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Mauritania: woman must be fat... even if she suffers

Fifty-years-old Mey Mint suffers of her weight. When she lumbers up the stairs, her thighs are shaking with each step. When she is on the top, it takes some time to catch her breath, the air is hissing painfully in her chest.

Her rippling flesh is not the result of careless overeating, but rather of a tradition of force-feeding girls in a desert nation where obesity has long been the ideal of beauty, signaling a family's wealth in a land repeatedly wracked by drought.

To make a girl big and plump, the tradition of 'gavage' - a French word borrowed from the practice of fattening of geese for foie gras - starts as early as 4, as it did for Mint, who was forced to drink 55 liters (14 gallons) of camel's milk a day. When she vomited, she was beaten. If she refused to drink, her fingers were bent back until they touched her hand. Her stomach hurt so much she prayed all the animals in the world would die so that there would be no more milk to be had.

Now, she has trouble walking and suffers from a combination of weight-related illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease.

"My mother thinks she made me beautiful. But she made me sick," says Mint, who asked that her full last name not be disclosed because she feels embarrassed by her past.

To end the brutal practice, the government launched a TV and radio campaign highlighting the risks of obesity. Because most Mauritanian love songs describe the ideal woman as fat, the Health Ministry commissioned catchy odes to thin women.

These efforts, combined with the rising popularity of foreign soap operas featuring model-thin women, has helped stamp out the practice among the country's urban elite.

Only one in 10 women under age 19 has been force-fed, compared to a third of women 40 or older, according to a survey by the National Office of Statistics in 2001, the most recent available. Those who were forced to eat were overwhelmingly from the country's rural areas.

But although the canon of beauty is changing, entrenched values are hard to uproot.

"My husband thinks I'm not fat enough," complained Zeinabou Mint Bilkhere, explaining that her husband found her pretty during the last months of her pregnancy. Since giving birth, the weight has dropped, however, and with it his desire for her.

Although force-feeding has decreased, many women feel pressured to be bigger-than-average and have turned to a more scientific method of weight gain, using foreign-made, appetite-inducing pills.

Wrapped in a floorlength veil, the 24-year-old who is roughly a size 8, opens her purse and pushes a fistful of change across the counter of a roadside pharmacy in exchange for a box of Anactine, a Moroccan-made antihistamine. The pills, commonly prescribed for hay fever, have as their side effect an unabated desire to eat.

A variety of appetite boosters are popular in Mauritania, including antihistamines made by the likes of Merck and Novartis. They replace a more blunt instrument, recently outlawed by the government - animal steroids intended for fattening camels.

"When I was little my mother hit me to eat because I didn't want to be fat. Now I want to be big because men like that," said Bilkhere who hopes the antihistamines will help her gain 10 to 15 kilograms (22 to 33 pounds).

A common Moor saying holds that the place a woman occupies in a man's heart is according to her volume. Even as infomercials tout the health benefits of being thin, many men say they prefer voluptuous women.

Isselmou Ould Mohamed says he loves his wife's 90-kilogram (200-pound) body and was secretly pleased when she began putting on even more weight during pregnancy. When he learned that to shed the extra pounds she was walking around the soccer stadium in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, he was revolted.

"I don't like skinny women. I want to be able to grab her love handles," says the 32-year-old. "I told her that if she loses a lot of weight, I'll divorce her."

One Internet cafe owner says when he's closing at night, he sometimes finds computer screens left open to porn sites dedicated to XL women.

Obesity is a tradition across much of the Arab world, where nomadic peoples struggling to survive the harshness of the desert came to prize fatness as a sign of health.

Forty-four percent of women over 30 in Saudi Arabia are obese, as are approximately a third of adult women in Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait, according to data from the International Obesity Task Force in London.

"A man's goal is to marry a woman that fills his house. She needs to decorate it like an armoire or a TV set. If she's big, she gives the house importance. If she's thin, she disappears," said Seif l'Islam, 48, curator of a library of ancient Islamic manuscripts, including numerous love poems to plump women.

Although the old idea of beauty is far from dead, one sign of change is the recent fitness trend. In the dying desert light, chubby women in head-to-toe veils walk around the capital's dusty soccerstadium, visibly perspiring in a scene that would have been considered unseemly a decade ago.

When she first started walking laps six years ago, 40-year-old Ramla Mint Ahmed said she wrapped her orange veil tightly around her face hoping not to be recognized. Now she exercises openly. She is even on a diet hoping to lose the rings of fat encircling her stomach.

Her obese mother, who as a child was awakened in the night and forced to drink camel's milk, says she doesn't object to her daughter dieting. That doesn't mean the older woman's notion of beauty has changed.

Ahmed is the eldest of three daughters and the only overweight one. Her 22- and 26-year-old sisters are no larger than a size 4 and have long, gazelle-like legs. In America, they would be envied for their tiny waists, yet their mother sees them differently.

Asked which of her three daughters is the prettiest, she waves her hand dismissively toward the model-thin sisters, saying, "Definitely those two are not beautiful."

Her oldest daughter, like her, has garlands of fat on her belly, voluminous thighs and deep, heaving breasts.

"This one," says the mother, "has the face of a queen."

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