“Breast ironing” is the Cameroonian custom of massaging young girl’s chests with hot tools—spatulas and pestles being the most common—in an attempt to flatten their developing breasts. This is done with the intention of postponing their first sexual relationships by making their bodies less attractive to men. Parents often fear that the girls won’t finish their education if they meet a man and become pregnant.
For the most part, the flattening is carried out by female family members, either at home or with the assistance of a healer. The process begins as soon as the girls hit puberty—for some, that means as early as eight years old. The consequences of this can be disastrous for the victims’ health—cysts, breast cancer, and breastfeeding issues are all common, not to mention the abundance of psychological consequences linked to the practice. According to a 2011 GIZ report, one out of every ten Cameroonian girls has been subjected to breast ironing.
How they practice it?
The idea is that if their breasts don’t grow, men won’t be attracted to them. Mothers do it in the hope that their daughters won’t get pregnant and instead be able to continue their education. If no one’s attracted to them, they won’t end up getting married early.
How does it work?
It often starts when the girl is about eight or nine years old. Their family will wrap tight elastic bandages around their chest. They tighten them at night, sometimes during the day, too. Another technique is massaging the breasts with hot instruments. The assumption is that heating these tools and pressing them on the girls will melt the fat, which is completely insane. They use a wide variety of things in this process: pestles, wooden sticks, spatulas, spoons, and rocks. Most of the objects tend to belong to either their mothers or grandmothers.
What sort of relationship do these women have
with their bodies?
They suffer on a daily basis. They can’t stand wearing a swimsuit, so they don’t go to the beach. It’s hard for them to undress in front of their boyfriends—if they even have one, that is. The physical pain might fade but the psychological trauma doesn’t. Most don’t want their chests to be touched ever again.