"The attraction is ingrained from birth."Elhacen, who makes the equivalent of 5 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.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."But force-feeding grows the body and shrinks the brain — all the girls do is eat and sleep."Tijanniya wants to become a French teacher, but Elhacen says her parents have already arranged a marriage for her.
Until recently, it appeared that force-feeding and the big-is-beautiful ethos were dying out. "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.Her stomach is already bloated from huge quantities of goat's milk and oily couscous, but the meal is not over.Mauritanian tradition holds that among women, rolling layers of fat are the height of sexiness.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.At 13, she was married to a much older man, and by 16 she had two sons.