I will never forget the day my friend Z sat me down on a matla in her front yard for a real woman-to-woman chat. “You really need to start looking your age,” she told me firmly. I was elated! Because what she meant what that I needed to gain weight. And frankly, that is the first time in my life someone has ever said that.

This happened a couple of years ago, but I saw Z today for the first time in months and noticed that she is following her own advice. She’s a mother now, and an established and respectable member of the community, with a job and a car. I’m 10+ years older than she is, and I should be bigger than she is, but I’m not. *quiet smile* Here in Mauritania, women are supposed to be as big as possible. And as pale as possible. (Suddenly, I’m practically a beauty queen!) Donn said to her once, “Z, you’re looking pale and fat!” He told me later he just wanted to see if he could actually say that to a woman without getting hit! But it worked. “Oh thank you Donn; you’re so kind!” she said.

It’s changing, but this is a place that a few years ago had “Wife-Fattening Farms,” where parents would send their 12 and 13 year-olds to be forcibly fattened up. Drinks such as whole milk and incha, made with a sort of oatmeal, were poured down their throats. It is an honor and a beauty to be big. An American friend of mine just opened a gym, and she has these enormous, 250 pound women coming in to see her, telling her they need to exercise for their health but they don’t want to lose an inch! One woman came in and said, “My husband just returned from a 10 day business trip and he said my face looks thinner.” She quit the gym immediately.

It’s easy to mock this, and I do, and it’s easy to decry all that women will do to themselves in the name of beauty. But is it really any different in the West? Here, women risk cancer with skin-lightening creams, diabetes runs rampant, and exercise until recently was non-existant, at least for the White Maures. After all they had the Black Maures and the Pulaars to do the hard labour. But what about that weight-loss drug with the catchy name, Phen-Phin or something?, that had to be taken off the market after people using it died. What about anorexia and bulemia and a culture that worships youth? What about pressure to inject a wrinkle-reducing poison into your face, or to spend a fortune on the latest styles? To be honest, it’s strange but sort of nice to be in a place where you can be comfortable with your weight and age, knowing that you’re supposed to be fatter and look older. And it’s also good to realize that the standards of beauty may differ, but really it all comes down to the same thing—women care deeply about how they look, and they are insecure about it, whether it’s wanting a tan, or wanting to be “white.”

Me, I’m doing my best to fit in; there’s a bar of extra-dark chocolate in the fridge right now and I’m going to eat it while Donn’s at work. It’s a sacrifice, but when you move to another culture, you must not remain too aloof.

 

PS I figured out how to do photos, but now our digital camera is broken. I’m looking through old photos for something good. Elliot says instead of PS I should say SIF—for Something I Forgot. Makes sense, but will it catch on?

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