behind the ritual is to help people deal with the pain of losing a loved one. It is also believed to keep families together. The most important belief, however, is that a relative whose remains are poorly taken care of can become angry and wander through the streets.


Man’s Addiction to Heavy-Metal Earns Him Disability Benefits

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Here’s something worth banging your head over: 42-year-old Roger Tullgren, from Hässleholm, Sweden, was cleared for state disability benefits after he’s been certified by three psychologists as a heavy-metal addict who can’t function at his workplace unless he is allowed to wear black T-shirts and camo pants, and rock out to loud heavy metal music.

The Swedish edition of The Local first reported about Roger Tullgren back in 2007, soon after his addiction to heavy-metal was acknowledged by psychologists and the state employment service agreed to pay part of his salary. Apparently, his interest in heavy-metal started in 1971, when his brother came home with a Black Sabbath album. Since then he’s been hooked to everything that screams heavy-metal, sports long black hair, a collection of tattoos and wears skull and crossbones jewelry. Nothing really out of the ordinary so far, he’s not the only man in the world passionate about this culture. But in Tullgren’s case, it started interfering with everything else. Because he couldn’t help attending hundreds of heavy-metal shows and events every year, often skipping work, his employer eventually tired of his antics and the aging rocker found himself without a job and relying on welfare. Luckily, after some sessions with occupational psychologists who certified his addiction to heavy-metal as a disability, Roger Tullgren earned the right to a wage supplement from the local job center.


The Blood Qur’an – A Holy Book Written with the Blood of Saddam Hussein

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We’ve heard of fanatical lovers writing letters to their beloved in blood. But Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein took this practice to a new level. In the late 1990s, he commissioned a calligrapher to make a copy of the Qur’an, using his own blood as ink. For the project, Saddam donated 7 gallons (27 liters) of blood over the course of two years – the time it took for the book to be completed. The book still exists, and no one knows what to do with it.

For now, Saddam’s blood-inscribed Qur’an is being kept behind locked doors in Baghdad. The unusual book is both sacred and profane, so officials are quite unsure as to how to deal with it. Islamic clerics are confused over the decision to either destroy the book or preserve it as a reminder of the dictator’s brutality. It is most likely that Saddam was quite aware of the controversy his project would spew, given the taboos in Islamic culture over human bodily fluids, but he went ahead with it anyway. His intentions were clear – he had said that the book was his tribute to God because his son had survived an assassination attempt. In the words of one Iraqi citizen, “On one flank had been the government, doing all it could to prevent access. The Shia-led regime is highly sensitive to the re-emergence of any symbols that might lionize the remnants of the Ba’athist rank and file, which still orchestrates bombings and assassinations every few days. And then there are the Sunnis themselves, who are fearful of government retribution if they open the doors and of divine disapproval if they treat this particularly gruesome volume of the Qur’an with the reverence of a holy book.”


Women Living As Men – The Sworn Virgins of Albania

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Earlier this year, we posted about Bacha Posh, the little cross-dressing girls of Afghanistan who spend their childhood dressing and living as boys. But there are places in this world where women swap genders for an entire lifetime. Albania is one such place, where sworn virgins exist in accordance with their familial code of ethics called Kanun, of Leke Dukagjini.

According to the non-religious Kanun tradition, families in some parts of Albania must be both patrilineal and patrilocal. This means the family wealth is always inherited by the men, and a woman moves into her husband’s home after marriage. Marriages are arranged at a very young age, if not at birth, and once deemed eligible to marry, the woman must become a part of her husband’s family. The role of a woman is severely circumscribed, reduced to taking care of the children and maintaining a home. A woman’s life is considered to be worth only half of that of a man. For the followers of the Kanun tradition, dress is an important marker to distinguish between genders. The men wear trousers, close-fitting caps and wrist watches, while women are dressed in skirts, headscarves, aprons and sometimes even veils. That actually doesn’t sound too odd, does it? But here’s the twist – a woman can choose to become a man in a Kanun society, by simply dressing like one. So an Albanian woman who dresses like a man, is a man. A change in dress is all that’s needed for a change in gender. Born out of a social necessity, women who become men in Albania are called Virgjinesha (the sworn virgins).


