The reversed method of thinking is spawned from the fact that the country is quite poor and often suffers from drought. As a result, food is not plentiful. By being overweight, a woman demonstrates the wealth of her family.
The people of Mauritania hold obesity in such high regard that all of their love songs speak of heavy women. As one man put it, “A man’s goal is to marry a woman that fills his house. She needs to decorate it like an armoire or a TV set.”
The men feel so strongly that their women should be overweight that they actually threaten to divorce their wives if they lose weight. Although American women may think this mindset would be a blessing, it has actually caused a number of problems for the women of Mauritania.
First, there are the obvious health problems associated with being overweight. Obese women are at a higher risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and other potentially fatal illnesses. In addition to these health risks, however, families are taking extreme measures to plump up their daughters.
“When I was little, my mother hit me to eat because I didn't want to be fat. Now I want to be big because men like that." – A Mauritanian woman who wants to gain more than 20 pounds.
In Mauritania, it has been a common practice among the wealthier families to actually force feed their daughters. Once woman recalls being forced to drink 14 gallons of camel’s milk every day. If she vomited as a result, she was beaten. If she tried to refuse to drink the milk, she was tortured by having her fingers bent backward until they touched the back of her hand. The girl could no longer run by the time she was ten and, as an adult, struggles just to walk up the stairs. Yet, her mother considers her to be the epitome of beauty.
As a result of this way of thinking, nearly a quarter of the women in Mauritania are obese, which equals about 1.5 million women. In order to put a stop to this epidemic, the Mauritanian government has started a television and radio campaign that warns the people of the health problems associated with obesity. The health ministry has even hired artists to create love songs about thin women.
This is vastly different from the American culture, where many groups are trying to take the focus off of the “thin is beautiful” way of thinking. Ironically, the American mentality has started to help with the problem, however, as the popularity of American soaps and their thin actors have started to make some of the elite in the country change their way of thinking. According to a survey in 2001, only 10% of Mauritanian women less than 19 years old had been force fed, while a third of those 40 or over had been.