Traditional breast ironing is ‘loving’ child abuse.
A Pubescent Horror
Return home to experience abuse or remain in the streets and become the subject of violent sexual assault? This is the tortuous dilemma of many pubescent girls in parts of the West African nations of Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, and Beni. Most prevalently, Cameroon estimates 24 percent of girls experience breast ironing.
Immigration brings victims to new continents. The UN estimates, up to 3.8 million girls worldwide are affected, including an estimated 1000 in Britain. The similarly horrific practice of female genital mutilation generally occurs once, perhaps followed later by a ceremonious slitting to conceive and perhaps another to give birth.
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Breast ironing (or flattening), in contrast, is repeated over and over again—sometimes daily. Traditional familial theory is that the procedure makes the girls less attractive to perverted males. In practice, some girls continue to be sexually active and others become victims of sexual violence.
Effects of Breast Ironing
Breast ironing is sometimes done by pounding the chest of a young woman with spatulas, hammers, or heated stones. It has reportedly led to cysts, lesions, an inability to produce breast milk, and perhaps to the development of cancer in some young women. The painful practice often results in the destruction of mammary glands, making girls vulnerable to breast infection, itching, scars, and abscesses. It can lower self-esteem and inhibit intimacy.
Indicators that a girl has undergone breast ironing:
- Unusual behavior after an absence from school or college including depression, anxiety, aggression, withdrawn etc.
- Reluctance in undergoing normal medical examinations.
- Some girls may ask for help, but may not be explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear.
- Apprehension of changing for physical activities due to scars showing or bandages being visible.
Plastic Dream Project
“Plastic Dream” is a visual essay by French photographer Gildas Paré that explores the Cameroonian cultural practice of breast ironing—crushing the mammary glands of young girls whose puberty development is deemed too early. This body control is performed by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts or healers, using objects hijacked from the kitchen—or an artisanal elastic band.
Tanner 5-Stage Female Breast Development (Thelarche)
|Stage 1||(Preadolescent) only nipple tip is raised; glandular tissue absent: areola follows the skin contours of the chest (typically age 10 and younger)|
|Stage 2||Buds, raised breast and nipple, enlarged areola (10–11.5)|
|Stage 3||Breasts slightly larger with developing glandular breast tissue extending beyond areola borders, which continues widening but remains in contour with surrounding breast (11.5–13)|
|Stage 4||Areolae and nipples form secondary mounds above rest of the breasts (13–15)|
|Stage 5||Mature adult breasts become rounded with only nipples raised (15+)|
|Actual developmental stages vary. Precocious puberty may occur before age 9. Therefore, do not use these guidelines for determining age.|
“My approach to meeting the girls came true in delicacy and dignity. Because the experience of these girls is a great pain,” says Gildas. Find more stories and examples of Gildas’ work on his website. He is looking for places to exhibit his portraits and wants to go back to Cameroon to shoot more photographs.
- What is breast ironing and how common is it in Britain? theweek.co.uk
- Female genital mutilation. wikipedia.org
- Breast Ironing. stopvaw.org
- Breast ironing: From Britain to Cameroon young girls are mutilated to hide puberty. ibtimes.co.uk
- Breast Ironing: Briefing (PDF). trixonline.co.uk
- The Dangers of Breast Ironing. lawrenzi.com
- The Victims of Cameroon's Horrific Breast Ironing Tradition. vice.com
- Plastic Dream. gildaspare.com