The Paris Syndrome – A Bizarre Psychological Condition Affecting Japanese Tourists?

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Among a host of first world problems is the mysterious Paris Syndrome – that horrible feeling you get when you realize the beautiful City of Lights isn’t all that you imagined it to be. And strangely, the worst to be affected by this bizarre condistion are the otherwise calm and collected Japanese.

As ridiculous as it sounds, Paris Syndrome is very real. Because of the way the city is represented in the media, especially the Japanese media, a lot of people labor under the misconception that Paris is a quaint, friendly little place with affluence reeking in its every corner. The women are imagined to be dainty and beautiful, the city is expected to smell like Chanel No. 5, parks filled with pigeons and waiters bursting into song at the drop of a hat. In fact, many Japanese really believe that Parisians are all thin, gorgeous and unbelievably rich. Inevitably, their bubble is burst on their very first day in the city.


Danza Voluminosa – Cuba’s Plus-Size Dance Group

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If you thought the world of ballet dancing was reserved exclusively for the slim and petit, well, it’s time to think again. Because the Cuban dance troupe ‘DanzaVoluminosa’ (literally meaning Voluminous Dance) is here to prove you wrong. Comprising of eight dancers and a combined total weight of over 1,600lbs (more than 200lbs per dancer), these heavy beauties have taken the tutu way past its traditional size ‘zero’.

In a recent video report on DanzaVoluminosa by the Associated Press, the founder of the troupe Juan Miguel Mas explains, “The most important thing is that it elevates the self-esteem of the overweight. It helps them to not be sedentary and get out and move, live, work, investigate and love their bodies, too.” Juan says that the purpose of the dance troupe is to find harmony, and the fulfillment of being human. The group was founded way back in 1996 and had been a hit in Cuba ever since. In 2004, it was the subject of a documentary film called Defying Gravity. Hailing from Cuba’s capital city of Havana, the group is focused on breaking traditional stereotypes and giving overweight performers a chance to realize their dreams. The dance troupe is the brainchild of Juan Miguel, who wanted to find a way to adapt modern dance techniques to suit the physical possibilities of overweight people. It has so far produced three full-length choreographies and thirty shorter works. The latest offering from DanzaVoluminosa is called ‘Crisalidas’ or ‘Chrysalis’.


Dutch Artist Spends 20 Years Building Life-Size Replica of Noah’s Ark

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Inspired by Noah’s Ark from the Book of Genesis, Dutch artist Johan Huibers built a modern day replica spending a whopping $1.2 million on it. His reasons for building the vessel  – he feared the effects global warming would someday have on his country, flooding included. The idea came to him in 1992, when he had a dream about his native land submerged in a flood similar to the one in the Book of Genesis. He continued to think about it until he finally did something about it. And the result is a 130m long, 29m wide, 23m high ark that he completed in 2005. Weighing almost 3000 tons and built from Swedish pine reinforced with steel, it is quite hard to believe that ark might be seaworthy at all, but this modern-day Noah assures us it does indeed float.

A carpenter by profession, Johan Huibers has now opened his full scale ark to the public and is attracting thousands of tourists from the world over. Located in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, the ark is something that would even surprise Noah, for it has a restaurant, two cinemas and of course, a menagerie of life-sized plastic animals. Towering over the flat Dutch landscape, the ark is easily visible from a nearby highway. Across the arks main hold is a huge space of stalls, where visitors can view a large collection of stuffed and plastic animals like zebras, gorillas, lions, tigers, bears and buffaloes. There’s also a petting zoo, where less dangerous real-life animals like dogs, sheep, rabbits, ponies and a few exotic birds are housed . On each level of the boat, around its edges, are displays about the history and dress of the ancient Middle East, a few scenes from the life of Noah, and games for kids like water pumps and levers that lift bales of hay. But the ark is not just about tourist attractions. Down below, there exists a honeycomb system of hatches, each opening an area where food could be sealed in for long-term storage. The curvature of the upper deck could be used to collect rainwater and also to let the horses and other animals get some exercise. Huibers says that his boat gives people a pretty good idea of how Noah’s ark would have worked in practice.


