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

Posted Dec 18 2008 8:10pm

Note from Connie: SUGAR SHOCK! Blog researcher/writer Jennifer Moore got very worked up after reading an enlightening Associate Press article fromRukmini Callimachiabout 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.

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