Objective: To examine the cultural ideals for body size held by urban Senegalese women; to determine the body size that women associate with health; and to estimate the change in prevalence of female obesity in an urban neighbourhood of Dakar.
Design: Cross-sectional, population-based study in the subject's home, using a structured interviewer-administered questionnaire, conducted in the same Dakar neighbourhood as that of a previous survey conducted in 1996.
Subjects: A total of 301 randomly selected women, aged 20-50 y, living in a specific Dakar neighbourhood, Senegal.
Measurements: A total of 32 items concerning body satisfaction, social status, health and individual attributes to associate with one of six photographic silhouettes; body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio by anthropometry; and measures of economic status.
Results: In all, 26.6% of women were overweight (BMI 25-29.9 kg/m2) and 18.6% were obese (BMI > or =30 kg/m2) compared with 22.4 and 8.0% respectively in 1996. Overweight was the most socially desirable body size, although obesity itself was seen as undesirable, associated with greediness and the development of diabetes and heart disease. Lay definitions of overweight and normal weight differed substantially from health definitions, as one-third of the sample saw the 'overweight' category as normal. Over a third of women with BMI > or =25 kg/m2 wanted to gain more weight.
Conclusion: There has been a sharp rise in the prevalence of obesity in Senegalese women living in a Dakar neighbourhood over the last 7 y. In general, overweight body sizes (but not obese) were seen in a positive light. The finding that the term 'overweight' made little sense to these Senegalese women could have important implications for developing public health policies.