BACKGROUND Qualitative evidence from sub-Saharan Africa, where a generalized AIDS epidemic exists, suggests that attractiveness may play a role in shaping individual-level HIV risk. Attractive women, who are often blamed for the epidemic and stigmatized, are believed to pose a higher HIV risk because they are viewed as having more and riskier partners. OBJECTIVE We examine the association between perceived attractiveness and HIV infection and risk in rural Malawi in the midst of the country's severe AIDS epidemic. METHODS We use interviewers' ratings of respondents' attractiveness, along with HIV test results and women's assessments of their own likelihood of infection, to estimate the association between perceived attractiveness and HIV infection and risk for a random sample of 961 women aged 15-35. RESULTS Results show that women who are rated by interviewers as 'much less' or 'less' attractive than other women their age are 9% more likely to test positive for HIV. We also find that attractiveness is associated with women's own assessments of their HIV risk: Among women who tested negative, those perceived as 'much less' or 'less' attractive than average report themselves to be at greater risk of HIV infection. CONCLUSIONS These results suggest that attractiveness is negatively associated with HIV risk in Malawi, countering local beliefs that hold attractive women responsible for perpetuating the epidemic. CONTRIBUTION This study highlights the need to consider perceived physical attractiveness, and sexual desirability more broadly, as an under-examined axis of inequality in HIV risk in high-prevalence settings.
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