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Women rethink a big size that is beautiful but brutal

In Mauritania, force-feeding of women is declining, but many risk their health by using pills to gain much-prized heft.

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Big has long been considered beautiful in Mauritania. But now, a generation of women are abandoning an ancient practice to fatten up – and some are even redefining beauty to put their health first.

It's not a lifetime spent scoffing junk food and slurping fizzy drinks that's to blame for obesity here; rather, a tradition as old as the desert: gavage.

On the tree-lined boulevards of Paris, the French word describes the process of fattening up geese to produce foie gras. On the sand-blanketed streets of Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, it describes the process of forcibly funneling sweetened milk and millet porridge down the throats of young girls. In this vast nomadic nation, thin women are an admission of poverty. Voluptuous wives and daughters, by contrast, are displays of a man's wealth, and that's where force-feeding comes in.

After campaigns at the national and community level, the brutal practice is on the way out. The latest government survey, in 2001, estimated that about 10 percent of women ages 15-19 were force-fed as young girls, down from 35 percent among 45 to 54-year-olds. But that older generation of women is now battling a variety of illnesses as well as child-bearing complications, doctors and midwives say.

"Even getting out of bed is difficult for some of them, never mind working," says Mariame Baba Sy, the head of a government commission on women's issues.

While it's clear that the practice of force-feeding women is on the decline, the government doesn't keep statistics on obesity, or track if the decline in gavage is translating into a slimmer, healthier population. Indeed, some young girls may just be turning to a less painful way to meet the Mauritanian beauty ideal.

"The real gavage is on the point of becoming extinct. But there's a new method," says Ms. Baba Sy. "They take pills, some of them ones you usually give to an animal."

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