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It sounded like a dream getaway. "You're going on holiday to the desert to meet other girls and eat sweet food," Tijanniya Mint Tijani's mother told her. Tijani was excited. "She said that by the time I returned home, I'd be a beautiful woman."

Ten days later, Tijani, 14, an athletic student from Atar in the West African country of Mauritania, is eating breakfast with five other girls, aged seven to 12, in a cramped hut deep in the Sahara. Her stomach is bloated from huge quantities of goat's milk and oily couscous, but the meal is not over. The next course is half a litre of pounded millet mixed with water.

Tijani chokes down the thick gruel - she has no choice. An older woman in pink robes threatens to beat her with a cane if she refuses. Worse, if Tijani throws up, the woman will make her eat her own vomit. Outside, a strong wind whips sand into phantasmagoric shapes. The girls have been sent to this desolate spot for leblouh - force-feeding.

"The aim is to feed them until their bodies blow up like balloons," says Aminetou Mint Elhacen, 50, the woman wielding the cane.

The ideal of Mauritanian beauty is like the West's cult of super-thinness in reverse. Tradition holds that, among women, rolling layers of fat are the height of sexiness. The preference originated centuries ago among the Moors, a nomadic people of Arabic and Berber descent, who make up two thirds of Mauritania's population of 3.2 million. To the ancient Moors, a fat wife was a symbol of a man's wealth, proof he had the riches to feed her generously while others perished in the drought-prone terrain.

Until recently, it appeared that the big-is-beautiful ethos was dying out. Although leblouh has never been outlawed, in 2003, the government launched a campaign to fight child abuse and raise awareness of the health risks of obesity. Moreover, as diverse global influences - from knock-off Western fashions to Nigerian pop music and French TV - slowly reached the masses, women in cities like the capital, Nouakchott, were beginning to slim down.

But in December 2007, progress stalled when al-Qaeda gunmen murdered four French travellers, causing tourism and foreign investment to plummet. Then, in August 2008, a military coup removed the democratic government and installed a junta that favoured "a return to tradition".

Now, big women are back in vogue, and the custom of feeding young girls like geese farmed for foie gras is again thriving. Elhacen, a professional force-feeder, estimates that around Atar, a town 400km north-west of Nouakchott, more than 80 per cent of girls are force-fed. Government figures before the coup recorded up to 60 per cent in rural areas and 30 per cent in cities.

"The practice is re-emerging because men still find mounds of female flesh comforting and erotic," explains Seyid Ould Seyid, a local male journalist. "The attraction is ingrained from birth."

Elhacen, who makes $200 for each girl she force-feeds over a three-month period, is delighted. "I have a lot more clients again," she reveals. 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-sized balls of 1300 kilojoules apiece. Each girl eats 40 per day, along with six litres of goat's milk and gruel, making their daily intake up to 70,000kJ. The recommended amount for a healthy 12-year-old girl averages 6000kJ; an adult male body builder eats about 17,000kJ.

"My stomach hurts," groans Tijani. She's furious with her parents for sending her here. "I don't want to be fat. I don't think it's beautiful. Now I see why some girls at school came back fat after their holidays, but they were much prettier before."

Tijani adjusts her electric-blue mulafa (traditional dress), revealing a yellow T-shirt and denim skirt underneath. "I love sports. I'm scared I won't be able to run fast when I'm fat."

How do small girls eat such huge amounts of food? "I'm very strict," boasts Elhacen. "I beat the girls, or torture them by squeezing a stick between their toes. I tell them that thin women are inferior."

Desert settlements like this 1000-strong farming community with no electricity or running water are popular spots for leblouh because there are no distractions and no easy ways to escape. But Elhacen denies that her work amounts to child cruelty. "No, no, it's for their own good. How will these poor girls find a husband if they're bony and revolting?" she asks.

A real concern, as leblouh is linked to another horrendous practice: child marriage. Most girls wed between the ages of 12 and 14. "Increasing a girl's size creates the illusion that she's physically mature, that she's ready for a husband," points out Aminetou Moctar, president of the Association of Women Heads of Families, an equal rights organisation. "But force-feeding grows the body and shrinks the brain - all the girls do is eat and sleep."

