When I was going through puberty and at the stage where I can feel my breasts growing, I honestly wanted to stop it. So every night, I’d sleep in a prone position, believing this could somehow prevent the growth (in my head, I imagine some people making a joke about my being flat chested anyway—but that’s another story). I never really thought much about the significance of that action, but now, I can’t help but dig deep and try to analyze it: Why would an 11-year-old girl do such a thing, where did that idea of “hating breasts” come from? I’m not an expert in psychology, but I do have theories. One is that I think it’s because I have five brothers, and somehow, I felt that having breasts will further alienate me from them. Another is because even then, I hear people commenting about women’s breasts—when it’s men, they sexualize it; when it’s women, they scrutinize it—and maybe that stuck with me. I never want to be judged or assessed based on a body part. I think it’s why, even when people do it as a “compliment,” I still feel uncomfortable.
If you think that kind of behavior from a girl—forcing herself to sleep in a prone position every night—is unsettling, then you’ll be shocked to know the extremes some people do to achieve something similar. You may not have heard of breast ironing, but it’s a practice prevalent in some communities, and it still exists today. In fact, in the UK, the National Education Union are taking steps to raise awareness by making it part of their mandatory curriculum in secondary schools.
So what is breast ironing?BBC defines it as a practice which “involves ironing a girl’s chest with hot objects”—usually a heating a stone or spoon on a flame—”then pressing, massaging or flattening the breast.” Its goal is “to delay breasts from growing, so [the girl] does not attract male attention.” Furthermore, most girls are made to wear an extremely tight strap around her chest after the procedure to further suppress the growth. Imagine the Chinese’ lotus feet, but for breasts.
Chilling, right? And so inhumane, it sounds unreal. One UK resident whose family descends from west Africa, where breast ironing originates, told BBC that at age 10, she had undergone the procedure facilitated by her own mom (as is common) who told her, “If I don’t iron them, men will start coming to you, to have sex with you.” And note that it’s not necessarily a one time thing. It actually goes on for months. “Time does not erase that kind of pain,” she said. “You’re not even allowed to cry out. If you do, you [are said to] have brought shame to your family, you are not a ‘strong girl’.” Now a mother herself, she revealed that she has since distanced herself from her family because she believed that her mom performing breast ironing on her daughters is a very real threat. When her eldest turned 10, she said her mother brought up the practice, but she replied, “No, no, no, none of my children are going to go through what I went through, as I still live with the trauma.”
Another victim was forced by her mom to endure breast ironing after finding out she was gay. She shared, “According to her, maybe I was attractive because of my breasts, so if she can iron them and I’m flat, then maybe I’ll be ugly and no-one will admire me.” She reveals that she still bears the scars from that experience. “To say the least, it’s an abuse. It hurts, it dehumanises you,” she said. “You are not a human being.”
The news outlet notes, “It is thought that around 1,000 girls in the UK have been affected by breast ironing.” Adding, “There is no specific offense for breast ironing, but the Home Office described it as a form of child abuse and said it should be prosecuted under general assault laws.” Angie Marriott, a former gynecological nurse who now works as a safeguarding lecturer for Cheshire Police, described it as a “sensitive, hidden crime,” stressing that the true scale of breast ironing in the UK isn’t known because of under-reporting. “I know this is happening because people have divulged it to me,” she said. “And they’ve said it’s the first time openly that they’ve ever spoken about what’s happened to them, and they felt ashamed.”
How f*cked up is it that women have to literally change themselves in this extreme way to “appease” men’s desires? It’s not enough that women are expected to adjust their way of clothing, talking, moving—just so men won’t be “tempted.” The fact that women—girls—resort to alter this very natural, biological thing with acts such as this (let’s not forget about female genital mutilation), while men’s sick, pervy behavior continue to be tolerated (even glorified)—is really telling of how screwed our society is.
Art by Marian Hukom
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