Fighting for the right to diet

Some Mauritanian women are fighting their fat-worshiping society by putting on their walking shoes.

Published July 12, 2006 1:24PM (EDT)

A country where big is considered beautiful sounds like a welcome refuge from the Western obesession with jutting hip bones. But even the hailing of female heft doesn't necessarily free women from pressure to conform to an unrealistic beauty standard. The Christian Science Monitor carried a surprising article Tuesday about how Mauritanian women suffer to stay obese -- and how a growing number are thwarting cultural norms by resisting force-feeding and even daring to drop a few pounds.

The story would be an amusing look at the battle of the bulge gone topsy-turvy if it didn't include such a disturbing glimpse of what women have endured to stay heavy. It's a "tradition that's as old as the desert," the Monitor's Claire Soares writes to describe the practice of "gavage": the force-feeding of young girls so they fatten up and attract men, who believe that a woman's corpulence is a reflection of their wealth. (And yes, that's the same word the French use to describe pumping ducks and geese full of corn so they produce succulent foie gras.) Mothers concerned about their daughters' futures funnel sweetened milk and millet porridge down the girls' throats.

Thankfully, the practice is declining. Following national and local campaigns, a 2001 government survey found that only 10 percent of women ages 15-19 were force-fed as young girls, compared with 35 percent of 45-to-54-year-olds. But despite a growing awareness of the health risks of obesity, cultural ideals die hard. Some girls are now turning to pills to gain weight -- "some of them ones you usually give to an animal," Mariame Baba Sy, who heads a government commission on women's issues, told the Monitor. (These include some from Pakistan, which aren't advised for human consumption, and Chinese medications for rheumatism.)

But a minority are flouting the fat ideal altogether and making waves by embracing fitness. "Swing by the sports stadium in Nouakchott [the capital] as dusk falls and you'll see scores of chubby ladies determinedly pattering around the track, their sneakers poking out beneath their traditional mephala robes," writes Soares.

But thin -- or even mildly overweight, for that matter -- may not be an easy sell on the men. One Mauritanian woman complains that men try to offer her a ride when she wants to walk. And the former mayor of Nouakchott told Soares about a doctor who admitted that even though he knew that thinner was healthier, he liked "something to hold on to."

Will women anywhere ever be free of the pressure to be a certain body size?

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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