Forced to Be Fat
In Mauritania, where big is beautiful and stretch marks are sexy, young girls are brutally force-fed a diet of up to 16,000 calories a day more than four times that of a male bodybuilder to prepare them for marriage.
By Abigail Haworth
Zeinebou Mint Mohamed, 26, shows off her stretch marks, a major turn-on for Mauritanian men.
Photo Credit: Joost De Raeymaeker
It sounded like summer camp. "You're going on vacation to the desert to meet other girls and eat sweet food," Tijanniya Mint Tijani's mother told her. Tijanniya was excited. "She said that by the time I returned home, I'd be a beautiful woman."
Ten days later, Tijanniya, 14, a sporty student from the town of Atar in the West African country of Mauritania, is eating breakfast with five other girls, ages 7 to 12, in a cramped sandstone hut deep in the Sahara Desert. Her stomach is already bloated from huge quantities of goat's milk and oily couscous, but the meal is not over. The next course is a pint of pounded millet mixed with water. Tijanniya chokes down the thick gruel she has no choice. An older woman dressed in pink robes threatens to beat her with a long cane if she refuses. Worse, if she throws up, the woman will make her eat her own vomit. Outside, a strong wind whips sand into strange, phantasmagoric shapes. The girls have been sent to this desolate spot near Atar to endure the practice of leblouh intensive force-feeding. "The aim is to feed them until their bodies blow up like balloons," says Aminetou Mint Elhacen, 50, the woman wielding the cane.
The ideal of feminine beauty in Mauritania, a country one-and-a-half times the size of Texas and blanketed in desert, is like America's cult of superthinness in reverse. Mauritanian tradition holds that among women, rolling layers of fat are the height of sexiness. The preference originated centuries ago among the Moors, nomadic Muslims of Arabic and Berber stock who make up two-thirds of Mauritania's 3.1 million people. To the ancient Moors, a fat wife (much like fat livestock) was a symbol of a man's wealth, proof that he had enough riches to feed her generously while others perished in the drought-prone terrain.
Until recently, it appeared that force-feeding and the big-is-beautiful ethos were dying out. Although leblouh has never been outlawed in this Islamic republic, in 2003 the government started a campaign to fight child abuse and raise awareness of the health risks of obesity. Moreover, as diverse global influences from knockoff Western fashions to Nigerian pop music and French TV slowly reached the masses, young women in cities like Nouakchott, the capital, were beginning to slim down under their mulafa robes. But in December 2007, progress stalled when gunmen with suspected ties to al Qaeda's North African wing murdered four French vacationers near the capital, causing tourism and foreign investment to plummet. Then, in August 2008, a military coup removed the democratic government and installed a junta that favored "a return to tradition." An election in July kept the junta in power, despite claims of massive vote-rigging.
Now big women are back in vogue, and the custom of funneling rich food into young girls like geese farmed for foie gras is once again thriving unchecked. Elhacen, a droopy-eyed professional force-feeder, estimates that around Atar, a commercial hub 250 miles from Nouakchott, the proportion of girls undergoing force-feeding has climbed to over 80 percent. Government figures from before the 2008 coup put the rate at 50 to 60 percent in rural areas and 20 to 30 percent in cities. "The practice is re-emerging because men still find mounds of female flesh comforting and erotic," explains Seyid Ould Seyid, a Mauritanian male journalist. "The attraction is ingrained from birth."
Elhacen, who makes the equivalent of $155 for each girl she force-feeds over a three-month period, is delighted. "I have a lot more clients again," she notes. Her current "clients" are lying down in the hut in glassy-eyed exhaustion, digesting breakfast. Elhacen mixes crushed dates and peanuts with couscous and oil to make the second of the day's four meals cloying, egg-size balls of around 300 calories apiece. Each girl eats about 40 per day, along with 12 pints of goat's milk and gruel, making their daily intake 14,000 to 16,000 calories. The recommended consumption for a healthy 12-year-old girl averages 1500 calories; an adult male bodybuilder eats up to 4000.
"My stomach hurts," groans Tijanniya. The daughter of livestock dealers, she's furious with her parents for sending her here. "I don't want to be fat. I don't think it's beautiful. Now I see why some girls at school came back fat after vacation, but they were much prettier before." Tijanniya adjusts her electric-blue mulafa, revealing a yellow T-shirt and trendy denim skirt underneath. "I love sports. I'm scared I won't be able to run fast when I'm fat."
NEXT PAGE: THE PHYSICAL EFFECTS OF FORCE-FEEDING