Differing ideals of beauty

Cultural Insights — By on April 19, 2007 at 8:00 am

As one travels around the world, it becomes obvious that different cultures have varying ideals of beauty. A recent Associated Press article touches on this subject, focusing on the West African nation of Mauritania, where some families force feed their daughters because obesity is considered a sign of beauty and wealth.

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.

In Mauritania, to make a girl big and plump, ‘gavage’ _ a borrowed French word from the practice of fattening of geese for foie gras _ starts early. Obesity has long been the ideal of beauty, signaling a family’s wealth in a land repeatedly wracked by drought.

Mint was 4 when her family began to force her to drink 14 gallons of camel’s milk a day…By the time Mint was 10, she could no longer run. Unconcerned, her proud mother delighted in measuring the loops of fat hanging under her daughter’s arms.

The government launched a public health campaign to warn of the health risks of obesity. It has had some successes, although more in urban than in rural areas.

Only one in 10 women under the age of 19 has been force-fed, compared to a third of women 40 or older, according to a survey conducted by the National Office of Statistics in 2001, the most recent available.

Those still forced to eat were overwhelmingly from the country’s rural areas. But although the canon of beauty is changing, entrenched values are hard to uproot. “My husband thinks I’m not fat enough,” complained Zeinabou Mint Bilkhere.

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