Do these jeans make me look too skinny?

In Mauritania, fat is in. And the government wants women to go on a diet.

Published April 17, 2007 8:28PM (EDT)

As if there were ever any doubt that body image was subjective, check out this article from the Associated Press about a special Mauritanian practice: force-feeding women to make them beautiful.

Yes, that's right. In Mauritania, obesity has traditionally been thought of as a sign of beauty, so much so that parents (especially in rural areas) routinely practiced what is called "gavage," from the French word for the practice of fattening up geese for foie gras: Young girls are forced to eat to the point of sickness so that their bodies will be suitably plump. One woman recounts to the AP stories of being forced -- at age 4 -- to drink 14 gallons of camel's milk a day. If she failed to do so, she was beaten or had her fingers bent back. Today, the 50-year-old suffers from weight-related heart disease and diabetes, and can barely carry herself up the stairs.

The practice of gavage is less common than it was during that woman's childhood -- in 2001, one in 10 women under age 19 had been force-fed, as opposed to about a third of women over 40. Still, the WHO estimates that a quarter of Mauritania's women are obese. This might sound like nothing compared with American women (the WHO says 40 percent of us are obese), but it is pretty weird, as the AP points out, in a country that doesn't have a single fast-food franchise. And Mauritanian women still engage in some fat-encouraging practices that seem shocking by American standards (until you remember that we're equally, if not more, obsessed with achieving the opposite goal): Women buy appetite-enhancing pills, and one 200-pound woman's husband is quoted as saying that if she loses any weight, he'll divorce her.

But now the government is stepping in. It has launched a TV and radio campaign warning people about the dangers of obesity. And since many of Mauritania's love songs and poetry extol the beauty of being fat, the government has commissioned jingles praising thin women. The government's efforts -- not to mention the influence of foreign soap operas that star super-skinny women -- are helping change Mauritania's beauty image, at least among the urban elite.

It makes me wonder if places like America or Mauritania will ever get to a point where the ideal body isn't outrageously fat or skinny. And it also makes me wonder what it would be like if the U.S. government started broadcasting songs encouraging women to gain weight. Could that have been the true message behind "Baby Got Back"?

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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