NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Mey Mint struggles to carry her weight up the flight of stairs, her thighs shaking with each step. It will take several minutes for the 50-year-old to catch her breath, air hissing painfully in and out of her chest.
Her rippling flesh is not the result of careless overeating, though, but rather of a tradition.
In Mauritania, to make a girl big and plump, ‘gavage’ — a borrowed French word from the practice of fattening of geese for foie gras — starts early. Obesity has long been the ideal of beauty, signaling a family’s wealth in a land repeatedly wracked by drought.
Mint was 4 when her family began to force her to drink 14 gallons of camel’s milk a day. When she vomited, she was beaten. If she refused to drink, her fingers were bent back until they touched her hand. Her stomach hurt so much she prayed all the animals in the world would die so that there would be no more milk.
By the time Mint was 10, she could no longer run. Unconcerned, her proud mother delighted in measuring the loops of fat hanging under her daughter’s arms.
“My mother thinks she made me beautiful. But she made me sick,” says Mint, who suffers from weight-related illnesses including diabetes and heart disease. She asked that her full last name not be disclosed because she feels embarrassed.
A quarter of the 1.5 million women in Mauritania — a barren, dune-enveloped country in northwest Africa more than twice the size of Texas — are obese, according to the World Health Organization. That’s lower than the 40 percent of American women who the WHO says are obese, but surprisingly high in a country that has not a single fast-food franchise.
Public health via love songs
To end the brutal feeding practices, the government has launched a TV and radio campaign highlighting the health risks of obesity. Because most Mauritanian love songs describe the ideal woman as fat, the health ministry commissioned catchy odes to thin women.
These efforts, combined with the rising popularity of foreign soap operas featuring model-thin women, has helped reduce the practice, especially among the country’s urban elite.
Only one in 10 women under the age of 19 has been force-fed, compared to a third of women 40 or older, according to a survey conducted by the National Office of Statistics in 2001, the most recent available.
Those still forced to eat were overwhelmingly from the country’s rural areas.
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But although the canon of beauty is changing, entrenched values are hard to uproot.
“My husband thinks I’m not fat enough,” complained Zeinabou Mint Bilkhere, explaining that her husband found her pretty during the last months of her pregnancy. Since giving birth, the weight has dropped, however, and with it his desire for her.
Although few women are force-fed today, many feel pressured to be bigger-than-average. Like many, Bilkhere has turned to a more scientific method of weight gain, using foreign-made appetite-inducing pills.
Wrapped in a floor-length veil, the 24-year-old, who is roughly a size 8, opens her purse and pushes a fistful of change across the counter of a roadside pharmacy for a box of Anactine, a Moroccan-made antihistamine.
The pills, commonly prescribed for hay fever, also induce hunger. They and similar drugs replace a more blunt instrument, recently outlawed by the government: animal steroids intended for fattening camels.
“When I was little, my mother hit me to eat because I didn’t want to be fat. Now I want to be big because men like that,” said Bilkhere, who wants to gain more than 20 pounds.
But many men say they prefer voluptuous women.
Isselmou Ould Mohamed says he loves his wife’s 200-pound body and was pleased when she began adding even more weight during pregnancy. When he learned she had started walking around the soccer stadium to try to shed the extra pounds, he was revolted.
More to love
“I don’t like skinny women. I want to be able to grab her love handles,” said the 32-year-old. “I told her that if she loses a lot of weight, I’ll divorce her.”
Although Mauritania is the only culture known to force-feed girls, obesity is popular across much of the Arab world. Nomadic peoples struggling to survive the harsh desert came to prize fatness as a sign of health.
Fifty-two percent of women over 15 in Kuwait are obese, as are 46 percent in Egypt and approximately a third of women in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, according to the WHO. That contrasts sharply with most sub-Saharan countries, including Mauritania’s neighbors, Senegal and Mali, where only 9 and 6 percent of women are obese.
“A man’s goal is to marry a woman that fills his house. She needs to decorate it like an armoire or a TV set,” said Seif l’Islam, 48, curator of a library of ancient Islamic manuscripts, which include numerous love poems to plump women.
There are signs of change. In the dying desert light, chubby women in head-to-toe veils can be seen perspiring as they walk around the capital’s soccer stadium.
When she first started walking laps six years ago, 40-year-old Ramla Mint Ahmed said, she tightly veiled her face, hoping not to be recognized. Now she exercises openly and is dieting.
Her obese mother, who as a child was repeatedly woken at night and forced to drink camel’s milk, says she doesn’t object. But that doesn’t mean her notions of beauty have changed.
Ahmed is the eldest of three daughters and the only overweight one. Her 22- and 26-year-old sisters are no larger than a size 4. In America, they would be envied for their tiny waists, yet their mother sees them differently.
Asked which daughter is the prettiest, she waves her hand dismissively toward the model-thin sisters, saying, “Definitely those two are not beautiful.”
Her oldest daughter, like her, has garlands of fat on her belly and voluminous thighs.
“This one,” says the mother, “has the face of a queen.”
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