Tijani wants to become a French teacher, but Elhacen says her parents have already arranged a marriage for her. "Her job will be to make babies and be a soft, fleshy bed for her husband to lie on."

To this end, she intends to fast-track Tijani's weight gain by serving her cups of pure animal fat. "The stomach flab should cascade, the thighs should overlap, and the neck should have thick ripples of
fat," explains Elhacen.

The ultimate sign of beauty, however, is silvery stretch marks on the arms. "Parents will give me a bonus if a girl develops stretch marks."

Back in Atar, Zeinebou Mint Moha-med, 26, offers a glimpse into the girls' potential future. A shopkeeper who is 162cm and weighs more than 90kg, with her hair dyed blonde at the tips and stretch marks on her arms, she's a modern woman who has a love-hate relationship with her size.

"I was force-fed as a child. I vomited and suffered heartburn and diarrhoea, but I gained weight fast," says Mohamed. At 13, she was married to a much older man and, by 16, she had two sons. Then, like any normal teen, she rebelled, prompting her husband to divorce her. Newly single, she was flooded with offers. "I suddenly saw how much Mauritanian men adore very fat women. Men told me I had the most beautiful body in town and they fought over me."

This reaction to her figure transformed her self-image. "When I realised the power I had over men, I started to enjoy being fat." Mohamed's current boyfriend, Baba Slama, 29, who is, like many Mauritanian men, rail thin, agrees that she's in charge: "She's gorgeous; I love her," he gushes.

Yet Mohamed's weight slows her down: "I'm always tired and I wheeze when I walk. I want to be slimmer so I can be more dynamic."

A fan of TV soaps beamed in from France and Morocco, she confesses she's drawn to the lifestyles of the female stars. "They seem so independent. I'd love to be able to wear jeans and high heels. I want to diet, but I'm scared men won't like me anymore."

Mohamed also frets that she would lose her It-girl status among her female friends. "My first thought when I met Zeinebou was, where did she get that incredible body?" says her friend, Hawer Sessay, 26. At 167cm and 80kg, Sessay says she has trouble keeping on the weight. Recently, her husband said he "didn't like sleeping with a bag of bones". In desperation, Sessay uses drugs. She produces a bottle of pills containing cyproheptadine hydrochloride, a medication that treats allergies and has a side effect of increased appetite.

Misused, it can cause blurred vision and heart palpitations. Moctar, the anti-force-feeding activist, says pharmaceuticals are "the new form of leblouh". Sold secretly in markets, they include drugs used to treat animals. A neighbour of hers died after taking such pills while pregnant. "She hoped it would give her a fat baby," sighs Moctar.

She has petitioned the junta to take action, to no avail. "The authorities want women to return to their traditional roles - cooking, staying indoors, and staying fat to keep men happy," she says. A government spokesperson denies that the authorities condone leblouh, but can't name any measures introduced to address it since the coup. Meanwhile, Dr Mohammed Ould Madene, an emergency medicine specialist in Nouakchott, warns that the force-feeding is "a grave matter of public health".

He's alarmed by the number of patients he sees with diabetes, heart disease and depression. He mentions the case of a girl who was rushed to his clinic unconscious. "She was only 14, but so huge that her heart
had almost collapsed under the strain."

Yet some women in the capital refuse to bulk up. "I've always been thin and I love my size," admits Aminetou Kane, 28, a social worker. Many of her friends prefer to be slimmer, too. Another encour-aging sign is the success of Nouakchott's first women-only gym, which has 300 clients. "Some women join on doctor's orders, but others are image conscious," explains owner Zahoura Kajouane.

That said, women here will almost certainly never strive to be super-slim. In Mohamed's home, she and Sessay inspect a photo of a bikini-clad model in a magazine. The woman has - to Western eyes - an appealing figure, but the two women are genuinely repelled.

"She looks ill," they agree, clicking their tongues at her jutting hips and clavicles. Then they turn to an article about liposuction, and laugh so hard the walls seem to shake.