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July 21, 2011

Forced to Be Fat

mauritania force feeding fat women

Goaded by her fattener, Tijanniya Mint Tijani, 14, drinks a large bowl of creamy camel's milk.

Photo Credit: Joost De Raeymaeker

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Zeinebou also frets that she would lose her It-girl status among her female friends. "My first thought when I met Zeinebou was, Where did she get that incredible body?" says her best friend, Hawer Sessay, 26. "I was so jealous." Although hardly skeletal at 5'6" and 180 pounds, Hawer says she has trouble piling on weight, and was teased by plumper girls as a teenager. Recently, her husband told her that he "didn't like sleeping with a bag of bones." Desperate to be bigger, Hawer uses drugs to aid weight gain. She produces a bottle of pills whose active ingredient is cyproheptadine hydrochloride, an allergy medication with a side effect of increased appetite. Misused, the drug can cause low blood pressure, blurred vision, kidney failure, and other problems. "I bought this one because the pharmacist told me it was the least dangerous."

Aminetou, the anti-force-feeding activist, says that pharmaceuticals are "the new form of leblouh." Sold secretly at city markets, they include hormones used to fatten camels and chickens, and steroids for asthma and cancer that cause bloating. A neighbor of Aminetou's died in May after taking animal hormones while pregnant. "She hoped it would give her a fat baby," sighs the activist.

Aminetou has petitioned the junta to take action, to no avail. "The authorities want women to return to their traditional roles — cooking, staying indoors, and staying fat to keep men happy," she says. A government spokesperson, Mbarke Mint Mohamed, denies that the authorities condone leblouh or female obesity. "We take these problems very seriously," she says, but can't name any measures introduced to address them since the 2008 coup. Meanwhile, Dr. Mohammed Ould Madene, an emergency medicine specialist in dusty downtown Nouakchott, says the fat ideal is "a grave matter of public health." He's alarmed by the number of patients he sees with diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and depression. He mentions the recent case of a girl who was rushed to the clinic unconscious. "She was only 14, but so huge that her heart had almost collapsed under the strain."

Yet some young women in the capital refuse to bulk up. "I've always been thin, and I love my size," says Aminetou Kane, 28, a bright-eyed social worker. "I can work, I can dance, I can walk three miles to the beach." Many of her girlfriends, educated career women like herself, prefer to be slimmer, too, she adds. Another encouraging sign is the success of Nouakchott's first women-only gym, where around 300 women exchange their mulafa robes for sweats. "The membership is still tiny, but I'm hoping it will expand," says the owner, Zahoura Kajouane. "Some women join on doctor's orders, but others are image-conscious. One woman hopes to be the Shakira of Mauritania."

That said, women here will almost certainly never strive to be a skinny size 0. In Zeinebou's home, she and Hawer inspect a photo of a bikini-clad model in a glossy magazine from neighboring Morocco. The svelte woman has — to Western eyes — a perfect figure, but the two women are genuinely repelled. "She looks ill," they agree, clicking their tongues at her jutting hips and clavicles. Then they turn to an article about liposuction, and laugh so hard the walls seem to shake.

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