They do it because they want to be fat.
Women in Mauritania, on the northwest coast of Africa, stuff themselves and their daughters to torturous discomfort, even death, because obesity is their ideal of female beauty.
Across the ocean, Americans may gasp at the details: In a recent New York Times article, Sharon LaFraniere reports on five-year-old Mauritanian girls forced to drink up to five gallons of creamy camel's milk daily; nine-year-olds made to ingest their own vomit (produced after force feeding); and teenagers "gavaged," a take-off on the French practice in which a funnel is inserted into a goose's mouth and grain poured down in order to fatten up the fowl for foie gras.
But before we howl, "Barbaric!" let's turn the lens into a mirror -- and look at what we do to our own daughters in what we view as our "enlightened" corner of the world.
In the U.S., some mothers stretch out the time between breastfeedings in attempts to keep their newborns skinnier; parents are hiring personal trainers for their six-year-olds; and mothers with eating disorders are passing down their food behaviors as legacies to their children.
And as the children grow older they apply these lessons well. Our first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, made herself throw-up repeatedly (acquiring bulimia nervosa) because she was beaten out for a role in her high school musical by a skinnier and less talented singer. Thin wins, or so our children learn.
Meanwhile, back in Mauritania, girls on their way toward a fleshier female ideal have moved one step further. They are now incorporating modern medical technology -- prescription steroids that spur weight gain. This parallels the diet pill craze in the United States. In the past, Americans have taken fen-phen and ephedra. Today it's cocaine, speed, and even the ADHD drug Adderall -- all to attain that ever-elusive grail: thinness. Perhaps most mindboggling, girls with diabetes are purposely foregoing their life-saving insulin shots in order to lose weight, a practice dubbed "diabulimia" .
Medically, the results are disastrous.
Mauritanian girls who mature into 200 to 300-pound women have a staggering risk of diabetes, heart disease, and the immobilizing morbidities of too much fat and flesh.
U.S. girls develop into an eating-disordered population plagued by anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder -- and a myriad of medical consequences. Many suffer from osteoporosis, eroded teeth, and ravaged gastrointestinal tracts. An estimated 20 percent of individuals with eating disorders will die from their illness or its complications, making eating disorders the most fatal of all mental illnesses. This statistic does not include those misguided young women who withhold their insulin, greatly increasing their chances of an early death.
What transcultural force is so powerful that it overrides basic parenting and survival instincts? Perhaps the answer is best summed by the title of 10cc's hit song, "The Things We Do For Love."
Or, more accurately, "loveability."
Love certainly is a basic human need. In the 1950s, psychologist Abraham Maslow postulated a hierarchy of basic needs. According to Maslow, food and shelter occupy the foundation, safety is one tier up, and next is the need to belong, to feel loved.
Unless you're among the world's most unfortunate, the lower needs can often be fulfilled with the right logistics and education. Achieving acceptance and love is a lot trickier, especially outside family and maybe a small circle of friends. Out in the world, girls sense that they are not loveable, unless they "fit in." Therefore, they work hard to increase their chances of being loved by conforming to prevailing cultural ideals.
In Mauritania, the "work" is withstanding the torture of being force-fed and then maneuvering through the world carrying a dangerous load of flesh. In the U.S., the toil is starvation, overexercising, and vomiting -- living a life mediated by the bathroom scale.
If Maslow could see the prevalence and ravages of eating problems today, he might well rethink the order of the rungs on his "needs ladder."
All the women that I interviewed for my own research traced their eating disorders to hurts and hits taken much earlier in life. The girls who felt the most pressure to fit in were the ones most at risk.
The message is clear: We're making it too hard on our girls, feeding them impossible standards with their first taste of milk. Only the girls who are most rooted in their identity and most certain that they are worthwhile, at any weight, can buck the unhealthy behaviors of their peers and parents and the suicidal "norms" of their native culture. The rest, and by far the majority, either feel bad about their bodies or, even worse, join the nearly 30 million women who acquire eating disorders that go on, in some form, for life.
All for love.