By Sonakshi Samtani:
Body dissatisfaction is not limited to American, Asian and European women, it is a widely prevalent phenomenon. However, in the sub-Saharan Africa, the dissatisfaction is in stark contrast to the obsession with thin and skinny bodies and is largely imposed by the patriarchal society instead of fashion magazines.
While women in the West starve to attain the superficial standards of thinness and beauty, young women in Mauritania — a West African country with a short supply of food — are force fed on a daily basis so that they can be fat and plump. Being covered by many layers of fat is attractive in this country where big is beautiful.
Having a fat wife is a sign of wealth, prestige and prosperity in this country which is mostly covered by desert and faces food shortage every year due to droughts. Thin women are considered to be poor and socially unacceptable. Moreover, according to some myths which go around, they are considered to be HIV infected and bring shame to their family. Under this practice, traditionally known as Leblouh, women are forced to consume up to 16,000 calories on a daily basis. Their diet comprises of bread crumbs soaked in olive oil, enormous amounts of goat meat and pints of camel milk every day in addition to couscous, dates, millets, cream and butter, and this goes in the form of several meals a day. An average male body builder, however, consumes 4000 calories every day.
This practice, also called Gavage, which means fattening the geese to obtain foie gras, is very unhealthy and dangerous, since forcibly fed women are at a very high risk of heart diseases, blood pressure, hypertension, heart diseases, diabetes and can also become unable to deliver children. According to WHO 2008 reports, 23.3% of the women in Mauritania are obese, far higher than the regional average of 11.1% and the national average for men at 4.3%. Girls as young as 9 years old are taken to ‘fat camps’ in the rural desert region where they are punished if they refuse to eat copious amounts of fats and cream. One such punishment involves clamping their toes with sticks until they give up on the resistance.
This is as repulsive as the cultural practice of female genital mutilation, both of which are meant to enhance the ‘value’ of the girls when it comes to marriage. This practice also paves way to another social evil of child marriage, obese girls tend to look much older for their age and are married when they are 12-14 years old, resulting in early child birth and even more health risks for the women. Big, obese women supposedly ‘serve’ their husbands well, sexually. Mauritanian cultural heritage celebrates big women and stretch marks are the ultimate sign of beauty and attractiveness for men.
However, the practice of gavage has taken an even murkier shape in the recent times. Enormous amounts of food are replaced by hormones used to fatten camels and chickens, and steroids for asthma and cancer that cause bloating. One such drug is Antihistamine which makes women drowsy and thus unable to perform any physical work, which contributes to weight gain. Moreover, consumption of pills whose active ingredient is Cyproheptadine hydrochloride, an allergy medication with a side effect of increased appetite is also very prevalent. Misused, the drug can cause low blood pressure, blurred vision, kidney failure, and other problems. The consumption of drugs meant for animals, leads to deformities, such as big breasts, stomach and face and very thin legs and arms.
US journalist Thomas Marton went to one such fat camp in the interiors of the country for the HBO documentary series VICE and took the same diet for two days. He ended up gaining 10 lbs, feeling extremely bloated and uneasy. This raises a serious question about the repercussions of this practice on the health of those young girls who consume such enormous amounts on a regular basis.
In 2003, the Women’s Ministry in Mauritania launched the ‘Slim Down’ campaign, which comprised skits, songs and radio shows to discourage women against the practice of Leblouh. However, desert settlements with no electricity or running water are mainly prone to Leblouh, even the government initiatives to spread awareness don’t reach them. The condition of the urban elites, however, is still better when compared to their rural counterparts due to access to mass media and education.
Though this practice has seen comparatively fewer takers in the recent times, still thousands of women in the interior regions of Mauritania face this torture. Many countries in the Middle East are also fascinated by the idea of voluptuous and plump women, and the obesity rates in countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have become a notable health concern.
However, there is one constant context underlying these starkly different desires of thinness and obesity: women across different cultures hold very little qualms against being objectified and scrutinized for their appearances. For men, on the other hand, superficial benchmarks or criterion determining their worth isn’t customary.
Therefore, it is for women to go against their own objectification by not aiming at standards of beauty which cultures or media decide for them. It is imperative on their part to treat themselves better, more than merely good looking objects. It is essential on their part to discover and retain their identities independent of their husbands and the orthodox mindsets inflicted by patriarchy.