Big is Beautiful in One African Nation, But The Price of Beauty Is Far Too High

Note from Connie: SUGAR SHOCK! Blog researcher/writer Jennifer Moore got very worked up after reading an enlightening Associate Press article from Rukmini Callimachi about how obesity is actually encouraged — if not forced upon residents of the African country of Mauritania. Read Jennifer’s impassionated commentary.

Amidst our ongoing obesity epidemic in the U.S., we’re absolutely obsessed with thinness.

We try all manner of diets; we admire models who wear impossibly tiny size 0 clothes; and our supermarket tabloids routinely run cover stories about how celebrities stay so thin (with a special focus on how famous actresses peel off pounds after childbirth). So, despite the fact that as a whole, Americans are decidedly not thin, many of us certainly strive to be, and we consider thinness ideal.

In light of all that, I found recent news from the Associated Press to be a real jaw-dropper. Reporter Rukmini Callimachi writes, in a horrifying, yet fascinating story — which ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other papers — that in the African country of Mauritania, obesity in women is encouraged to the point that some families have been known to force-feed their daughters to make them gain weight. (There’s also an oddly glib take on this story from Catherine Price at Salon.com.)

In Mauritania, Callimachi explains, obesity is considered beautiful in women, and it is also a sign of a family’s prosperity in a desert country that’s been repeatedly ravaged by drought.

The story cites data from the World Health Organization showing that 25% of Mauritania’s 1.5 million women are obese, this, despite the fact that there isn’t a single fast food joint — a main culprit in America’s obesity epidemic — in the entire country.

The anecdotes Callimachi provides are heartbreaking. The story opens with this vivid, haunting image:

"Mey Mint struggles to carry her weight up the flight of stairs, her thighs shaking with each step. It will take several minutes for the 50-year-old to catch her breath, air hissing painfully in and out of her chest. Her rippling flesh is not the result of careless overeating, though, but rather of a tradition."

Wow. I can only shake my head in sadness and disbelief. But it gets worse. Mint told Callimachi that at the age of 4, her parents forced her to consume 14 gallons of camel’s milk a day in attempt to fatten her up.

If she tried to refuse, she suffered hideous physical abuse — her family would bend her fingers backwards until they touched her hand. If she vomited, which the child obviously couldn’t help after having an excessive amount of milk shoved down her throat, she was beaten.

By the time she turned 10, Mint was so heavy she couldn’t even run. Her mother’s reaction?

"Unconcerned, her proud mother delighted in measuring the loops of fat hanging under her daughter’s arms," Callimachi writes.

"My mother thinks she made me beautiful. But she made me sick," says Mint. 

Of course, Mint suffers from diabetes and heart disease, presumably due to a lifetime of forced overeating.

There is a glimmer of good news here. Mauritania’s government has launched a public health campaign to alert its citizens to the perils of obesity. The country’s National Office of Statistics says that only 10% of women under the age of 19 have been force-fed, Callimachi writes, while one-third of women aged 40 or over report having suffered force feeding.

Also, foreign soap operas starring slender women have apparently caused a reduction in forcible feeding, particularly among well-to-do urban women, Callimachi writes. (I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but thank goodness for the influence of TV!)

On the other hand, a country’s cultural mores can be hard to change, and some young women in Mauritania take medication that increases appetite so they’ll eat more, the story says.

It would be easy (and perhaps unfair) for a Westerner like me living in a largely prosperous, agriculturally rich land to disdain the cultural beliefs of people in other less arable parts of the world, where scarcity is likely a constant concern. I can only assume that the people of Mauritania who engaged in this awful practice weren’t malicious, but they simply didn’t know what most Americans know about the dangers of obesity (although beating up a child for not wanting to eat is unforgivable, IMO).

But still, this story, written very powerfully by the AP’s Callimachi, is positively shocking and ultimately tragic. I hope that since Mauritania’s government apparently knows that obesity kills, they’ll do everything they can to change to effect a change in the beliefs and behaviors of the people there.

This story strikes a nerve with me in another way, too. My 4-year-old daughter is pretty slight for her age, and I sometimes worry that she’s not growing fast enough because she doesn’t eat as much as other kids her age. While I certainly have never struck or otherwise physically harmed her when she refuses food, I know I’ve exerted pressure in other ways to get her to eat more. I certainly don’t want to be the unwitting cause of her having an unhealthy relationship with food.

Thanks to Calorie Lab for alerting me to this unforgettable article, which also ran in an abbreviated version in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It makes me look at my small, picky-eating little one with a newfound respect for her ability to know when she’s had enough and sensitivity to her right to say no to food.

From Jennifer Moore

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