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Reporters on the Job

Eating Habits: Interested in seeing the social changes going on in Mauritania, correspondent Claire Soares traveled to the northwest African country from neighboring Senegal, where she's based.

"Mauritania is becoming more and more urban, yet old desert traditions are still very much alive," she says. "Some are very nice – but there is a darker side to some of them, such as gavage" – or the custom of force-feeding young women to make them gain the weight that is considered a sign of beauty and prosperity .

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Claire says that it was quite a change from Senegal. "In Senegal, the culture is that at 5 p.m. everyone heads to the beach to work out, and people are very toned. In Mauritania, you see a lot of large women, while the men are skinny."

The aesthetic turns Western views completely around, Claire notes. "We're very occupied with losing weight, while they're occupied with gaining. I asked one woman why she was buying weight-gain pills, and she said that she needed to be bigger because men need something to hang onto. She wasn't aware of the health risks."

It's when girls reach puberty that they start working on gaining weight, Claire says. And the effort can be brutal if traditional methods are used. Claire says that she met one woman who had heard crying from a neighbor's house. The woman went to investigate and found a girl pinned to a chair while an elderly woman force-fed her.

But many women who have experienced gavage are happy to see it's losing its place in society, says Claire. "When women who have experienced force-feeding talk about it, they do get quite emotional. They knew it was painful, but accepted it. Now, they're shocked that they did it. You hear women who say, 'I went through this, but I will never do this to my daughter.' "

Amelia Newcomb
Deputy world editor