Where 'Thin Means AIDS' African Women Become Obese

Note: ScienceBlogs has been following the 16th Annual AIDS Conference, with a special temporary blog reporting on the goings-on. I encourage you to all check it out.


As more and more women are acquiring AIDS in South Africa, a new trend is emerging: in order to not look HIV positive, women are becoming obese in large numbers. According to the Independent Online, half of all women in South Africa are overweight, and almost one-third are severely overweight. More than 5 million of South Africa's 45 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS, and the cultural perception is that if a black woman is thin, she has AIDS.

"When being overweight is seen as a sign of health and wealth, it is extremely difficult to change this perception," Ms Van der Merwe [of the International Association for the Study of Obesity] said. "We should be convincing black women that weight loss has a markedly helpful effect on health."

This is really quite a disturbing trend, as women in South Africa may just be harming their health even more by becoming overweight (AIDS or not). In addition, it seems to highlight that the perception of having AIDS, of how one appear to the world, may be as important (if not more) than the actual prevention and treatment of the disease.

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This reminds me of a documentary I saw a while ago, about women in Mauritania (I don't know if this is the correct english spelling). Apparently, there is also a trend there for women to be obese on purpose, allthough for another reason. Historically, Mauritania was ruled by an arab minority, and the rich women would underline their superiority by doing absolutely nothing, instead letting african slaves do everything for them. This, in combination with much food and calories, made the women of this ruling class fat. So, in time, obesity became a symbol of status and superiority.
As often happens, "lower" classes imitated those symbols, so women of these "lower" classes tried to be as fat as they could, because this would guarantee them a wealthy husband.
Presently, it has become so bad that girls are being force-fed from the age of 9 or 10, forced to drink many litres of milk per day, plus several "normal" meals. This results in 25-year old women who cannot stand or walk without help, because of problems with their knees and spine, and who often die of kidney-problems before their 4Oth birthday.

On the biological side: a nice example that survival and reproduction don't necessarily go hand in hand.


Great tie-in Kim! That is truly fascinating, and rather sad about the force-feeding. It reminded me of the foot-bind that used to take place in China, to mold little girls feet into something non-fucntional yet aestheically pleasing to men. Ugh.