Book response to “Feeding Desire” by Popenoe, Rebecca 2003

Posted: September 6th, 2013





Book response to “Feeding Desire” by Popenoe, Rebecca 2003

Book summary

The book, “Feeding Desire: Fatness, Beauty and Sexuality among a Saharan People” is written by Rebecca Popenoe. This book explores the traditions of the semi-nomadic Moors in the Azawagh area of the Niger basin of deliberately fattening their young girls starting at a tender age as soon as they start growing their milk teeth. This is believed to hasten their maturity and transition to puberty hence this practice is viewed as a way of preparation for the female for marriage. This they do by feeding them with large quantities of milk and porridge. Among the Azawagh Arabs, excessive fatness having rolls of fat is viewed as great beauty and acts as a veil that ensures modesty as this leads to restricted mobility hence the women spend most part of their lives inside the tents (Popenoe, 2003).

Therefore, fatness results in overall beauty as it is considered externally appealing and it leads to the moral goodness of their women. This is one of the few traditions in the world’s cultures encouraging active fattening. This tradition is in contrast with the Westernized world beauty ideal that states that “women can never be too thin” (Popenoe, 2003). This book backed by extensive fieldwork in the Azawagh village, analyzes the deeper meaning of this excessive fatness in females in these traditions, which constitute of kinship, desire, Islam religion, health concepts and the need to preserve morality by managing sexuality. The book explains how a beauty ideal specific to certain group can only be understood within those cultural logistics. The book also reminds us that the higher percentage of the world, that is 80%; prefer plump women to slim ones. The book that offers an intensive explanation of the Saharan traditions regarding their women is a highly readable ethnography on these particular traditions and offers fascinating insight on the nature of bodily ideals in different cultures differentiating the Western ideals and those of the Azawagh Arabs.

Aspects addressed in the book

The book compares the western ideals to those of the culture that praises fatness as the ideal body type for women. The book in depth also addresses the Azawagh Arabs traditions in relation to sexuality and bodily ideals specifically dealing with the female body. The book explains the process involved in fattening the women by feeding them with plenty of cereal in form of porridge and milk. The women are fed on milk as it leads to creation of a continued chain of value. Milk is valued as it flows from the livestock they own and is converted into the moist fat of women and breast milk that is used in nurturing future generations (Popenoe. 2003). This is viewed as an investment of the milk in women hence they are fed on it in abundance.       There is a form of immobility feeding employed where movement is discouraged and women confined in tents. This book explains the aesthetic beauty they derive from being fat and the appreciation of their men for this bodily state. The book goes ahead to explain the relationship between fatness in women and the Muslim religion and how fattening in women enables the Arab women to adhere to the guidelines on morals set by the religion. By rendering women immobile due to the bountiful layers of fat, they are confined to their tents where it is not possible for them to commit immoral acts. Sexuality is the basis for family increase hence must be guarded therefore when girls are of puberty age they are required to wear veils when outside and to preserve modesty in silence which they are taught when still young. This is the veiled logic that the Moors stand by hence enabling them to maintain their dignity and morality.

Three major interesting aspects addressed in the book

Blood relation to kin and importance of milk

The Moors hold great importance to the creation of life and their livelihood as herders hence milk being the most valued possession they own. Milk is valued among these herders as it comes from the animals they own and take care of. Women’s sexuality is viewed as a source of life and that is the reason her morality is guided so zealously. Hence, milk is given in plenty to women to fatten them. This milk is transformed into the flab and fat covering them making them beautiful and appealing to their men leading to creation of new lives. This milk also contributes to the creation of breast milk, which is used to nurture future generations and bring up the children and the cycle is repeated (Popenoe, 2003). This is what leads to succession of families. Milk is seen as a major part of the continuation of the family. Sexual secrecy is also a major part of their ritual where females on reaching the puberty level are required to wear veils and maintain decent silence when in the presence of others.

Fattening as part of beauty

According to this community, women are considered aesthetically pleasing and beautiful when they are rounded and fat. It is with this reason that women are fattened from a ripe young age. The aesthetic and kinship argument grounds for fattening of females are correlated. The appealing nature of the fat women to their men attracts them hence they are able to procreate and the women through their bosoms are able to bring up the children, feeding them and nurturing them. Throughout history and indeed all over the world beauty and aesthetic attraction is a subject matter that sets apart people. In the Western culture, slim people are found to be attractive while among the Moors extreme fatness has played a major role in setting barriers in social classes with women higher up in the social class fattening more to distinguish themselves from the lower social class women (Popenoe, 2003). This will lead to forceful feeding of young children to instill the discipline of feeding more in them. This society is no exception in judgment of women by their outward appearance but is directly opposite to the Western view where the slimmer are more admired. In this community, the fatter are the ones who are admired and respected with maintaining a diet to help them in fattening being a more costly lifestyle just as the healthy eating methods in the Western custom is more expensive than the cheap fattening foods.

Women fattening in relation to Islam religion

The Muslim religion reveres decency and morality hence female fattening is done in line with the Islamic law. Women are fattened in order to create a level of fatness that will confine the women to the tents hence keeping check on morality, as it is easier to govern them while they are confined in their tents. Fatness is used to govern the level of morality with females being taught these traditions starting from their childhood. Sexuality is viewed as a religious requirement where creation of live occurs as a result. It is for this reason that females are subjected to fattening to reduce their mobility leaving them confined to the tents where their morality is preserved. In the traditions of Moors, they maintain an air of silence when it comes to matters relating to sexuality and fattening of women finding it important to preserve their decency through silence. Matters relating to the female body are not open to public discussion where the females wear a veil of silence when outside their tents (Popenoe, 2003).



Critical evaluation of the book

Feeding Desire is an easily readable text appealing to even non-academic readership. Its written descriptions are extensive and interactive hence easy to grasp. The work is evidently scholarly due to the methodology used in relaying the story. There is integration of theoretical discussions in explanation of the nature of beauty ideals in the culture and in the review of the ideal of slimness in the Western capitalism. The book also makes use of photographs as it gives a more interactive and interesting literary form aiding in understanding the real picture. The ease with which the writer utilizes the different literary forms to convey her message makes this book appealing to the intellectuals whose aim may be to use this book for scholarly purposes. The extensive fieldwork research done by the writer in the Azawagh basin among the Moors makes this book a reliable reference in matters pertaining bodily ideals in that particular culture.

By intensively going through the wider social structure and differing cultural logics in regards to ideals in matters pertaining beauty depending on the physique, the writer is able to indulge the reader’s mind in reminiscing about the reason as to the formulation of these ideals. Hence, she is able to direct the readers thinking on different causes of thinking hence changing the readers’ perspective giving them a new way of thinking about the set ideals in Western capitalism. The book is gracefully written with the transition between different topics smooth and flowing hence, it is an interesting and intellectual read. There is great significance of this book in this age where there is a growth in the Western perception of the thin body being the ideal physique especially as it is idolized in the mainstream media. Through this book, we are able to understand the different deeper reasoning in relation to body ideals and put more thought as to the relevance of a set ideal and not just to accept the standards set without analyzing them.


Works cited

Popenoe, Rebecca, “Feeding Desire: Fatness, Beauty, and Sexuality among a Saharan People”. London, New York: Routledge. 2003. Print.


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