Obese to beautiful

Now big women are back in vogue, and the custom of funneling rich food into young girls like geese farmed for foie gras is once again thriving unchecked. "You're going on vacation to the desert to meet other girls and eat sweet food," Tijanniya Mint Tijani's mother told her. "She said that by the time I returned home, I'd be a beautiful woman."Ten days later, Tijanniya, 14, a sporty student from the town of Atar in the West African country of Mauritania, is eating breakfast with five other girls, ages 7 to 12, in a cramped sandstone hut deep in the Sahara Desert.Until recently, it appeared that force-feeding and the big-is-beautiful ethos were dying out.To the ancient Moors, a fat wife (much like fat livestock) was a symbol of a man's wealth, proof that he had enough riches to feed her generously while others perished in the drought-prone terrain.Tijanniya chokes down the thick gruel — she has no choice.Outside, a strong wind whips sand into strange, phantasmagoric shapes.Each girl eats about 40 per day, along with 12 pints of goat's milk and gruel, making their daily intake 14,000 to 16,000 calories.Elhacen mixes crushed dates and peanuts with couscous and oil to make the second of the day's four meals — cloying, egg-size balls of around 300 calories apiece.The preference originated centuries ago among the Moors, nomadic Muslims of Arabic and Berber stock who make up two-thirds of Mauritania's 3.1 million people.An older woman dressed in pink robes threatens to beat her with a long cane if she refuses.Moreover, as diverse global influences — from knockoff Western fashions to Nigerian pop music and French TV — slowly reached the masses, young women in cities like Nouakchott, the capital, were beginning to slim down under their robes.The next course is a pint of pounded millet mixed with water.Worse, if she throws up, the woman will make her eat her own vomit.Then, in August 2008, a military coup removed the democratic government and installed a junta that favored "a return to tradition." An election in July kept the junta in power, despite claims of massive vote-rigging.

"The attraction is ingrained from birth."Elhacen, who makes the equivalent of $155 for each girl she force-feeds over a three-month period, is delighted. Her current "clients" are lying down in the hut in glassy-eyed exhaustion, digesting breakfast.