17.2 Breast Ironing
Last reviewed in Feb 2023
Breast Ironing also known as “Breast Flattening” is the process whereby young pubescent girls breasts are ironed, massaged and/or pounded down, over a period of time, sometimes years, through the use of hard or heated objects (whilst some people opt to use an elastic belt or binder to press the breasts) in order for the breasts to disappear or delay the development of the breasts entirely. It is believed that by carrying out this act, young girls will be protected from harassment, rape, abduction and early forced marriage and therefore be kept in education. It is also believed that this practice will ensure that they remain "pure" and "innocent".
Much like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Breast Ironing is a harmful practice and is child abuse. Professionals working with children and young people must be able to identify the signs and symptoms of girls who are at risk of or have undergone breast ironing. It should also be acknowledged that some young people may choose to bind their breast using constrictive material due to gender transformation or identity, and this may also cause health problems. Similarly to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), breast ironing is classified as physical abuse therefore professionals must make a referral to Children's Services (i.e. Integrated Front Door in West Sussex. Front Door For Families Brighton & Hove, or Single Point of Access in East Sussex).
The United Nations (UN) states that 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. The custom uses large stones, a hammer or spatulas that have been heated over scorching coals to compress the breast tissue of girls as young as 9 years old. Due to the adultification of Black girls, this can start even earlier. Those who derive from richer families may opt to use an elastic belt to press the breasts so as to prevent them from growing. The practice is designed to make teenage girls look less “womanly” and to deter unwanted male attention, pregnancy, and rape. Cameroon is a country which shows hight rates of girls who have undergone breast ironing.
The practice is commonly performed by family members, 58% of the time by the mother. In many cases the abuser thinks they are doing something good for their daughter, by delaying the effects of puberty so that she can continue her education, rather than getting married. Or protecting her from the 'male gaze'.
Breast ironing is a crime and should be prosecuted as a form of child abuse, according to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). It can be caught under an existing law, even if it is said that the victim consented. The offences to be considered by prosecutors include child cruelty and causing or allowing a child to suffer serious harm. Both crimes are punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Assault charges would also be available to prosecutors.
Indicators of breast ironing
Indicators that a child may be subject to breast flattening are: