Ironing out those bothersome breasts

A brutal practice that attempts to stop young girls' development in Cameroon.

Published June 23, 2006 11:29PM (EDT)

If the headline wasn't enough, here's your second warning: Read no further if you're looking for a fun end-of-the-week read. This BBC article on "breast ironing" is so disturbing that reading through the entire piece is sort of like playing double Dutch; it takes a few introductory false starts before you can make it through. In Cameroon, West Africa, wooden tools, heated bananas and coconut shells are often used to iron and beat away at young girls' budding breasts in an attempt to stunt development. All this to deter sexual advances from men and boys.

This might be more comprehensible if it were a desperate (albeit insane) attempt at at protecting girls from rape. Most commonly, though, it seems an attempt at protecting family honor and is done against the girl's will. "My mother took a pestle, she warmed it well in the fire and then she used it to pound my breasts while I was lying down," Geraldin Sirri told the BBC. "She took the back of a coconut, warmed it in the fire and used it to iron the breasts. I was crying and trembling to escape but there was no way." And some women take to ironing their own breasts to avoid early marriage: "I wanted to go to school like other girls who had no breasts," Emilia told the BBC.

While there haven't been comprehensive medical studies on the topic, doctors say the practice is more than just emotionally scarring. "There are structures in the breast made of connective tissue," said Dr. Anderson Doh, director of the Gynecological Hospital in Yaounde, the countrys capital. "Now if you over iron the breast, if you use very hot objects, if you pound on the breast at this tender age when the structures are developing of course you could also cause damage."

A key question not addressed by the article is whether "breast ironing" actually suppresses breast development. If anything, it seems more likely that it would affect the way a girl carries herself -- possibly even, through shame, delaying sexual activity. But how insurmountable must cultural taboos surrounding women, family honor and sex seem to Cameroonians for this to be practiced on 26 percent of young girls in the country?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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