Forced to Be Fat
By Abigail Haworth
Young girls choke down high-calorie gruel under the watchful eye of their cane-wielding "fattener."
Photo Credit: Joost De Raeymaeker
How do small girls eat these gargantuan amounts of food? "I'm very strict," boasts Elhacen. "I beat the girls, or torture them by squeezing a stick between their toes. I isolate them and tell them that thin women are inferior." Desert settlements like this 1000-strong farming community with no electricity or running water are popular spots for leblouh because there are no distractions and no easy ways to escape. But Elhacen denies that her work amounts to child cruelty. "No, no, it's for their own good," she almost shrieks. "How will these poor girls find a husband if they're bony and revolting?"
A real concern, as leblouh is linked to another abominable practice: child marriage. Most girls wed between the ages of 12 and 14. "Increasing a girl's size creates the illusion that she's physically mature, that she's ready for a husband," notes Aminetou Moctar, a feisty, pencil-thin woman in her 50s who is chief of the Association of Women Heads of Households, an equal-rights organization in Nouakchott. "But force-feeding grows the body and shrinks the brain all the girls do is eat and sleep."
Tijanniya wants to become a French teacher, but Elhacen says her parents have already arranged a marriage for her. "Her job will be to make babies and be a soft, fleshy bed for her husband to lie on." To this end, she intends to fast-track Tijanniya's weight gain by serving her cups of pure animal fat. "The stomach flab should cascade, the thighs should overlap, and the neck should have thick ripples of fat," says Elhacen. The ultimate sign of beauty, however, is silvery stretch marks on the arms. "Parents will give me a bonus if a girl develops stretch marks."
Back in Atar, a collection of narrow, sandy lanes and cubbyhole shops, 26-year-old Zeinebou Mint Mohamed offers a glimpse into the girls' potential future. A grocery-store owner who is 5'4" and over 200 pounds, with her braided hair dyed blonde at the tips and stretch marks on her arms, she's a modern woman who has a love-hate relationship with her size.
"I was force-fed as a child. I vomited and suffered heartburn and diarrhea, but I gained weight fast," Zeinebou recalls, reclining in her ramshackle two-room home. At 13, she was married to a much older man, and by 16 she had two sons. Then, like any normal teen, she rebelled, prompting her husband to divorce her. Newly single, she was flooded with romantic offers. "I suddenly saw how much Mauritanian men adore very fat women. Men told me I had the most beautiful body in town, and they fought over me." With her huge eyes and charismatic smile, Zeinebou would be a great beauty whatever her size. But the male reaction to her figure transformed her self-image. "When I realized the power I had over men, I started to enjoy being fat." Zeinebou's current boyfriend, Baba Slama, 29, who is, like many Mauritanian men, rail-thin, agrees that she's in charge. "She's gorgeous; I love her," he says.
Yet Zeinebou's weight slows her down: "I'm always tired, and I wheeze when I walk. I want to be slimmer so I can be more dynamic." A fan of TV soaps beamed in from France and Morocco, she confesses she's drawn to the lifestyles of the female stars. "They seem so independent," she says. "I'd love to be able to wear jeans and high heels. I want to diet, but I'm scared men won't like me anymore."
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