Chinese Farmer Builds Wind-Powered Car

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A 55-year-old Chinese farmer has come up with a unique invention that might just make him a millionaire. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen vehicles that run on alternative fuel sources, but Tang Zhengping’s invention is really something else. The car he built in three months is 1m high,  3m long and powered by wind. But the best part is this – it has the potential to reach a speed of 90mph (140kmph). This does seem too good to be true for a wind-powered vehicle, but Mr.Zhengping from Beijing, the city that hosts the largest car show in the world, has a different story to tell.

According to Mr.Zhengping, the vehicle runs on electric generators and batteries, which are recharged by the large fan spinning in the front of the vehicle. The two solar energy wings at the back also support the generation of electricity. While one set of generators and batteries are working, another two get charged. For now, the batteries need to be charged every two days and the fan and wings provide extra electricity when the car is in motion. “It goes at a maximum speed of 140kmph and lasts longer than an electric car, which usually doesn’t have generators,” says Mr.Zhengping.


Off with Her Toes! Growing Number Of Women Shortening or Removing Toes to Wear High Heels

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The things some women will do to fit into a beautiful pair of high-heel shoes. Apparently, a growing number of women are having their toes shortened or even completely removed, in order to make wearing stilettos a less-painful experience.

According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, eighty-seven percent of women have had foot problems from wearing uncomfortable or ill-fitting shoes, like high-heels. But while some give-up on the problematic footwear, others love wearing them so much they will appeal to surgical procedures such as shortening toes, receiving foot injections and even completely cutting off pinky toes in order to make walking in them bearable. “Unless you’ve been there, and you can’t find shoes, and you’re in pain, don’t judge,” Susan Deming, a patient who recently had one of her toes shortened, told Fox News. “I was having calluses, and just, all sorts of problems with my left foot.  And there finally was a solution.  There’s never been a solution before.” Some of Susan’s toes were longer than the others, making her left foot an entire size longer than her right foot, so she cut off about a centimeter off her second toe. “I’ve never felt this good about something I’ve done,” she said.  “If it’s vain, it’s vain.”


Party Like There’s No Tomorrow – Russian Revelers Pay $1,000 to Celebrate Apocalypse in Soviet Era Bunker

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A Cold War bunker in Moscow designed to protect Soviet leaders in case of nuclear attacks will host the ultimate doomsday party. Revelers willing to part with $1,000 will be able to celebrate the coming of the Apocalypse in a safe environment that can withstand nuclear catastrophes and earthquakes.

Sure, $1,000 isn’t cheap, but with the world coming to an end, you might as well spend your life savings partying, right? That’s what the administrators of Bunker 42, in Moscow, are hoping, anyway. The shelter located 65 meters underground has been decorated especially for this special end-of-the-world party, after receiving a large number of requests from Russians looking for a chance to survive the impending doom. According to senior bunker guide Alexei Pavlovsky, the idea behind the event is pretty simple:  : A lot of many people would feel much calmer if they could spend this critical day surrounded by maximum comfort and safety. And who are we to say no?” Can’t argue with that, now can you?


Style Oddities – Fake Braces Worn as Fashion Accessories

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It’s at times like this that I simply don’t understand fashion trends. I mean, what would prompt otherwise normal teenagers to consider something as horrendous as braces to be a fashionable accessories? Don’t get me wrong, I think braces are an extremely useful dental tool and I used to wear them as well, but I always dreamt of the day I would be done with them forever. Kids in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and China, however, think very differently. For them, braces have become a huge teenage fashion statement.

As unfathomable as the trend sounds, there’s actually a reason behind it. Just as ‘plump’ people were thought to be attractive at one point – as a sign of prosperity – braces to the Asian kids are a sign of wealth, status and style. The reason: genuine orthodontic braces are quite expensive. A set of braces in Bangkok would set you back about $1,200. So all the kids want to wear what the rich kids are wearing. Braces are also popular among young celebrities and youth icons like Indonesian heartthrob Andika Kangen and Thai pop singer Earn the Star. Many Thai and Indonesian websites display pictures of Gwen Stefani sporting braces back in the 90s. Apparently, she had recently confessed that her braces were a ‘fashion choice’, and she’s since become an instant hit with Asian kids. The internet is littered with countless blogs and websites on fashion braces. I tried googling them and found that braces are available in an explosion of colors and varieties.


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