Patricia Beshel: The Many Dangers of Breast Flattening
Breast flattening, also known as breast ironing, is a body modification method used in several cultures worldwide. It is a practice in which heated objects like stones, spatulas, and pestles are used to pound the breasts of young girls in order to inhibit their growth and shield them from the attraction and attention of adult men. This procedure is performed on girls aged nine to fourteen in order to “preserve their purity” for a longer period of time.
Like other similar places in the world, the practice is also common In Nigeria. It is a cruel process that involves holding the hands and legs of the young girl firmly, while the mother or any other elderly female in the immediate community takes a burning hot stone or pestle straight from the fire and presses it hard against her chest in an attempt to flatten her breasts. The ironing is performed once a day in secret spaces such as kitchens or mothers’ bedrooms to avoid others, especially dads, brothers, or other male figures, from seeing the victim or becoming aware of the practice. In cases where the victim’s resistance is strong or the breasts appear to be consistently protruding, the ironing is done up to two times or more in a single day, repeated for months or years till the desired outcome is achieved.
While this process is a gruelling and torturous experience, it is seen in these communities to be a lesser evil than exposing girls of pubescent ages to sexual harassment, sexual assault, exploitation and child marriage by allowing them to develop bodily features that make them desirable to men at a tender age.
As much as breast flattening is seen to be done in the interest and safety of these young girls, its negative effects are disastrous and can lead to psychological trauma, physical scars and other health complications such as dissymmetry of the breasts, tissue damage, burns, complete disappearance of one or both breasts, and others. Some women whose breasts were flattened during their adolescence may experience difficulty breastfeeding or have breast milk infections from scarring during motherhood. It also affects their social well-being by giving them body image issues, destroying their self-esteem, and making them feel like outcasts amongst their peers who weren’t subjected to the same physical abuse.
According to Africa Health Organisation, “Breast ironing affects 3.8 million women around the world and has been identified as one of the five under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence” and “25% and 50% of girls in Cameroon are affected by breast ironing, affecting up to 3.8 million women across Africa.” This largely speaks that it is more common in Africa.
This practice is an under-reported act of gender-based violence and child abuse, and although it may be a common practice with traditional backing in some parts of the country, it still negatively affects the fundamental rights of women. As much as the act has been perpetuated to be for the good of these girls, it is considered to be ineffective in stopping teenage girls from being abused or involved in sexual activities. Commendably, the Nigerian government has issued a statement condemning the practice and has put laws surrounding these infringements into place. Still, more advocacy and sensitisation need to be done about the lifelong dangers and harm imposed on young girls and women in carrying out this practice.