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The Ms. Plus America pageant celebrates plus-size women as beautiful contributors to society, and its newest winner is an HIV-positive woman who is taking that message of female unity even further.
"I am hoping that by sharing that we can tear down the walls of being stigmatized," says Michelle Anderson, who was crowned Ms. Plus America 2011 and plans to use her title to cross boundaries between women who are HIV-positive and those who aren't. The crown sits on her mantel, but it has given Anderson access to tell her story in "rooms that I couldn't go in just being HIV-positive."
Anderson, who works to help women and girls learn about HIV prevention, is a lead peer educator and programs assistant at the Afiya Center for HIV Prevention and Sexual Reproductive Justice in Dallas. The new Ms. Plus America, who has been positive since 1999, remembers first feeling the stigma that comes with the disease -- an experience she hopes to help others avoid by telling her story to as many people as will listen.
"When I was first diagnosed, I was in a treatment facility, and this might be gross to you, but women go through their thing monthly and someone apparently had dropped some blood on the toilet seat," she remembers. "Guess who you think they made go clean it up? Me."
Anderson remembers saying, "That's not mine." But it didn't matter. "To be cautious, they asked me to do it. What was that about? That really made me feel low and worthless."
The memory of moments like that motivated her to carry on whenever she felt like giving up the pageant work -- the group dance numbers to learn and the interviews to prepare for. A friend spoke up and reminded her, "You can't quit, because every time you walk across this stage, you are walking across the stage for every HIV-positive woman who can't say that they're positive."