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It sounded like summer camp. Tijanniya was excited. 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 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. 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 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 , 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 , a military coup removed the democratic government and installed a junta that favored "a return to tradition. 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 miles from Nouakchott, the proportion of girls undergoing force-feeding has climbed to over 80 percent. Government figures from before the coup put the rate at 50 to 60 percent in rural areas and 20 to 30 percent in cities. 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 calories apiece. Each girl eats about 40 per day, along with 12 pints of goat's milk and gruel, making their daily intake 14, to 16, calories.
The recommended consumption for a healthy year-old girl averages calories; an adult male bodybuilder eats up to The daughter of livestock dealers, she's furious with her parents for sending her here. 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. I'm scared I won't be able to run fast when I'm fat. How do small girls eat these gargantuan amounts of food? I isolate them and tell them that thin women are inferior. But Elhacen denies that her work amounts to child cruelty.
A real concern, as leblouh is linked to another abominable practice: child marriage. Most girls wed between the ages of 12 and Tijanniya wants to become a French teacher, but Elhacen says her parents have already arranged a marriage for her. The ultimate of beauty, however, is silvery stretch marks on the arms.
Back in Atar, a collection of narrow, sandy lanes and cubbyhole shops, year-old Zeinebou Mint Mohamed offers a glimpse into the girls' potential future. A grocery-store owner who is 5'4" and over 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 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. Men told me I had the most beautiful body in town, and they fought over me. But the male reaction to her figure transformed her self-image. 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. I want to diet, but I'm scared men won't like me anymore. Zeinebou also frets that she would lose her It-girl status among her female friends. Recently, her husband told her that he "didn't like sleeping with a bag of bones. 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.
Aminetou, the anti-force-feeding activist, says that pharmaceuticals are "the new form of leblouh. A neighbor of Aminetou's died in May after taking animal hormones while pregnant. Aminetou has petitioned the junta to take action, to no avail. A government spokesperson, Mbarke Mint Mohamed, denies that the authorities condone leblouh or female obesity. 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 mentions the recent case of a girl who was rushed to the clinic unconscious.
Yet some young women in the capital refuse to bulk up. Another encouraging is the success of Nouakchott's first women-only gym, where around women exchange their mulafa robes for sweats. 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.
Then they turn to an article about liposuction, and laugh so hard the walls seem to shake. United States. Type keyword s to search. Today's Top Stories. Joost De Raeymaeker. This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this to help users provide their addresses.
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Forced to Be Fat