Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-Chief
Last Modified: 02:18 a.m. EDT, 11 April 2010
MAURITANIA, West Africa - Thousands of young girls in the West African country Mauritania, continue to be subjected to the cruel practice of gavage or force-feeding to make them more desirable for marriage.
Every year girls as young as five are routinely forced to undergo the traditional practice of Leblouh so they will be fat enough to secure a larger dowry for their families.
This inhuman practice of force feeding girls, often until they vomit, is as reprehensible as another predominant cultural practice of genital mutilation. Both practices seek to enrich the family through dowries because the girls have been physiologically altered to inflate their marketability to perspective husbands.
Even more traumatic and heart-breaking, is the fact that the perpetrator of these indignities are not strangers, but the mothers and other female members of the girls' immediate and extended family. It is a vicious cycle that becomes a twisted rite of passage wherein the victim becomes the victimizer.
Although the Mauritanian government denies that the practice continues while clerics assert that it is contrary to Islamic law; it is a country with over 50% unemployment and vast rural areas populated by nomadic people who live in abject poverty.
It is within this context that obesity among children and the plague of poor body image among women has recently captured international attention. Historically, woman have struggled against fickle standards of beauty established by male perceptions and desires, and promulgated through various mediums and industries.
Currently, in the West an inverse standard of beauty exists as 'waifs' adorn our advertisements and daily assault us through film and video. Thinness has become synonymous with status and wealth, and is yet another way for people in America to discriminate.
In Mauritania and other parts of the world where fast food is not readily available, it is very difficult to gain weight. However, in America poorer women and their children are most susceptible to the accessibility, ease of obtainment, and low-cost of fast food and other non-nutritious food products.
Based upon my experience, the cost of eating healthy, buying organic, and supporting local producers and farmers comprises an astounding 30% of my monthly income. For most people in this country, especially in these challenging economic times, this type of expenditure is impossible.
Thus, when the effects of unhealthy diet manifests in obesity and the attendant physical and health challenges, becomes yet another identifier in class distinction. More about this subject of food in America can be explored by watching the movie "Fast Food Nation," by Eric Schlosser.
Published: 11 April 2010
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This was not always the case as attested to by the paintings of Rubens and other 17th Century master painters. Ruben often painted 'Zaftig' women, thus the term Rubenesque was coined to describe women with voluptuous curves that connoted fertility and fecundity.
In the traditional, nomadic Mauritanian society, full figured women imply the ability to bear many healthy children. Her ability to procreate makes her body exceedingly valuable since children are the wealth of many non-technology based economies.
There are no clear-cut reasons why the preference in the West for Zaftig women has declined so precipitously, which has led to the emergence of anorexia as the predominant standard of beauty.
In both instances, women are not in control of their bodies and are therefore subjected to increased psychological damage from poor body image, physiological trauma from eating disorders, and low self-esteem from unsuccessfully trying to conform to the vagaries of external determinations of standards of beauty and worth.
As a woman living in a advertising rich culture, I also struggle with body image, however; the pressures that I experience are primarily self-induced versus the cruel reality these young women experience. Forced to drink milk laced with butter, millet, and couscous, and to drink lots of water they are veritably fatted like ducks being cultivated for Foie Gras.
These girls endure the indignity of being fed from morning to evening, at least three times a day, to make them gain between 130 lbs (59 kg) to 220 lbs (99.7 kg) rapidly which results in lots of layers of fat. Even when they vomit, they are forced to continue to eat and drink so that they can replace any amount that has been expelled from their bodies.
The video sadly depicts the mothers of these girls seemingly inured to harm they are causing their daughters as they beat them and crush their toes between two sticks to inflict pain to distract them to the horror of the process.
One mother expressed privately that "it's not cruel to make girls fat!" she said. "I have to make my daughter fat and attractive so that she will get a good husband. Even though she is only seven, I have to start now so that she can be ready to marry soon. People think that skinny girls have AIDS so I have to show that she is healthy and can gain weight.
The combination of Leblouh plus the arranged marriages of these child brides has prompted international human rights groups to intervene in and pressure the Mauritanian government to impose strict sanctions against this practice.
However religious and cultural traditions are difficult to uproot particularly in matters of sex and sexuality. A woman who helps parents fatten their daughters said, "I've seen 10-year old girls give birth. I tell you, 10 years old! Once they are fat and beautiful they can be married and sexually serve their men well."Follow Nahmias Cipher Report on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report
- Force Feeding in Mauritania (marieclaire.com)
- Amor a Peso (miamagazine.com)
- The Fattening Farms of Mauritania - Force-Feeding Young Girls in the name of Beauty (odditycentral.com)