NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — In the Western world, fashion icons and celebrities push the notion that thin is always in. However, beauty in Mauritania is held to the, “big is beautiful and stretch marks are sexy” standard. There, obesity is viewed as a sign of wealth and status. Girls are encouraged from a young age to gain weight in order to fulfill their culture’s perception of beauty.
Although the country is plagued with food shortages and droughts, Mauritanians practice the tradition of “leblouh” or “gavage” which means to “fatten up.” Girls usually begin this process as early as age 5. It is predicted that the heavier the girl, the more prospects she will have for marriage. Parents are known for being overjoyed when their daughter’s gain weight and often brag about the amount of rolls their daughters have.
During the fattening process, most girls are sent off to fat camps in the desert in which they required to eat a diet of 16,000 calories a day. The camp overseers force the girls to drink camel milk, eat multiple times a day and instruct the girls to limit their physical activities. If a girl refuses to comply with the cultural practice, they are tortured or ridiculed. Girls whose stomachs are unable to adapt to massive eating are given a concoction of pills to obtain the same result. This process is known as a “chemical gavage”, where girls are given growth hormones, contraceptives and steroid hormones to bulk up.
The practice of fattening originated centuries ago from the Moors, nomadic Muslims of Arabic and Berber stock, that make up two-thirds of the Mauritania’s population. In ancient times having a fat wife was seen as a symbol of a man’s fortune.
When U.S. journalist Thomas Morton went to Mauritania to do a documentary on this tradition, he was shocked to learn how much weight he gained after he partook in the Mauritanian diet. Morton complained of weight gain and that he felt uncomfortable. His documentary showed the startling health concerns of this practice.
The World Health Organization also linked this practice to the cause of a quarter of Mauritanian women being obese. This practice is surprising considering that there is not a single fast-food franchise in the country. The effects of the gavage are serious. They include heart failure, kidney failure, diabetes, women’s reproductive problems, and joint pain.
Most recently, force-feeding and the extreme side of big-is-beautiful beliefs are reducing. Mauritanian girls are more aware of healthy lifestyle choices. They are learning that everyone’s body is not the same and that big and thin body types should be culturally acceptable as long as they are healthy. While several middle-class Mauritanians claim that they have abandoned the practice of force-feeding, it is still widespread throughout the rural areas.
Although leblouh has never been outlawed, the government has begun to campaign against child abuse and bring awareness of the health risks of obesity. Having curves are wonderful as long as they are not coupled with preventable health risks to be a beauty in Mauritania.
– Needum Lekia