BODY image is everywhere. It’s in blogs, on TV, on the pages of magazines, in films. Let’s be honest, you can’t avoid the subject. Fat, thin, anorexic, obese. Whatever, we all know the score that in Western civilisations, thin is in. We might hate it, yes, but it’s generally true.
But that isn’t the case everywhere. During my current final year dissertation research into the cross-cultural differences of body image in women, I came across the most potentially harrowing scenes I’ve ever seen.
Mauritania in Africa has a totally different attitude to how women look. Fat really is all that, and they believe in order to grow up and have a happy and successful marriage, they must be fat. Yes, you read right. FAT. Big IS beautiful.
Female obesity in Mauritania is synonymous with beauty and wealth. It baffled me to hear that men find the silvery stretchmarks of rapid weight gain ‘sexy’. To men, having a fat wife demonstrated to others that they are generous to her, not to mention wealthy enough to keep her, well, plumped up.
These women want to be fat at all costs. They see it as a necessary rite of passage. and so the journey from fine to fat begins at a young age. From the ages of around seven, children are taken to ‘fat farms’ by their mothers, for a period of force feeding, to gain as much weight as is possible, as quickly as is possible.
The French word gavage describes the action of force feeding and it’s this that has been the norm in a lot of the desert country of Mauritania. Although now uncommon in the more health educated towns and cities, this cultural tradition still continues to this day in the desert tribes.
The ultimate goal? Become obese. Health implications do occur, with heart attacks and other heart defects very common in women. Being fat, they believe, will improve their marriage prospects. Obesity speeds up puberty, changing the girls’ bodies faster, so the bigger and quicker the girls get, the sooner they can get married and have children. It isn’t unusual to see these girls eating more than 15,000 calories A DAY.
Picture the scene (it’s horrendous). A small hut, filled with small little vulnerable girls, bowls of cow and camel’s milk being passed to each of them. The incredibly fatty drink is the perfect thing to help the children put on weight. They are also fed couscous; greasy and filling.
These little girls are crying as their mothers force bowls down to their lips, opening their mouths to ensure they swallow it. With such tiny tummies, these girls are throwing up all over the shop. Sometimes, they are even fed their vomit back to them, as it’s only milk they’re allowed. But ideally, they want the girls to digest the milk, so they would pinch them with wooden sticks when they feel sick, to take their mind off the need to vomit. Sobbing and screaming, these girls are distraught and in distress. It makes me cry to watch…
It’s truly harrowing, and with two little sisters aged 6 and 7, it’s a devastating thought. And these little girls’ mothers don’t view this behaviour as harming their daughters, but improving their chances of having a successful marriage and life as they grow up.
And in the centre of towns and cities, women who did not experience gavage are still looking for ways to pile on the pounds. Black market pills and potions are sold to women to make them gain weight, such as antihistamines and steroids, for an artificial gavage effect . These, much like under the radar pills in any country, are often cut with others, and some are even pills for animals!!
With no laws specifically banning gavage, this archaic tradition really is something from another world to me, and it distresses me to see such scenes. It genuinely baffles me how this happens… It’s horrendous, but this form of child abuse (and I do think it’s that) is cultural to them; it’s the done thing to a lot of people.
Here’s the videos if you want a look…
We might think that being thin, healthy and fit is tough work, but maybe we’re being naive… These girls go through hell to be fat, but because they’re forced to. Maybe we’re a lot luckier than we think…