In stark contrast to America’s concern with anorexia, some young girls in Mauritania are goaded, cajoled, and sometimes even beaten into obesity. It may seem striking that in Mauritania, where the average annual income is $360 U.S. dollars, girls are better fed than boys. But in the white Moor Arab culture of Mauritania, female obesity has traditionally been valued as a sign of wealth. Fat girls are considered desirable, and an obese wife has a husband that treats her well. Some girls are sent to fat farms,” where, at the parents’ behest, their young daughters are fed to splendid corpulence. As Fatematou, a woman who runs such a feeding instutition in the desert town Atar, stated to the BBC: “Of course they cry—they scream … We grab them and we force them to eat. If they cry a lot, we leave them sometimes for a day or two and then we come back to start again.” The Mauritanian government has cautioned that the young girls’ weight—sometimes reaching 60 to 100 kilograms, or 132 to 220 pounds—is “life threatening.”

While some aspects of Mauritanian culture have been slow to change—the country only banned slavery in 1981—, the culture of obesity has been undergoing transformation. One-third of Mauritania women were force-fed as children a generation ago, and that number has now shrunk to 11%. It is the countryside that retains the strongest affinity with the culture of female obesity. In its delightfully British voice, the BBC notes that in the Mauritanian countryside, the women “walk slowly, dainty hands on the end of dimpled arms, pinching multicoloured swathes of fabric together to keep the biting sand from their faces.”

Through an understandable ethnocentrism and western-centered prism, many American critics focus on and lament the havoc that the media has played with the body images of young women. While this concern is certainly not misplaced, it is certainly productive to also consider the issue of the young girls in Mauritania who are bullied into obesity.  

Mimi Hanaoka

In The Fray is a nonprofit staffed by volunteers. If you liked this piece, could you please donate $10?