For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt pressure to be thin. From early years playing with Barbie dolls to the unavoidable advertisement parading slim bodies at every turn, it was clear that skinny was in. 

Being fat was definitely not in style. Although my mom was overweight, I watched the torment obese kids endured on the playground. They were taunted, bullied, and name-called. They were exiles who sat alone isolated from the crowd. Other kids called them losers all because of their size. 

As an adult, life outside of the playground didn’t get much better for my larger friends. I’ve watched them struggle in dating, the workforce, and in intimate relationships because their physical weight is frowned upon. While fat-phobic and fat-shaming culture seems to have improved, a lot of my plus-size friends and family still feel an overwhelming pressure to be thin to fit in. 

However, while the West may identify being skinny with being beautiful, the locals in Mauritania disagree. 

Located in Northwest Africa, Mauritania customs believe that being obese is a symbol of great wealth and status. Due to this tradition, families begin force-feeding girls at a young age. Their hope is that by 12 years old the girl will weigh at least 200 pounds. This will enhance her chances of getting a suitable husband. 

After feeling the pressures of being slim and fit since birth as an American girl, I found the situation in Mauritania unusual. A different culture all the way on the other side of the world, this country praised a figure shunned by the Western world. However, while the tradition is embedded into the fabric of their society, it comes at the detriment of the women who live there. 

An Age Old Tradition

Photo Courtesy of Riccardo Parretti.

Known as leblouh, the age-old tradition of fattening young girls has been a Mauritanian custom for centuries. The complete opposite of US culture, women in Mauritania begin feeling the pressure to be overweight at an extremely young age. 

Derived from Moorish beliefs, the people in Mauritania felt that having larger wives meant they were wealthier and more capable of feeding their families. Living in desert terrain, wealth and status were important in ancient culture. 

Now, young girls are groomed for marriage as infants to ensure they are a perfect image of wealth. In an RT Documentary posted on Facebook, filmmakers interviewed multiple families in the countryside of Mauritania who still practice the ancient custom of leblouh. Elders can be seen encouraging girls as young as 3 years old to drink copious amounts of goat’s milk and gruel so they can gain weight faster. 

Slimmer women are frowned upon and considered impoverished. Families in the country believe their daughters will not attract decent, wealthy husbands if they are not at least 220 pounds by marriageable age. Fatimetou Lelhamel, a grandmother and leblouh expert, described to the filmmakers how they force-feed female children early. 

“This is how we fatten up women,” Lelhamel said. “She drinks milk until the afternoon. We prepare couscous and she eats it, too. For breakfast, we prepare special milk, called ‘amzik.’ We churn the milk until butter starts to appear. Then we mix that with fresh milk.”

Based on US standards, the National Institutes of Health suggest a girl between the age of 9 and 13 consumes 1,6000 to 2,000 calories each day. For those who practice leblouh in Mauritania, young girls are forced to consume 14,000 to 16,000 per day. Many follow this custom while sacrificing the health of their daughters. However, an entire industry built around fattening young girls has emerged in the country due to the need to be obese for marriage.

An Industry Of Obesity

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.

Nearly 300 miles from the country’s capital, an elderly woman named Aminetou Mint Elhacen runs one of Mauritania’s leblouh camps. Families can bring their daughters here to prepare for marriage through intense and, sometimes cruel measures to gain weight. Three months of force-feeding at Elhacen’s camp in Atar cost $155. 

Elhacen says she feeds her girls a variety of food mixtures all geared toward encouraging rapid weight gain. These “clients” are expected to eat up to 40 egg-sized couscous balls mixed with oils, dates, and peanuts in one day. One ball contains 300 calories and they wash it down with 12 pints of fatty goat’s milk. If clients are not compliant with eating the required portions, Elhacen says they are punished. 

“I’m very strict,” she said in the documentary. “I beat the girls or torture them by squeezing a stick between their toes. I isolate them and tell them that thin women are inferior.”

The harsh regiment is designed to help girls reach at least 176 pounds before age 12. Elhacen’s camp is not unique in its approach to physical punishment. Sixty percent of women in leblouh camps report being physically punished when they refused to eat. 

Leblouh is largely practiced in Mauritania’s countryside and one in five women living there has been force-fed. In 2007, a study revealed that 75 percent of Mauritanian women who grew up in the countryside had been force-fed at some point in their lives. 

In addition to the RT Documentary online, many journalists and filmmakers have shined a light on this ancient tradition still being practiced in Mauritania. However, the age-old custom continues to have a hold on the local people who live there despite criticisms from the Western world.

An Unchanging Culture

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.

Although less than 10 percent of girls living in Mauritanian cities have experienced force-feeding, leblouh still reigns in its countryside. Those in rural areas view leblouh as a necessary tradition to put women in the best position. They believe that by force-feeding they are looking out for their daughters futures. 

“How will these poor girls find a husband if they’re bony and revolting,” one person expressed in the documentary. 

Seyid Ould Seyid, a Mauritanian male journalist, also said that the image of large women has been fetishized among local men. 

“Leblouh is re-emerging because men still find mounds of female flesh comforting and erotic,” he said. “The attraction is ingrained from birth.”

Although leblouh is becoming less appealing to younger people, some women in rural areas are resorting to desperate measures to gain weight. With recent food droughts in the country, some have started taking animal hormones and steroids to be bigger. 

The local government and a few non-profit organizations have been working to change the narrative of size among Mauritanian women. Espoire, an organization created by a woman who experienced force-feeding as a child, helps give women more access to opportunities to make their own income. Its hope is that more Mauritanian women will be able to work and provide for themselves instead of force-feeding to attract a wealthy husband. The country also opened its first women-only gym to encourage more local women to work out and maintain healthy weights. 

With force-feeding being a major issue in foreign countries, Mauritania remains one nation whose people remain tied to tradition. As more young girls in Western countries fall prey to the media and society’s whispers to be thin, girls in Mauritania’s countryside fight a different fight. Harmful to their physical, emotional, and mental well-being, the tradition of leblouh continues to haunt young girls from the beginning of their lives until the very end.