Weddings, however fun and exciting and Pinterest-worthy they may be, place a huge amount of pressure on a bride. Her hair has to be perfect, her dress has to be perfect, and her body has to be perfect, because wedding photographers are expensive and with any luck you’ll never have a do over.
In western cultures, pre-wedding diets are popular, and women run themselves ragged trying to lose those last few pounds before the big day. But it’s not like that everywhere. In Mauritania, fat is the ideal body type; double chins and stomach rolls demonstrate status, that a husband can afford to feed his wife well. So instead of trying to lose weight in preparation for a wedding, women engage in a traditional practice of force-feeding or “gavage.” Mothers fix their daughters half a dozen meals a day, forcing them to consume upwards of 6000 calories. In some severe cases girls are sent to special camps in the desert where they are beaten if they don’t finish all of their meals and their minders receive a bonus for every girl that develops stretch marks.
In Flesh Out, the latest film from Italian director Michela Occhipinti, Verida (Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche in her debut performance) has just been promised to a man of her father’s choosing. She isn’t allowed to meet him, but occasionally sneaks a glimpse of her future husband from the rooftop of her Nouakchott home. Her mother wakes her dutifully every morning for her first meal of the day — now that she is officially engaged, she has benchmarks to hit, ones that will be measured by the young man who stops by regularly to weigh her.
At first, Verida seems to passively accept her new reality as a soon-to-be bride. But there’s a sense that she carries her real feelings close to the chest, and that she is far more torn between modernity and tradition than she would dare admit out loud. Her closest friends aren’t in the same position as her: one has already been married, divorced, and now plans on studying abroad in Egypt, and the other is from a different cultural background that doesn’t practice gavage.
Mauritania is changing, and while it’s still a fairly common practice to force feed before a wedding, Verida interacts with enough people who have rejected it to make her feel discontented. We see her hesitate slightly before every meal until eventually, she finds her voice and begs for it to stop. But of course, as we all know, the power that beauty standards carry in any culture are not easily set aside.
If there is a fault in Flesh Out, it’s that Verida is perhaps too enigmatic of a character. She serves as a medium through which audiences can experience the cultural practices of Mauritania, but doesn’t quite feel like a flesh and blood person. She’s a bit too subdued, and the lack of emotional access we have to her at times occasionally prevents us from genuinely connecting with her.
Still, Flesh Out is a mostly effective look at a tradition that is foreign to most audiences, as well as a sly encouragement for us to examine our own cultural relationships with weight and beauty standards, particularly within the realm of wedding preparation. Eating 6000 calories a day so you can look a certain way at your wedding isn’t healthy, but neither is starving yourself. Women have so much pressure placed on them to live up to seemingly impossible standards, and we often lose sight of what we actually want. In Flesh Out, we see a girl who’s never even been asked what she wants. Her slow and tentative search for ownership over her life and her own body is both compelling and cathartic. I only wonder how much more emotionally evocative it would have been if we were let in a little bit more.