Some mothers intentionally disfigure the breasts of their daughters so that they can become less attractive to men.

African young girl wearing a band to flatten her breasts; Source: Mirror
A young girl wearing a band to flatten her breasts; Source: Mirror

Breast Ironing also known as “breast flattening" or “breast sweeping", is a native process that involves the use of hard or hot objects to flatten the breasts of young girls. It is a prevalent African custom that has been adopted in Countries such as Cameroon, Benin, Guinea Bissau and Togo.

Although the origin of breast ironing isn’t quite clear, it caught the attention of the international community over a decade ago. In the United Kingdom alone, over 1000 young female immigrants from West Africa are estimated to have had the breast ironing treatment.

The process of breast ironing

The breasts of the young girls are flattened with hot stones and sticks;
The breasts of the young girls are flattened with hot stones and sticks; Source: Seekapor

Breast ironing mostly affects young girls between the ages of 8 and 12. It is usually done by their mothers, female relatives or native healers.

In explaining the aim of this culture, some Cameroonian women have described it as a process of “sending the breast back from where it is coming.”

The flattening process usually happens in different forms. It could be through the use of a belt to bind both breasts or a hot stone, pestle or spatula. These objects are used to press and massage the breasts.

A heated stone is used for the ritual.
A heated stone is used for the ritual. Source: Mirror

It has also been discovered that apart from external assistance from mothers or other relatives, some girls carry out the ironing act on themselves unaided.

Reasons for breast ironing

The general presumption of those that adopt this ritual is that by melting the fat in a girl’s breast, it will prevent her from attracting male attention which could lead to unwanted sexual advances, rape, harassment, teenage pregnancies and even early marriages.

Many mothers do it to make their teenage daughters appear less “womanly”. By stopping their breasts from developing, the women hope that if their female children don’t appear womanly, no man will be attracted to them. Hence, they won’t end up getting deflowered, violated or married at an early age.

For a long time, these mothers had expected that with no breasts, their daughters would be allowed to continue their education for as long as they wanted, without any interruption from members of the opposite sex or tarnishing the family name.

Sadly, in a place like Cameroon, the general belief is that once a girl starts growing breasts, she is ready for sex or marriage. This reasoning has pushed many women to inflict pain on their daughters in an effort to preserve their purity or protect them.

All sorts of harmful objects are used for the breast flattening process such as spatulas, wooden sticks, spoons and even rocks. Some girls are even given tight bands to wear round their chests after iron is used to flatten it on a regular basis.

Consequences of breast ironing

Different measures are used to make flattening possible;
Different measures are used to make flattening possible; Source: Seekapor

Breast Ironing is a painful process and some girls are scarred for life; physically and emotionally. The tissue damage is the worst part due to its long-term effects.

In some cases, the breast ironing act completely damages the breasts and in other cases, some girls are lucky if their breasts grow again after a year. For others, one breast ends up being longer than the other.

This tradition has disastrous consequences for its victims. Some ladies who encountered this act have had to battle with breast cancer, cyst and the inability to breastfeed.

Approaching puberty has now become terrifying for young girls that are fully aware of breast ironing. They are constantly anxious when they think of the pain that may befall them once their breasts start developing. Those girls that had seen their older sisters and cousins pass through the same fate are forced to assume that breast ironing is a rite of passage that they would also experience someday.

So far, over 3.8 million girls are estimated to have been affected by this tradition.

Many victims are left to suffer from the psychological and physical effects of this ruthless act. For instance, they are able to undress in front of anyone or even attempt to wear a swimsuit.

Other victims have nursed the possibility of undergoing plastic surgery so that they can feel good about their breasts.

Breast Ironing is largely underreported

The Guardian website reports that breast ironing is one of the most underreported gender-based violence-related crimes in the world today.

While the women who practise it are convinced that it helps their daughters, it is extremely harmful to them. There is no way using heated leaves or hot ironing stones to destroy a lady’s developing mammary gland can be seen as reasonable.

During an interview with Sky News, a woman had said:

“They put the spatula on the fire and then they press it on the breasts and yes, it hurts.”

Experts see the breast flattening tradition as a form of abuse and perpetration of harmful cultural practices on women. To this end, there are calls for more awareness to be made about it and that it should be included in school curriculums to protect more girls from further abuse.

Yewande is a lawyer who specializes in international human rights law. She hates injustice and believes in fair play and equal opportunities. She is also passionate about the rights of the vulnerable. Her love for writing can be traced to her lawyerly profession. Her motto is: live the life you love, love the life you live.

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