By ISHITA ROY
“When my breasts started to grow, people in my house began to talk about it…Eventually, my mom decided to iron my breasts. ‘If we don’t iron them, it will attract men. And we know that men mean pregnancy,’ she said…I suppose she meant well.”Global Citizen
Breast Ironing. Breast Flattening. Breasts Sweeping. And many other such terms, code words, used to shield the exploitation of young women. The onseBreast Ironing. Breast Flattening. Breasts Sweeping. And many other such terms, code words, used to shield the exploitation of young women.t of puberty in a woman represents changes in her body. Her body grows. Dark hair. Hair on her body. On the parts that she did not even know it can grow. And the most visible of all her changes- her breasts.
These changes can often lead to anxiety. Due to lack of awareness and taboo. However, in many cultures, this anxiety turns into anguish.
What is Breast Ironing?
Almost 3.8 girls undergo breast ironing every year. Mothers begin to iron their daughters’ breasts once they hit puberty. Most common in Western African cultures. Breast Ironing is done with a hot tool. It could be a stone. A spatula. Or even pestles. The heated tool is then pounded over the girls’ breasts. Massaged. To prevent her breasts from growing.
Like FGM , Breast Ironing is perpetuated for the “good” of the girls. Which does de-sexualize them.
Is There A Logic Behind Breast Ironing?
Honestly, there is no logic. Any ritualistic practice that involves violence. Violence on children, who are still trying to learn and grow. No logic can justify it. However, let us not forget that every exploitative practice is supported by some logic. Yes, it is simple. The logic is- Patriarchy. Usually done to “protect the girls” from being sexualized. But nothing is done for the boys. The reason that a girl needs protection.
Similarly, Breast Ironing is also supported by some vague logic. But in order to counter malpractice, it is always important to know its root.
Let us dig in!
The logic that supports Breast Ironing is the desexualization of girls. Mothers believe that by preventing their daughters’ breasts from growing, they can protect them. Protect them from being attractive. Because if they are not attractive, they will not get married.
In any case, the blame is unto a girl’s shoulder. In the case of FGM, she is desexualized so she does explore her sexuality. As it could mean a threat to men. In the case of Breast Ironing, she is desexualized because men are threatened by the idea of women being empowered with their sexuality.
But does this logic work?
According to UNICEF, 38% of children in Cameroon are married by the age of 18, a quarter of them become mothers and 20% of them drop out of school due to pregnancy.
So, how is it really “protecting” girls?
It is shameful enough to know that such rituals are still in practice. What is more shameful is that there are also alternatives that are in practice.
Some may think that the alternatives are less painful. However, it is not just about the pain. It is about the idea of suppression of female’s sexuality.
An alternative to Breast Ironing is to wrap bandages tightly around the girl’s breast so it will stop growing. “Every morning, before going to school, my mom makes me lift up my top so she can make sure I haven’t taken my bandage off…It’s been two years now and she still checks it on a daily basis. It’s humiliating. I’d like her to stop” – Global Citizens
Impact Of Breast Ironing
Breast Ironing or even bandaging can be mentally traumatizing. It gives girls a message to be ashamed of their bodies. It further encourages the culture of victim-blaming by putting the burden of protection from men unto young girls. Often hampering their natural growth.
Physically, it is painful. The process in itself is traumatizing. Leaves scars on the body. And in life, forever. Women often undergo vulnerable infections in later life. Some even face trouble lactating and breastfeeding.
In The End
This practice as mentioned is often carried out by mothers on their daughters. Encouraged by other female members. And it may be very confusing for us. Because this is not what we have learned about Feminism. We learned about Women Supporting Women (please link my girl gang article).
But let us not forget that even women are a product of patriarchy. As Nivedia Menon in ‘Seeing Like A Feminist’ rightly puts that it is the system of survival where women are “taught” to carry out patriarchal practices. Pass it on. To survive within the patriarchal structure.
Over time this survival skill then gets embedded into the very nature of the cultural practice. But it is time that we speak out against it. And help the ones in need.
*note: the identity of women quoted is not to be revealed