Force-feeding in Mauritania

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MARCO WERMAN: It's perfectly acceptable to tell a Mauritanian woman that she's fat. In fact, she's likely to thank you. Fat is where it's at in this West African nation, at least for women. That's because Mauritanian men tend to like their women on the extra large side, and many girls there are being force-fed get them plump enough to be marriage material. Abigail Haworth's article about the practice appears in last month's issue of Marie Claire. Haworth writes that Mauritanian girls go to fat farms where the idea is to gain weight.

ABIGAIL HAWORTH: Every summer at the beginning of the rainy season when the dates are ripe, they go to these small desert communities, and they have a professional force feeder who basically spends all her day preparing food and it's very rich, cuscus and dates and peanuts all mashed together. And this one village that I went to, they made little balls of cuscus. They just had a huge plate of these little balls of cuscus and the girls were just eating them one after another, they're incredibly sweet. And I tasted them and incredibly rich. So then they eat had then they lie down. They're not supposed to exercise because that burns calories. So they just lie down to digest, and then they start all over again. There are four meals a day that take about two hours each or up to three hours.

WERMAN: And this isn't like some pleasant little camp where you just go to eat. I mean, you have a very hideous detail in here about what happens if these girls happen to vomit.

HAWORTH: It's definitely not pleasant. I mean, it's a very violent process that the children are being forced fed, and then if they vomit sometime they're forced to eat the vomit. And then there's psychological torture as well that they isolate them if they won't eat and, you know, tell them that thin women are inferior. These are young and impressionable girls. A couple of the girls that I met they were quite worried about it because they didn't want to be fat, and they didn't really realize the whole ramifications. And they were still talking to me about wanting to be teachers and how much they loved sports, and you know, it was quite heart breaking.

WERMAN: And with all this eating up to 16,000 calories a day, what is the end result actually look like?

HAWORTH: Well, I mean, we weren't there at the beginning of the process. So the young girls that we saw were just beginning to put on weight, but at the end of three months the force feeder was telling us yes they should have rolling layers of fat, their thighs should meet in the middle, and they should stretch marks on their arms. That she could make them so fat that they get stretch marks. That's considered a major sign of beauty.

WERMAN: And this is all because men in Mauritania believe that it's comfortable to cozy up with a woman who have got these layers of fat?

HAWORTH: Yes, they have all these sayings like, "The glory of a man is measured by the fatness of his woman." And, "The more space a woman takes up in a man's bed, the more she's worth." These are old sayings in Mauritania.

WERMAN: One thing that you know, Abigail, is that the practice of force feeding in Mauritania was actually dying out until recently when there was a military coup in 2008. That seemed to give this practice a new boost. Explain how that happened.

HAWORTH: Well, there were some initiatives. I mean going back to 2003; the government began to address the problem and had quite a few health initiatives. So people believed it was dying out, and then when there was a coup in 2008, the new government abdicated this return to traditional and traditional values. And all these initiatives stopped and instead of promotion women's health and women's rights, they sort of wanted women to go back into the family and, therefore, just continue these traditions and being fat was one of those. So really, the practice just came out into the open again.

WERMAN: What kind of health problems is this leading to in Mauritania for women?

HAWORTH: Well, I mean, you know, the usual problems that are associated with obesity, but I think I'm more worrying about developments in the last few years is that instead of force feeding themselves, adult women are turning to drugs to try to put on weight. They're using all sorts of illegal drugs or steroids and animal hormones. And the steroids, for example, they cause bloating and water retention and muscle bulk. They can have all sorts of negative health effects as well.

WERMAN: Abigail Haworth, Senior International Editor for Marie Claire Magazine. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

HAWORTH: Thanks very much for having me.