Big and beautiful, but not healthy, in South Africa

Expert says rise in obesity among South African women is due in part to fears of appearing to have HIV/AIDS.

Published August 11, 2006 7:20PM (EDT)

The "Big is beautiful" maxim is thriving in South Africa, according to a Reuters report. But hold off on the celebration; the extra padding is detrimentally affecting women's health, according to Tessa van der Merwe of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. Sadder still, she says that the rise in obesity among black women in the region can be partially attributed to fears that a trim figure might signal that a woman has HIV or AIDS.

It's estimated that in South Africa, 5 million people -- one-ninth of the region's total population -- are infected with HIV/AIDS. And the virus's cultural stigma is thriving as well. The New York Times reported recently that many pregnant HIV-positive South African women are resistant to taking advantage of access to free nevirapine, which prevents the transmission of the virus to their baby, because of unyielding denial; still yet, other cultural pressures prevent testing and preventive measures like condoms.

It's cogent that plumpness would signal health and prosperity in a disease-ravaged region, as it does in areas afflicted with hunger. But the underlying side effects are as extreme as the motivators: The rise in obesity is causing heart disease, hypertension and diabetes, says van der Merwe. "We should be convincing black women that weight loss has a markedly helpful effect on health," she told Reuters. But further compounding the issue is the fact that it isn't even safe for women to "walk around" in public, she says. So how are they to work out?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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